Some of the challenges facing the aerospace and aviation industries were discussed at Atkins’ Future of Flight virtual trade show and conference on Wednesday, 17th June.

Organised by one of world’s most respected design, engineering and project management consultancies, the event was the first of its kind and consisted of virtual booths, presentations, networking chatrooms and videos about a host of different sectors.

They included Advanced Engineering, Aftermarket, Cyber Security, Drones, Future of Flight Challenge, Safer Passenger Journeys, Space and Sustainable Aerospace. Also joining as event partners on the day were eVTOL developer Vertical Aerospace and AERALIS, a British aerospace company which is designing the next generation of modular jet trainer aircraft.

The eight presentations focused on Urban Air Mobility (UAM), Cyber Security, Space, MRO, Digital Tools and Technology and Sustainability.

The first one of the morning, entitled ‘Unlocking the Third Dimension of Transportation’, was delivered by Andrew Munday, Director of Atkins’ Advanced Engineering and Technology Practice.

He started by saying that 60 per cent of the world’s population are predicted to live in urban areas by 2050, adding that the average speed of traffic in London in 2017 was just 5.6mph.

“Mobility in cities is becoming a global problem, and so there is a need for a solution,” Munday said. “There is a huge amount going on across different modes of transport and I’m not saying UAM is the solution to the entirety of a city’s problems. However, it is a new dimension that can be part of the solution.

“The ambition is that we want to be able to fly from wherever we are, to the place we want to go, in a straight line, immediately, cheaply and safely…can we do it in a way that society deems it acceptable?

Munday added that the advances in technology has opened up lots of potential for the UAM market, which includes AI, digital connectivity, Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) and electric propulsion.

But he stressed that despite the obvious advantages, getting the permission of society to allow eVTOL aircraft to operate will be more fragile and harder to predict.

Also speaking was Andrew Caughey, Atkins’ Business Development Lead for Space. His presentation was entitled ‘The Four Cornerstones of Space-enabled Urban Air Mobility’.

Caughey believes there are a number of similarities between the UAM and Space industries, saying: “In both sectors, we’re seeing a rapidly evolving technology environment with significant innovation and disruption. There are great examples of new thinking, new products and new challenges and we’re seeing new entrants to the markets which are shaking up traditional technologies and business models.”

Examples mentioned include SpaceX’s Starlink megaconstellation, which is changing the norm around communication satellites, and how Urban Air Mobility is transforming how we think about air travel. Caughey mentioned how Airbus and Boeing are supporting new entrants with finance, mentoring or incubator programmes.

He added: Another similarity is the scale of the challenges that these sectors are seeking to overcome, and that means collaboration goes beyond industry. Governments and the public sector are the key enablers for future success in UAM and Space.

“I think there are a vast number of opportunities for collaboration between these two sectors. And with decades of experience to rely on, Space is undoubtedly going to be a crucial enabler for the UAM landscapes of tomorrow.”

Caughey believes the four cornerstones where UAM industry can built on the groundwork laid down by the Space sector, which are Satellite Navigation, Satellite Communications, Earth Observation and Advanced Engineering.

He added that Satellite Navigation in particular will be the widely exploited intersection between both Space and UAM, given that it already enables the safe flight of millions of passengers around the world every year.

Also delivering a presentation about the UAM industry was James Richmond, who is Atkins’ Future of Flight Lead. Entitled ‘MRO: A Forgotten Barrier to UAM’, Richmond started by saying that he believes ineffective planning for maintenance, repair and overhaul could present a significant barrier to the scaling of UAM.

He said: “Many factors can influence the scalability of the system and these may include the infrastructure availability, the enablement of enough movements or operations which is largely driven by the approach to UTM and ATM, and also having the right demand for the system in the first place.

“However we must not forget some of the operational elements and one in particular is the system’s ability to maintain, repair and overhaul the vehicles. This serves as a key factor in driving utilisation, as it has done in the aerospace industry for many decades, and is a key factor in having a viable business model.”

But Richmond advised that an operational requirement like this doesn’t come as an afterthought, and stressed that OEMs must consider this now while they have the chance to influence the outcome.

“Planning now is simply not enough and for those who want a piece of this well sought-after pie must collaborate with the other stakeholders. My message is simple: it’s plan now, and plan together.

“Whilst we focus our efforts on overcoming the near-term challenges to enable Urban Air Mobility, we must not lose sight of those that influence its ability to scale. And its these that underpin the commercial viability of the system as a whole. These operational requirements are not a bolt-on benefit that can be leveraged once we have a system in place, but need to be thought out early in the design life-cycle.”

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