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Podcast: Revolutions in Vertical Flight Episode 5 - The Dream of Urban Air Mobility

20th December 2019 - 12:13 GMT | by Studio

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Welcome to Shephard Studio’s podcast series on Revolutions in Vertical Flight, sponsored by our partner Bell.

Listen on Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsSpotify and more.

The Revolutions in Vertical Flight podcast tells the little-known story of the history of rotorcraft, from the autogiro and helicopter, to the tiltrotor and eVTOL platforms in development today. 

Revolutions in Vertical Flight reveals the stories of a small group of pioneers, the visions and beliefs that drove them, and their approach to invention and innovation.

And the Shephard Studio podcast series looks at the vertical flight innovation underway today, revealing how it will transform military operations and revolutionise urban mobility.

In this episode, we learn about the revolution underway in urban transportation, one that will have an impact on the same scale as when the internal combustion engine took over from the horse-drawn carriage.

Industry giants and start-ups alike are racing to develop electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft. Better known as EvTOLs, these platforms could turn the visions of science fiction into reality, providing low-carbon travel in the urban environment, without the need for runways or the other infrastructure associated with earlier types of aviation.

Innovations like the Bell Nexus, CityAirbus and UberAir are deep in development, with companies expecting significant advances over the course of the next decade.

We hear how passengers could one day hail an air taxi through a smartphone app, transporting them from one building to another within or between cities, without facing the traffic of urban streets.

Episode 6 - the Future of VTOL Innovation is here

A transcript of this episode is below:

A revolution is underway in urban transportation that will have an impact of the same scale as when the internal combustion engine took over from the horse drawn carriage.

Industry giants and startups alike are racing to develop electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft better known as eVTOLs. These platforms could turn the visions of science fiction into reality, providing low cost travel in the urban environment without the need for runways or other infrastructure associated with earlier types of aviation.

Innovations like the Bell Nexus, City Airbus and Uber Air are deep in development with companies expecting significant advances over the course of the next decade. Passengers could one day hail an air taxi through a smartphone app, transporting them from one building to another within or between cities without facing the traffic of urban streets.

This is Scott Drennan, vice president of innovation at Bell.

Drennan: “If you don't know about the VTOL industry, the helicopter industry today, those numbers are enormous. They're transformational in every way, not only for operations – how many vehicles it'll take to operate in the airspace at the same time – but also from a manufacturing standpoint and from a technological standpoint. By the way, multiply that by about ten if you go global.”

Welcome to Shepard Studios Revolutions in Vertical Flight brought to you in partnership with Bell. Over the course of six episodes we are looking at the history of vertical flight and discovering the key pioneers and revolutionary moments that created the rotorcraft industry we know today. And we consider the future revolutions, how next generation rotorcraft will shape the future battlespace and hear how innovation underway today will enable the urban air mobility of tomorrow.

EVTOLs could help address some of the most pressing challenges of today's cities, offering the prospect of quick, convenience and green transportation both within and between cities. There are a lot of acronyms in this sector with eVTOL and UAM for urban air mobility, perhaps the most common. However, these two aren't interchangeable. EVTOL implies a far wider range of uses.

Here is Mike Hirschberg, executive director of the Vertical Flight Society.

Hirschberg: “There are a number of key technical and other types of barriers and they're not solved yet. So we're one of the biggest promoters of and supporters of what we see as this electric VTOL revolution and we think it's going to have transformative impact on society. Electric power enables these new configurations that you can't do with helicopters where traditionally you have a single main rotor and then a shaft going to a tail rotor or you have two rotors in the case of rotors that are interconnected - very complex, expensive high precision. You know a rotor head is an incredibly capable and complex. If you can kind of do away with all that and have instead of mechanical power transmission, have electrical power transmission, it really frees up the design space so you can put propellers all over the aircraft and to take off vertically and then have some sort of either vectoring or transitioning or supplemental power system to go forward. And currently battery technology isn't there yet for larger configurations. There's just not enough power and not enough power density for batteries to be able to provide much range. But if you can transition to a wing, then you can use aerodynamic lift and sort of instead of power lift and have a much more, you know, gain back some of that capability.”

