Advanced air mobility: new consortium launched to overcome skepticism

Group chooses Vancouver to promote an exponential leap in small, clean aviation

CAAM is pushing for advanced air mobility within five years

A vision of the future. An artist’s rendition of an advanced air mobility aircraft over downtown Vancouver (supplied).

Promoting a Jetsons-like vision of clean, small-scale advanced air mobility flying through the sky, a new consortium has formed in Vancouver to push for an “exponential leap” in how we get around.

“This goal is not to be taken lightly,” said JR Hammond, the Executive Director of the Canadian Advanced Air Mobility Consortium. The non-profit consortium aims to create a national strategy for hydrogen or electric air travel over congested cities and out to remote areas. “This is our opportunity as professionals and incredible human beings to make an exponential leap into the next generation of transportation.”

That next generation looks futuristic indeed. Images of advanced air mobility machines under development show machines that look like large drones you might pick up at the store. They promise quiet, light-weight machines capable of carrying one or two people, usually without a pilot on board. Proponents argue they will revolutionize the way people and cargo get around. Call it an aerial Uber.

They see small aircraft that can takeoff vertically, turning almost any flat surface into an airfield. For short hops around the city, the advanced air mobility machines would be powered by electricity. The hope is hydrogen will fuel longer trips.

It’s a lot of work, and CAAM is working on an ambitious timeframe. Hammond wants to see the first operations by 2025.

Overcoming skepticism

“The key is to erase the skepticism about where we’re going,” said Danny Sitnam. He’s the President and Chief Executive Officer of Helijet, a CAAM member. Helijet operates both scheduled flights from downtown Vancouver and helicopter medical evacuations.

advanced air mobility
An artist’s rendition of an electric air ambulance. Helijet sees opportunity in advanced air mobility for medical and emergency missions (supplied).

“Skepticism is coming from, oddly enough, industry itself,” said Sitnam. “The key word is change. Ability to change and adapt to these new technologies.”

Confirming the point, Teara Fraser, also a consortium member, spoke up. She is featured in an upcoming anthology Wonderful Women of History, for her work building Iskwew Air and supporting the communities around her.

“It wasn’t that long ago where I myself believed that these two things didn’t belong together,” she said, referring to advanced air mobility and her own Piper Navajo Chieftain airplane. “I see it so much differently now. I see myself as a bridge builder between these technologies. And actually can see clearly how they can complement each other and work together.”

“Unmanned is a scary thought for flight crew,” said Sitnam. “And I think those are things that without really digging in and learning where these technologies can go, some people may think that’s a job loss opportunity.”

Why Vancouver?

“We have an opportunity to be a bit of a petri dish, in Vancouver,” said Sitnam. “We have an opportunity to test these technologies and bring these technologies to one of the most beautiful cities in the world.”

CAAM argues in a White Paper that Vancouver is the perfect place to develop and test these new technologies. The city, they argue, “is a special case; its unique characteristics such as numerous waterways and several helicopter operators position it to become a world leader in this new transportation endeavour and the first AAM city in North America. It is important to point out that if the city fails to seize this new opportunity, it will lose talent and capital to those cities that do.”

“We are the most advanced for test trials in comparison to Dubai, Singapore, or Guangzhou, China for example,” said Hammond. But he believes that bringing different skills to the table will set Canada apart. And there is a history of innovation in the region. Vancouver, for instance, was home to the world’s first electric commercial aircraft flight last December.

Already government, investors, colleges, universities, small airlines, manufacturers have signed on to the consortium. And CAAM is getting support from perhaps an unexpected source: Translink, the agency that runs transit and major roads in the Vancouver area.

“For us this is an important initiative to research how the airspace can be best used,” said Niklas Kviselius, the Manager of New Mobility for Translink. “To continue looking at new creative ways to get around, now in the third dimension, to make a great seamless transportation network for … goods and people.”

What are the barriers?

There are numerous obstacles to overcome before CAAM’s vision becomes a reality. Chief among them: the cost.

“When we look at the people on the ground that possibly feel they can’t afford to fly, that’s a skepticism,” acknowledged Sitnam. “We need to get outside and talk to the communities and educate them to understand how they can use these tools and these vehicles. Hopefully they will be affordable for the common person on the ground. And not just for the stereotypical affluent types.”

CAAM’s White Paper also lists a number of major hurdles, any one of which could derail the vision:

  • Access to capital
  • Building infrastructure where the new aircraft can land
  • Integrating unmanned aircraft into the existing airspace
  • Noise pollution and property rights
  • Public acceptance of unmanned aircraft

CAAM Executive Director JR Hammond is hoping public input will help build solutions that are widely accepted. He’s calling it the “crawl, walk, run approach.”

So, is 2025 realistic?

“We know that the cargo and the emergency response and air medical sector provide some very near-term opportunities,” said Hammond.

“One of the best opportunities we have is to integrate this into first responder opportunities,” said Helijet’s Sitnam, pointing to his company’s existing medevac contract with the province of British Columbia. “Where people need help, these technologies can help.”

COVID may provide a unique opportunity to develop advanced air mobility. It could help get supplies from Vancouver to smaller communities, a particular concern for Iskwew’s Fraser.

“How can we serve in this world-wide health crisis with this emerging technology?” she wonders. “That’s what I’m really curious about.”

For Fraser, coming together under a single consortium offers the best chance of making advanced air mobility happen.

“Especially in my industry, we’re kinda all off in our own corners, doing our own things, figuring it out ourselves,” she said. “But the possibility really lies in how we work together. How we do this together.”

Hammond won’t let the challenges diminish his enthusiasm.

“Today, we are choosing courage over comfort.”

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Categories: Drones