Personal air vehicles — those nifty electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft — have become one of the hottest aviation concepts since the Wright Flyer inspired a flood of competitors.
Touted as quieter, cleaner and cheaper than commercial helicopters, these electric air taxis promise to address city-dwellers’ mobility woes and have captured the attention of major aircraft and aerospace designers worldwide, including Bell Helicopter, Boeing and Airbus.
With hundreds of millions in startup capital flowing to a nascent urban air mobility (UAM) industry, we might pause to ask: Can these new eVTOL aircraft serve rural areas, too? Could they help lift economic prospects for the millions of people living outside of big cities? Should we be thinking beyond UAM to rural air mobility — RAM?
The initial focus of the 100 or more companies working to create eVTOL aircraft and related systems may help solve the pressing urban problems of congestion and gridlock. It’s no surprise that Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are in the thick of this pursuit, as their lives are directly affected by the terrible traffic their mushrooming enterprises help to create.
But there are good reasons to consider applying these technologies to rural America as well, or even first. Rural residents face a host of logistical issues that have contributed to significant declines in rural population and economic stability in recent decades. If you’re living in a rural area, you’re almost certainly far away from specialized healthcare, let alone a GP. You’re a long way from community colleges and universities; and far from advanced manufacturing jobs, or knowledge-based desk jobs, or even the nearest Costco. Many rural towns are so hard to access, why would anyone want to expand or relocate a business there?
Already, we see the merits of bringing greater connectivity to rural areas, which is why rural broadband is subsidized to the tune of more than $700 million annually by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Rural air mobility could be part of a new infrastructure plan, should DC mandarins ever create one. The FAA’s Essential Air Service program for small communities, or something like it, could be expanded to include vertiports in towns and on farms or at small manufacturing facilities. RAM operators could receive essential air service subsidies, at least as part of test projects.
RAM clearly isn’t a panacea for every economic challenge facing rural America, but it may be part of the solution. Indeed, flying these RAM flying taxis around in wide-open areas and small towns may help refine the technologies required for denser airspace.
One big challenge for urban air vehicles is operating safely over heavily populated areas. They need to pretty reliably not crash. They need complex deconfliction traffic management. They need an infrastructure of lots of landing pads on prime real estate. These challenges, and many others, will need to be addressed before eVTOLs grace urban skylines.
Do these vehicles have the range and payload capacity to fly across vast rural counties and not just across San Francisco Bay? The Lilium Jet air taxi, according to its designers, will be capable of covering 300 km in 60 minutes.
Will we ever get an infrastructure initiative from Washington? Who knows. But if we do, I would advocate for RAM test programs in selected rural areas. And if the government won’t do it, private industry certainly has that capability — and an opportunity to refine valuable technologies in the process.
Remember, the Wright Flyer wasn’t perfected over New York City.