What is clear is that the urban air mobility will help address some of the key challenges faced by cities today from congestion to population growth and will compliment much of our current equipment and infrastructure.

This is Mylène Tassy, director of sales and marketing at Thales.

Tassy: “It's a compliment to what we have today. So it's in between being an aircraft and a flying car. So it compliments what we have in terms of driving on the road because the infrastructure is limited. Those cities are getting more and more congested. There are more and more people. We want everything yesterday. So based on the culture movement, it just helps us save time and still get the job done and spend more time with family or whatever we choose to do. So it really grows with the evolution of our society and it's an answer to alleviate some of the congestion and emission relief and all the, all these things that we want to avoid but still continue to actually grow and have a prosperous economy.”

There are a wide number of companies involved in producing EvTOL platforms. This includes everyone from famous manufacturers in the aerospace industry, to smaller players who are starting to make a name for themselves.

Perhaps one of the most significant milestones occurred in October 2016, when ridesharing giant Uber published its Uber Elevate White Paper. This outlined its vision for the future of on-demand aviation. Uber Elevate set a goal to reduce the cost of aerial taxi ridesharing to $0.44 per passenger mile. This compares to $0.464 per mile to drive your own car. While it’s unclear whether this ambitious target is achievable, the company is pursuing its Uber Air concept.

Mark Moore, the company’s director of aviation engineering, outlines its aims

Moore: “We are committed to helping build a foundation for EVTOL. And that's not about one winner. It's about having many winners, a feasible market, and a productive ecosystem. So we very much want to not pick a winner but have many, several successful vehicles that are able to be part of this marketplace.”

Uber's interest in the sector has been vitally important, particularly in terms of raising the profile of the possibilities.

This is Andrew Munday, director of advanced engineering and technology at Atkins.

Munday: “The great thing about Uber's interest in the market or injection into the market is that it's created the profiles created the hype around it. That's a double edged sword. So it's great, but it's a pretty ambitious vision that they've set out. And actually with those different stages that the vehicles of development that the vehicles are going to go through is quite late on that we get to Uber’s vision of an integrated mobility system with our vehicles in it. So it's great that they've created that hype, but we need to focus on what are the use cases, which Uber aren't really going to be interested in at this stage, but what are the use cases that we can adopt early on to prime the market through to taking that technology further on.”

A huge number of companies are now in the eVTOL market, from those that have developed concepts to others that are flying real prototypes.

Munday: “There are, there are a huge number of companies or startups who have put concepts out into the marketplace. They vary from people who have just a drawing, a nice rendering of a concept, to companies that are flying real prototypes around. So I guess it's hard to say who's viable and who's not because that depends on their particular technology and their particular funding. But I think it's fair to say that you could count the number of credible players with hardware that is out being trialled on the fingers of your hands. So the key ones that we can see out there at the moment, you've got the likes of Volocopter and EHang in the first wave, Lilium in Germany who have their quite complex concept Joby in America, Kittyhawk and then Vertical Aerospace in the UK who are really flying the flag for the UK.

“And then you've got the major OEMs, so the likes of Bell who have concepts out there, Embraer looking at concepts, Boeing have a concept with Aurora. And then you have others who are, who are kind of interested in this space. So, Airbus put concepts out but are unlikely to take those to market. So that's a quick overview of the key ones. Essentially it's a handful of players that are seriously invested in, seriously funded to the point of putting demonstrators out there.”

EVTOL systems will also have unique economic demands. Mark Moore from Uber outlines the need for high throughput for a company like Uber to make money with such platforms.

Moore: “Also for us for Uber to make money, we need high throughput, right? We can't be doing aircraft that are loping along at 40 miles per hour and carrying one or two people, right? That would be a low productivity. A solution and airspace is, is a resource and if we're clogging our channels, even though there's a lot in three dimensions as we start filling it up, we don't want those, those pipes to have sluggish liquid going through it. We want high throughput because that's what aviation offers, right? It offers high productivity, high speed, high throughput and that's how you make money.”

Moore contrasts the utilisation needs of the eVtol domain with those in the helicopter world, needs that place exacting requirements on reliability.

