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Mobility in Tomorrow’s Smart Cities

Bell Helicopter releases a report on sustainable Urban Air Mobility systems


July 17, 2019
By Jon Robinson

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The road toward tomorrow’s smart cities is starting to take shape and, according to a recently released report by Bell Helicopter, will lead to sustainable Urban Air Mobility systems around the world. The Bell report begins by explaining more than half of the world’s population lives in cities, compared to rural areas, and that this number is expected to climb to 68 per cent by 2050. By 2030, the world is expected to have 43 megacities, with more than 10 million inhabitants each. These statistics present significant new challenges for building smart-city infrastructure from housing and energy systems to healthcare and transportation.

Companies from a range of sectors around the world are keen to capitalize on these infrastructure needs, including some of the largest aerospace players that continue to invest in the potential of Urban Air Mobility (UAM) – to sell thousands of the right aircraft to fit the market. Aircraft manufacturers and related UAM suppliers are starting to think beyond the world of flight into the needs of smart cities, where money to be made from a greenfield aviation industry that can leverage decades of experience, knowledge and trust.

Urban Air Mobility approach

Bell’s report explains the smart-cities industry is expected to be worth more than US$400 billion globally by 2020, pointing to an article called Urban Mobility at a Tipping Point, published by McKinsey and Company: “Congestion is already close to unbearable in many cities and can cost as much as two to four per cent of national GDP, by measures such as lost time, wasted fuel and increased cost of doing business.”

Bell also cites a recent global research project, conducted by GlobeScan and MRC McLean Haze, focusing on the individual megacity level to gather objective data and perspectives on local infrastructure challenges. The project surveyed more than 500 public- and private-sector experts from 25 cities across the globe, explains Bell, exploring the key challenges and trends that will shape those cities in the coming years. Transportation emerged as the project’s top megacity infrastructure challenge. This is a common problem for the world’s largest cities as they outgrow transportation systems routed in infrastructure that was often established decades ago.

As an example, Bell points to New York City’s subway system that was initially designed more than 100 years ago when its population was just over 5.5 million people. Today, 8.6 million people live in New York, which experienced a 4.6 per cent gain in population from 2010 to 2016 – based on census periods. The population of existing and emerging megacities will grow exponentially over the next several years. As Bell points out, the aging and slowing transportation network in New York is now costing the city time and money while reducing the quality of life for its residents.

Bell’s report cites an economic phenomenon called induced demand, which relates to megacity transportation in that building more roads to address congestion only makes traffic worse. As Bell notes, a recent study released by the Transportation Research Record found that for every one per cent increase in highway capacity, traffic increases .29 to 1.1 percent in the long term and up to .68 percent in the short term. An air taxi system, explains Bell, could reduce a one-way, 90-minute daily commute in a congested city to 30 minutes and give each commuter 500 hours back per year.

Bell takes this concept a step further, invoking how AI and data is driving smart-city design, explaining how utilizing on-demand mobility transport could potentially put 1.8 billion man-hours of productivity back into the economy. “We could cut peak commute times by more than 50 per cent and reduce our energy use by a factor of 10,” said Mark Moore, director of vehicle systems for Uber Elevate.

Bell argues the biggest framework that must be addressed for smart-city UAM is the operational system, which encompasses all aspects of the vehicle like navigation, flight trajectory, fleet management, multi-aircraft traffic control and the vehicle’s interaction with ground infrastructure for fuel charging, landing and security.

Bell states the regulatory side must meet early and often to identify any gaps and establish a timeline that will allow for a launch of the technology. Bell explains that establishing a consistent regulatory will mitigate risk management of the aircraft while helping to establish standards for noise, emissions and regulation of vertiports. The manufacturing framework for UAM, according to Bell, is focusing on issues like production volume, cost, weight, impact, safety, noise and emissions to fit tomorrow’s smart cities.


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