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Robotics Blog: Regional Air Travel Depends on New Technologies

Robotics Blog: Regional Air Travel Depends on New Technologies

The demand for short flights is there, but rejuvenating the sector relies on green power systems and advanced controls.
New technologies, underserved smaller communities, and increasing traffic congestion could be the foundation for a new model of regional air travel. It won’t happen right away, according to McKinsey. But the consulting firm speculates that four converging “megatrends” may make the economics of regional air travel more attractive: significant technology advances, a greater emphasis on sustainability, growing frustration with road and airport congestion, and the emergence of mobility-as-a service.

Dubbed “regional air mobility, (RAM)” the concept could be a paradigm shift in how people travel and receive goods, according to NASA. RAM is defined as the transportation of passengers and goods by air in a range of 150 to 800 kilometers using small 5- to 50-seat passenger aircraft or their cargo equivalent, mostly using smaller airports.

Using those airports is one of the keys to a potential resurgence. Despite strong demand for air travel, flights on small aircraft declined from 16 percent of available seat kilometers on regional routes to 4 percent in 2019, according to data compiled by McKinsey. This affects mostly rural airports.

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According to the consulting firm, more than 50 companies are developing new and retrofitted aircraft designs, battery-electric, hybrid, or hydrogen powertrains, advanced avionics, and other technologies. The first retrofitted aircraft could begin flying in mid-decade, and more than $1 billion so far has been invested in RAM startups.

ZeroAvia, headquartered in the U.K. and with offices in the U.S., is one of those firms. It is developing a hydrogen fuel cell capable of generating a continuous 400 kW of power for fixed-wing aircraft. Focused on green regional flight, the company claims its ZA600 powertrain can deliver more, from 500 kW to 750 kW.

It is retrofitting one propeller on a Dornier 228 aircraft that successfully tested in flight in January. It recently signed an agreement with startup Surcar Airlines to supply its powertrain on Twin Otter seaplanes for sightseeing flights in the Canary Islands. Surcar will begin operations with conventional engines before a retrofit. ZeroAvia said it expects to obtain certification over the next two to three years and already has a memorandum of understanding with Canada’s De Havilland.

Last year, Los Angeles-based Ampaire flew an upgraded EEL demonstrator fitted with a hybrid-electric powertrain on a nonstop 1,135-mile course from Los Angeles to Oshkosh, Wis. The aircraft is a parallel hybrid, with a conventional combustion engine and an independent electric drivetrain. The firm said it saved 40 percent in fuel compared to a Cessna Skymaster. Ampaire is developing four aircraft, all with hybrid electric systems.

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Other firms such as Reliable Robotics are developing advanced automation systems to enable continuous autopilot from taxiing, to takeoff, and landing. The firm believes advanced automation will help transform how people and goods move by reinvigorating small, regional airports. Phasing in precision GPS approaches from traditional instrument landing systems would allow small airports to receive reliable air service without needing costly navigation infrastructure.

According the McKinsey, 90 percent of people in the U.S. live within a 30-minute drive of a regional airport, compared to 60 percent for a commercial one. And only 500 of 5,000 airports with runways exceeding 3,000 feet are now used by commercial carriers, according to the Center for Urban and Regional Air Mobility.

The existing aviation infrastructure is sufficient to support regional aviation, but additions and improvements in energy infrastructure are needed. Again, according to McKinsey, a typical regional airport serving 200,000 passengers annually may need a $6-million investment for charging or refueling. Electric aircraft require 15 MW to 30 MW of peak onsite electrical power, and an airport would need 500 to 1,000 tons of hydrogen annually to fuel hydrogen-powered aircraft.

Georgia Tech researchers studied the concept last year and predicted a resurgence in demand for regional flying. The concept has fallen into disuse since airlines adopted hub and spoke networks and made short flights unattractive. Airlines subsequently retired most of their fleets of small turboprop aircraft.

“In each region of the United States that we have studied, we have seen a significant demand for those new regional air services,” said Georgia Tech Cedric Justin, of the research faculty at the school’s Aerospace Systems Design Laboratory. He is now working with NASA to continue the work in collaboration with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Clearly, the increasing number of market participants shows the promise of regional networks. But much work still needs to be done for public acceptance of the new technology. Many industry observers don’t see the market scaling up before 2030, leaving plenty of time for new technologies to shake out and prove themselves.

John Kosowatz is senior editor.

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