Moore: “Average helicopter utilization is between 300 and 600 hours per year. They're very expensive assets. That's not enough utilization to get to good economics. We need to be operating these vehicles 2000 hours a year to make money. That's much closer to what the oil services industry at about 1800 hours per year. So we need these aircraft to be incredibly reliable which again plugs into, well two, two electric motors, which have very few moving parts and, and high TBOs. So that also plays into the low operating costs. In terms of a reliability, Uber's not interested in just serving the elite with this market. It is about having a mass transportation solution that can serve the needs of our app customers. So it really needs to be this high reliability and drive to low operating costs. So fortunately that maps up with a number of the advantages of eVTOL.”

Aerospace heavyweights are also readying themselves for the urban air mobility future. This includes Bell, which is developing the Nexus; Boeing, which has partnered with Porsche to explore the premium air mobility market; and other companies like EmbraerX and Volocopter, a German-based UAM company, which recently unveiled the world’s first air taxi vertiport in Singapore for completely autonomous flight testing.

Airbus, another helicopter heavyweight, is pursuing the CityAirbus and Vahana projects. The European aerospace giant is particularly interested in the urban air mobility space. Vahana is a one-passenger EVTOL platform while City Airbus is a four-passenger EVTOL platform.

Here’s Airbus’s Mark Cousin, who is now CEO of Airbus A3, speaking in London in 2017 about the City Airbus and Vahana projects.

Cousin: “So they're looking at the same if you like the same market or the same space, but from a different a different angle. And that's a deliberate, a deliberate policy from Airbus in trying to make sure we really understand what the potential for disruption of our market is. And the philosophy of our chief executive Tom Enders is we are going to be disrupted in this industry. We cannot pretend that people will not come along and invent things which disrupt our industry, but if we're going to be disruptive, we might as well do it ourselves rather than let other people do it to us.”

Much of the industry focus on eVTOL is driven by wider trends. For example, Cousin points to urbanization as a major theme. As populations move increasingly from rural communities into cities.

Cousin: “More and more and more people are living in cities, more and more people are living in mega cities. There are a significant increase in the proportion of the population that live in mega cities. And the number of mega cities that exist in the world is growing quite dramatically. So large and mega cities are growing you know, to enormous numbers. We all experienced the frustration of living in a mega city. So London is obviously one of them. I experienced the frustration of getting here from Heathrow, even though I came in the middle of the afternoon. When you try and come rush hour, it's obviously much worse. And this, this trend is driving the desire for people to find new ways of moving around, new mobility means.”

This trend is driving people's desire to find new ways of moving around.

Cousin: “Air mobility or urban air mobility, I think has been a dream of the human, the human being for probably the last 60 years. Flying cars have been around or ideas of flying cars had been around for a very long time. They appear both in the past and in the future, in films, you know, Star Wars and so on. So we all know what we all dream of, of getting around our cities in, in a different way. We all dream of doing it doing it in the air and flying over everybody else. All the other poor guys who are stuck in traffic jams.”

A number of technologies are driving the feasibility of the market, including electrification.

Cousin: “So Airbus was something of a leader in electrification. We started out some years ago now with an electric powered aircraft with the first one we did was the Cri-Cri. And then we did the E-Fan series of aircraft. In the recent past we've been somewhat overtaken by our competitors or our peers. But we certainly intend to retake the lead and demonstrate what can be achieved with electrification. And by electrification I mean the whole chain – batteries, electric motors, inverters, the ability to build a fully electric vehicle.”

At Airbus A3, the company is working hard to create autonomous flight, and machine learning solutions that enable self-piloted aircraft operation.

Cousin: “But urban air mobility is also for us. Not just about the vehicle. It's also, it's also about the value chain. We see our involvement in urban air mobility as being more than just a manufacturer of vehicles or of helicopters or of aircraft. We're seeing this trend even in the large commercial aircraft business where we're starting now to supply customers with aircraft on power by the hour type basis where we look after all the maintenance and operation of the airplane. All they do is basically kick the tires and fill it with fuel and fly it. So what we're trying to do is really look into and understand the market. What does the market want? What do people want out of urban air mobility? Where is, where is the value? Is the value in building the vehicle or is the value in being the Uber of urban air mobility? Because if it's in the operation of the system or in the operation of the vehicles we want to be part of the part of that element of the of the business model.”

