Urban Mobility Progress?
I think it’s probably my job to think through the structure and impact of revolutionary developments in aviation but I confess I haven’t given this whole point-to-point urban mobility thing much thought until I attended NBAA-BACE in Las Vegas this week.
Oh, like most people with an interest in aviation and its future, I figured I had a working knowledge of the basics. Skyports would be added to building rooftops where sophisticated autonomous flying machines would whisk passengers across town in minutes all the while thumbing their noses at the wretches trapped in the clogged streets below. Sounds pretty appealing, right? And to this point most of the discussion has been about the safe operation of fleets of eVTOLs flitting about our major cities.
Certainly there’s a lot to discuss there but there might be an even more important discussion ahead. Uber Elevate’s head of aviation Eric Allison says that stuff is all but a slam dunk and his company’s now looking at how human beings fit into the concept. Good call, Eric, because the little promotional video played at the end of his presentation certainly gave the audience pause.
The video followed a young woman on a typical urban journey involving an aircraft and was meant to show how Uber’s phone app seamlessly integrated her into the system to get her where she was going.
It looked utterly exhausting to me.
She started out in a self-driving car before getting on a bicycle to ride to a transit station where a bus or a train finally got her to the skyport. Then it was on to the eVTOL for a few minutes to the next skyport where she presumably faced a variation of the same staccato of ground trips before collapsing at her destination. I just don’t see much progress here.
Cities all over the world have already solved this problem with fast, safe and convenient mass transit. True, you might end up sharing space with folks you wouldn’t normally want that close to you but you can put up with just about anything for a half hour.
As for our intrepid traveler of the future, it seems to me she would have been better off sticking with the self-driving car the whole way if she didn’t want to trade butt sweat with other subway patrons. It might have taken a little longer but with a little planning and maybe some work to do along the way it wouldn’t necessarily be less productive.
The other eye-opener was the hardware on display. Certainly there are some nifty machines being developed for the job but with one exception they looked kind of flimsy to me. No matter how much you couch it in whizz bang technological terms, these aircraft are going to do dozens of cycles a day in some pretty challenging circumstances and the consequences of component failure in that kind of environment are intolerably high. They need to be tough, durable and virtually perfectly reliable.
Bell Helicopters knows something about moving people and cargo vertically so I think their take on an urban mobility aircraft is both telling and ominous. Their Nexus ducted fan aircraft is simply enormous. The six fans are about seven feet in diameter and they’re powered by a fuselage-mounted turbine generator. It’s complex, heavy and looks pretty expensive to buy and operate. It’s as big as the biggest single-rotor helicopters, which can carry more than a dozen people, but Nexus would carry just five passengers.
Maybe there are some breakthroughs ahead that will tackle these issues but it seems to me physics and cost will determine the success or failure of this movement, just like they always have in aviation endeavors.
Lear’s Last Gasp?
Almost lost in the noise of launching even bigger, faster and more luxurious business jets at NBAA-BACE was a progress report on a reheated version of the nameplate that arguably took the business jet business mainstream. Bombardier, which owns Learjet, announced in July that it was launching an updated and less expensive version of the existing airframe with fewer seats and the company gave an update at NBAA-BACE. The Learjet 75 Liberty will have a new interior but no APU or lavatory sink to get the cost in line with the CJ4 and Phenom 300.
Asked directly what the modest investment and market adjustment for an in-service airframe might mean for the future of Learjet, Bombardier Aviation CEO David Coleal dodged the question deftly.
Like most industries, aviation lives or dies by innovation and investment in new products and Learjet hasn’t had a clean-sheet introduction in years. The Liberty might coax a few more sales but it’s not a big enough platform to support the weight of an iconic airplane maker like Lear.
AVweb Contributing Editor
Modern Avionics For Old Jets
Just as I was feeling jaded by all the latest and greatest gadgets for jets, a reader flagged me down while I was shooting some video on the convention floor because he was looking for advice on what avionics he might install in his company’s Jurassic jet. After chiding that he was asking the wrong guy and that he oughta just soldier on with the 1970s vintage Collins stuff in the airplane, I sent him over to Avidyne to talk with Tom Harper who was showing the new Atlas FMS. I think Avidyne is doing something with the Atlas that finally makes perfect sense for aging jets begging for a modern navigation system. Look for a video overview of the Atlas coming up.
In a nutshell, Avidyne creatively repackaged its successful IFD-series panel navigator into a dzus-mounted chassis that fits nicely in the center pedestal of older jets. These are aircraft that may not even have LPV approach capability or even displays suitable for playing weather, traffic and terrain—all stuff you really do want in a jet cockpit. Kudos to Avidyne for going after this forgotten segment of the market at a price that makes sense—around $50,000 for starters. Better yet, Avidyne is working hard to make the system easy to transplant into these older airframes, while also offering versions with and without VHF radios. That will save a ton of dead weight and open space on the panel and in the avionics bay of these old jets. In a market that seems to be served by over-the-top retrofit avionics, Avidyne is taking a utilitarian approach that pilots of older jets seem to embrace, based on the ones I listened to while at the Avidyne demo.
While handing out big-iron kudos, good for Pilatus for making the already excellently executed PC-12 NG even better with the PC-12 NGX. Two years in the making, the third-gen PC-12 has an updated electronic-controlled engine with a noise-friendly prop, a better interior, FADEC with autothrottle, more autopilot automation and extended maintenance intervals that could save some bucks. Link here to the PC-12 NGX video we shot over at the static display at the show.
Speaking of static displays, while walking the line over in the desert, I spotted the latest slick little SyberJet SJ30i, which was dwarfed by those big Gulfstreams and Falcons on display. The latest SyberJet is hardly an unfamiliar airplane, of course, since the Ed Swearingen-design SJ30 model dates back to the 1980s. But the latest SJ30i, which is well along in the certification process with Honeywell’s latest gee-whiz avionics and an ultra-modern interior, has some impressive performance numbers that I hope will give some welcome competition to the crowded light jet market. Check out the SyberJet SJ30i video shot at NBAA here.
With buyers’ best interest in mind, my eyes are always scanning for signs of more competition across the entire market and I sure was glad to see a healthy dose of it on the turbine level at this year’s NBAA gathering in Vegas.
Editor, Aviation Consumer
Sustainable Aviation Initiatives
It can be easy to feel like things never change at these big aviation shows. As journalists, we show up each year to write and record as much material as we can put pen or camera to and I, at least, am guilty of sometimes getting sidetracked by deadlines rather than the potential significance of what I’m covering. This year, however, my attention was diverted from my hunt for the perfect show newsletter by the strong presence of the sustainability conversation. Last year, it was an occasionally-mentioned sideline at NBAA-BACE. 2019 was another story.
For the first time that I can recall, questions were raised in nearly every relevant press conference about whether the aircraft under discussion could or did run on sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). Quite a few of the companies flew in on biofuel blends including names like Gulfstream and Dassault. There was a panel on sustainable aviation fuels with representatives from GAMA, FAA, Bombardier, GE and Aerion Supersonic which, NBAA said, was aimed at “turning the industry’s excitement about SAF into action.” Finally, NBAA and GAMA announced the first Business Aviation Global Sustainability Summit, a gathering to be held in March 2020 designed to accelerate SAF usage and availability.
I’ve heard plenty of arguments both for and against the trend toward exploring sustainability initiatives like SAF. Personally, I tend to believe such initiatives are a good thing. At a bare minimum, if we don’t ask the questions, we’re unlikely to find any good answers. However you feel about it, one thing is for certain: It will definitely be interesting to see where the sustainability conversation goes.
Senior Editor, AVweb