At EmbraerX, interest has been driven by its view on the potential of the ‘Internet of Mobility’.

The company’s Edgar Rodrigues outlines more.

Rodrigues: “And we are really believers that there is another big change coming on this. There is the internet of mobility. So we believe that this is going to happen the same way in terms of mobility.”

There are several design drivers that underpin EmbraerX’s work in the area.

Rodrigues: “We created these values, these design drivers after spending a lot of time in interviews and trying to understand what's really needs to be done in terms of a vehicle that would carry people on the big centres in the future. So the design drivers are a sparked use of technology and reliable and reliable solutions. This is what we call the simple and intuitive. So no access. We understand that our, a lot of technologies interesting that while we could demonstrate that we could demonstrate that don't, but maybe the users are really want something simple and reliable. So we're not thinking on bringing anything complex to this solution here. Another driver would be peace of mind. So the people say that they need, they want to be they have no, no concerns or are needs to be a small for flight and moved for all the quarters since the requesting the flight and to entrance the flight.

“The flight itself when landed so needs to be all integrated and we are considering these two, the design of the vehicle itself. We are basing our competence in terms of fibre wire to brink move for a flight quality to this. If you tow vehicle another design driver, be community friendly of course. So we, everybody talks about this that needs to be accepted by the community. So we are working hard on this, understand that the vehicle 100% electric easing this direction. And also we for low noise footprint design for all. This is one thing that we are repeating all the time because when we talked to people, they want to feel comfortable the vehicle not thinking that this is just for a field person, that high net worth individuals or people that can, can buy this vehicle. No, this is for all.

“And we understand that when these become reality, there is a huge market that will happen, a universal cabin as well because there are people with special needs that we are considering to there as users, important users since the beginning of this project. So very, very important driver for us here and also our breached the future. So the vehicle needs to show the community something for the future but also needs to understand that nowadays we have our, our reality here. So for instance, the vehicle, we start to as pilot and then become autonomous in the future.”

At Bell, the company’s CEO Mitch Snyder has been an advocate for the coming importance of autonomy.

Snyder: “This technology also goes well beyond the vehicle itself. The digital infrastructure that will move people and things from booking the flight to air traffic management to the onboard experience, to tracking the health of the vehicle to maintenance. The digital infrastructure is critical to UAM success and although manned initially, we need to design this ecosystem now for it to be unmanned and since tech is such a key enabler to this, we must have multi-layered cybersecurity for protection. So what we dreamt about a hundred years ago is now reality. It's no longer a matter of if, it's when it's going to happen. However, to make this vision a reality, we can't just produce the VTOL aircraft. We also need to define how and where they're going to operate and how they will work seamlessly within our cities. We understand this is a big undertaking, but bringing complex systems to the market is what we do, but it can't just be us either. It will require collaboration across industry, regulatory agencies, other interested parties and the communities where they will operate. If we're going to go from point A to point B in this new world, we need to navigate this complex ecosystem.”

For some, there is an expectation that future urban air mobility will evolve from the types of missions carried out by helicopters today.

This is Nathalie Previte, vice president of strategy and business development at Sikorsky.

Previte: Our vision recognises our future urban air mobility missions will evolve from the missions happening today. Helicopter operators are the backbone of our industry, taking our products and turning them into a productive assets that ferry passengers - first responders and critical cargo everyday. These operators understand city mobility and they would continue to play a critical role in how this market expands. You also saw, as we featured our S-76 in a video, we believe that urban mobility must be a seamless experience where safety and reliability are critical, yet nearly invisible to the user. We need to rethink how buildings and aircraft interact to remove our aircraft centric mindset, to focus on weaving the solutions into the urban transportation network that already exist in cities today.”

While many companies are excited about the possibilities that urban air mobility offers, they are realistic about the technological challenges Being faced by the young industry.

There are four key barriers to commercial feasibility: safety, noise, emissions and vehicle performance. But, manufacturers are confident that the EvTOL concept can actually bring benefits in all four. Safety and comfort are key  to why pilots are still in high demand, despite the maturing state of autonomous technology.

Bell CEO Mitch Snyder says these crucial elements informed his company’s growing work in the area.

Snyder: “So two years ago we unveiled our air taxi cabin CAS and we designed the cabin first because we wanted it to centre on passenger safety and comfort. We also wanted your flight to be a fun interactive experience. So our feeling was as if we started with a flight technology first and worked inward, we would suboptimise the customer experience. And I'm an engineer and a lot of engineers are out there. If you start looking at requirements, we try and create these amazing flying vehicles. And by the time we worked our way back to the cabin, it's pretty darn small because it's the most efficient, less drag. So that's why we said no, we're not going to do that way. We're going to baseline the cabin because we want the priority to be the passengers and then work our way outward for the flight.

“So that aircraft seated for including a pilot with ample storage for bags and why a pilot? We want people to feel safe and get comfortable with the aircraft. Most commercial flights today are performed using automation, but pilots are still onboard. The tech is developed and maturing, but as humans we're not ready for flying. Without pilots. We will get there, but rest assured safety will continue to be at the forefront as we progress towards fully autonomous. And I truly believe logistics will have pave the way here. I think that's where we'll start with this. Let's move logistics and packages first, autonomous and then build the confidence and work our way back into the people flying.”

Such safety demands underpinned the design of Bell's Nexus platform as Snyder explains.

Snyder: “So this year we unveiled the Bell Nexus and again, the cornerstone in that design was safety from the first time we walked down the aisle and saw it to walking around it, climbing in it. We wanted safety to be the furthest thing from your mind. We designed this because I wanted my daughter, my 13 year old daughter, to feel comfortable flying in it by herself.”

Designing a system like Nexus fuelled some fierce internal debate at bell.

Snyder: “We also wanted it to wow you, generate excitement, feelings of anticipation to explore it. We want it to show you the future is within our grasp and that is really cool. Most of them have. My folks know that. That's probably the biggest thing is as we get into these designs, and I can tell you it wasn't an easy task. We had lots of healthy debate. I know some of the creative people in the room here and some of the engineers have told me that. I think this was his design iteration number 36 I thought it was a fantastic experience. I don't know how they felt about it, but, but a number 36 looks pretty darn good. So based on this response so far, we feel good about the design.

“Nexus is a ducted fan, hybrid electric aircraft, fully autonomous, capable fly capable. It will convert from helicopter to airplane mode, just like our tilt rotors. One change we did make from our taxi cabin experience to the Nexus was we added a fifth seat. We wanted the fifth seat to be the pilot. So we'd still have four passenger carriers in the vehicle. It has roughly a 6,000 pound aircraft speed of 150 miles an hour range of 150 miles. It will be quiet to operate in the urban environment.”

Developing the right types of infrastructure or adapting existing infrastructure will be vital to the development of the market.

Snyder: “So now let's talk a little bit about the infrastructure. So infrastructure on the ground, it has always been key to this opportunity and will, it has been in our past highways, bridges, ports, waterways, airports have long stood as monuments to furthering progress. So we will need those physical infrastructures as well. Vertiports in which the VTOL aircraft will take off and land. And what we need to do right now when we're planning it, we need to put the vertiports where it relieves the congestion and not make it worse. And we've had lots of conversations with communities on that as well that when you set up hub and spoke systems, you can move mass transmit right into another congestion point. So how are we going to put the vertiports in there where it will relieve the congestion as opposed to add to it these vertiports.

“When you think about it, we'll need to safely manage and support the interaction of vehicles, passengers, baggage, all at a high rate of operation. So today we can stand in an airport terminal and look out and see it all happening out on the ramp and the tarmac out there. But think about what we're doing in the vertiports, whether we're laying them out like an airport and flat or they're vertically stacked. You're going to have people coming into the, into the vertiport to take off people coming out of the vertiport baggage, moving in and out, vehicles being charged while they're in the vertiports. All that operation is going on. And how do we make sure that we designed the vertiport? So all that can produce a high rate but yet make the most important thing is everybody's safe operating around it.”

A range of other issues also need to be overcome, such as noise, with demands for the aircraft to operate in often quiet urban environments.

Snyder: “Another critical component is managing the acoustic signature of the aircraft. Like a good neighbour. These aircraft need to be quiet and blend into the noise of the city. And the reason that I bring that up here is we do focus on the signature acoustic signature, the aircraft itself and the design. But when you think about the vertiports and how are we going to move these aircraft through the cities, there are going to be some super quiet neighbourhoods and no matter how quiet we make this vehicle, they're going to hear it. So if we lay out the pathways in the sky of where they're going, we need them to blend into this noise of the city that's already there. That way nobody will really be aware of their movement.”

While there is likely to be some limited commercial operations by the middle part of the 2020s, it may take ten years for the market to develop fully.

Here is Jaiwon Shin, associate administrator for aeronautics research at NASA.

Shin: “2025. I think we would probably would see some limited operation commercial operation. But I think for this market to really flourish and really pan out as all of you raise your hand and use this service. We, I think we really need to mature the market at scale and that may take a decade, but in order in order to get there, I think the first barrier is really the air traffic management system because the current very centralized and very ground-based and some augmented by a space, but pretty much our ground-based attracted system and poise heavy air traffic management will not be able to handle this massive scale. So that's why we at NASA have been working on this completely new paradigm called the UAS traffic management. It's funny that it started from dealing with the UAS, small UAS or drones, and then all of a sudden people started getting interested in a what, what only put people in the drones or larger drones. So I think the concept could be applicable for both a locket drone market in a UAN market.”

There are also a number of other barriers that need to be overcome, as outlined by Shivika Sahdev, an associate partner at McKinsey & Company.

Sahdev: “The UTM system described. So the traffic management absolutely a barrier. The other one across is some of the technology with the batteries being able to support this kind of flight. But I think another one we think about on the infrastructure side is the physical space. So when you want this type of flight at scale, as people in this room are making a decision of point A to point B, how far is that vertiport or skyport whatever you want to think of. Do I have to travel or drive 10 minutes, five minutes, three minutes to get to that take off or landing spot? Will be again, an important part of bringing the market to scale. So it's truly a benefit. It's truly a better option than the incumbent mode. As you as, as everyday travellers make that decision. And that's a really big question is who will build that infrastructure? What will it look like? Is it some of these big new megaports that you know, some of the names you mentioned have described or is it going to be using existing rooftops of buildings we already have?”

Advances in batteries are a key focus, introducing new possibilities in the domain. At Bell, the evolution in battery technology has influenced the development of the company’s autonomous pod transport, or APT, and its Nexus platform. While there have been advances in all-electric systems, it may be some time before such technology is used on a wider scale.

Here’s Michael Thacker, EVP of technology and innovation at Bell

Thacker: “Battery technology has advanced to the point where these configurations are possible for limited mission sets and so for the autonomous pod transport family that we have for carrying packages, that configuration is all electric and it's intended for relatively short ranges. The Nexus that we showed a consumer electronic show and unveiled is actually a hybrid configuration and the reason for that is to carry the kind of payloads that we want to carry, the number of people, the amount of cargo, and to carry it the distance that we want to go. The battery technology isn't quite there yet. So it's a fully electric system that really doesn't care where the energy comes from. But for the Nexus it has, it still has a gas burning engine along with the battery system. It's part of the redundancy of the aircraft but for safety. But it also is a recognition that today for the, for the distance we want to go, the batteries aren't there. We do believe that they'll get there. Their trajectory is moving to be there. So in that kind of decadal view of when we're going to be going out and having this more universally available, we think the nexus will be all electric by that time.”

There are also challenges around weight and the potential size of vehicles that would be needed to carry larger passenger loads than envisioned for Nexus. Passenger loads must also be set in the context of infrastructure development.

Thacker: “That creates another, another design challenge. We're continuing to work that, but there's additional technology I think development to happen to be able to get to that point. And then for the TSA, certainly we're going to need to be able to clearly identify who the passengers are, understand information about them, be able to get them to the right place at the right time. So there will be some check-in procedure that has to happen. How that works with TSA, not TSA. That's part of the kind of infrastructure integration that has to be, has to be determined to be able to make this work. I will tell you that working with Uber and others, the idea is to make that as seamless and streamlined as possible so that it would, you know, it would not be a burden, something with the long lines and, and other concerns. But certainly the safety of the system depends on us recognizing who the passengers are and making sure that we're getting the right people in the right place.”

Artificial Intelligence is key to the future of EvTOL systems. Teena Maddox, technology reporter at TechRepublic, splits the area into three components, all of which form part of the same picture.

Maddox: “There's AI, artificial intelligence, there's machine learning and there's deep learning and they're really all part of any conversation that you have about artificial intelligence. And in the instance of transportation and a smart city for instance, which is what I write about the most. So it's where I am most comfortable giving a comparison. For instance, AI in a smart city is that first level. It would be the data analytics, the raw data, the initial analysis that city engineers are making. When you step up to machine learning, you're looking more at specifics about the data. Diving in a little deeper figuring out where traffic congestion, where pedestrians are more likely to be between five and 6:00 PM. So if you know there's going to be more people walking more bicycles, things like that, more scooters, you can kind of plan for it and protect both the citizens and the, you know, the folks in the vehicles. And then you've got deep learning, which is when you take all of that and just as it sounds, you go very deep and you're going to look at things for the future, whether, okay, these roads are more frequent, frequently travelled, so we need to plan for road repairs, things like that.”

Building autonomy is a complex process, with various aspects at play.

Anil Nanduri, vice president, GM Drone Group in Intel Corporation, outlines some of the key themes and objectives of the road ahead.

Nanduri: “And I think this is an excellent topic and I think we break down what AI really means and you think about automation and you combine automation with some intelligence to it and then the level of intelligence or you can call it self governance as well so that you're independently operating and you can give various examples. Now you could say a tire sensor that tells you this is your pressure and your tire is an automation equipment, but it's a sensory system that tells you it's time to replace your tire is an intelligence. And how does that allow you to take that learning and give you an inference is where the concept of AI comes in and how do you do that? You'd take a series of automation, you learn from it and you train it, and once you got to a certain perimeters to train and then you're able to then apply it into an interface inference.

“So it's a continuous learning process. And the journey we are in is trying to take a level of automation into levels of autonomy and eventually the amount of human dependence and that intelligence that is going to get applied to it gets more and more smarter or time. And that's the concept and the principle, it does not mean that the system is driving on its own and it's taking a load of its own. It's about how the self-governance rules are evolving over time. And so that's the concept of AI. That is about how do you learn and apply the intelligence and how do you make that intelligence into a framework.”

The original vision of Igor Sikorsky, Larry Bell and the other early pioneers was of the family helicopter, the commuter helicopter. A world in which a million families owned helicopters that every day spirited them wherever they needed to go. EVTOL could finally make this a reality, with autonomous technology allowing anyone to fly the aircraft without a need for a pilot.

The signs so far show a good deal of progress has already been made, as Mike Hirschberg explains.

Hirschberg: “Why now there's really this confluence of technologies and, and just a really change in the environment. So there've been a huge advances in electric motors in batteries. The democratization of design tools with CFD and a computer simulation of, of designing, of fuselages and in all aspects flight controls, all kinds of advances that weren't available five or 10 years ago. Composites, low cost manufacturing but also changes in regulations, going to performance regulations people just so many technology innovations that we all have in our daily life and people are just more disposed to being eager for a technology. So that I think there is a different in the mindset and more appeal from the society that they're looking for more technology innovations.”

Next time on Revolutions in Vertical Flight. We take a closer look at the innovation underway to reach this future vision of mass urban air transportation.

Today’s rotorcraft heavyweights and new players alike are currently developing enabling technologies to help make urban mobility a reality, including electric propulsion, autonomy and fleet management.

That’s episode six on The Revolution of Vertical Flight, available now wherever you get your podcasts.

Revolutions in Vertical Flight is brought to you in partnership with Bell- a huge thanks for their support. Thanks also to the Royal Aeronautical Society, the Vertical Flight Society and the Arthur Young society for their assistance and access to their archives, as well as to Elfan Ap Rees and the staff at the Helicopter Museum. In our research, we found The God Machine by James Chiles extremely helpful and it's an excellent read.

Revolutions in Vertical Flight was written and produced by Tony Skinner with script assistance by Gerrard Cowan and audio edits by Noemi Distefano. And I'm your narrator, Gennifer Becouarn. Until next time.

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