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Speculative Design: The Los Angeles-based Urban Air Mobility Partnership

Featured Image Source:  Skyroad Partners

The Urban Air Mobility Partnership: A first-in-the-nation public-private partnership to advance awareness of urban air mobility (UAM) in L.A.

(Source:  Urban Movement Labs)

As we shared with the OODA Loop membership in July, the Nuclear-Powered Sky Hotel is the intersection of speculative design and a creative belief in the future of nuclear energy (directly at odds with nuclear’s decades of bad press and over-regulation of the market).  The Nuclear-Powered Sky Hotel, through speculative design, asks “What if?”

Personal helicopters and air taxis are at the intersection of:

  1. Speculative Design, “a design practice that is concerned with future design proposals of a critical nature. The term “speculative design” was popularised by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby as a subsidiary of critical design. The aim is not to present commercially driven design proposals but to design proposals that identify and debate crucial issues that might happen in the future. Speculative design is concerned with future consequences and implications of the relationship between science, technology, and humans. It problematizes this relation by proposing provocative future design scenarios where technology and design implications are accentuated.  These provocative design proposals are meant to trigger the debate about future challenges. Speculative design proposals might seem subversive and irreverent in nature as they are meant to initiate discussions not to be market products.” (1).  For more, see the work of Syd Mead.
  2. The short-sighted perception and branding of the “Future of Mobility” to the general public.  The actual promise of the future of mobility is as diverse as e-bikes, e-scootersrobotaxisMobility as a Service (MaaS), supersonic jets, and air taxis. For now, however, the broad category of public and personal mobility and autonomy and autonomous technology systems are tethered to the overhyped promise of self-driving cars.

To be sure: personal helicopter and air taxi concepts are closer to a go-to-market business model than a nuclear-powered sky hotel, but still require a creative leap forward through the speculative design process that imagines new market creation in the 2026-2028 timeframe.

The primary driver here?:  The Olympics are landing in Los Angeles in 2028:  “As a leader in transportation technology, Los Angeles invests more than $13 billion a year on transportation projects alone and envisions a future with zero traffic deaths, zero-emissions vehicles, and 50% travel by walking, cycling, micro-mobility, and transit. In addition, with the 2028 Olympics in mind, the city is working on 28 transportation mega-projects, such as the purple line subway extension and the LA River Bike Path.” (2)

Consider the future of mobility through speculative design by way of the Urban Movement Labs, Overair – and the creation of a new marketplace for mobility that early players in the space are calling “Urban Air Mobility” or “Advanced Air Mobility (AAM)”.

The Urban Mobility Lab (UML) and Overair

The Urban Movement Labs (UML) “brings together expertise and experience from different sectors to create a transportation system that is equitable, sustainable, and accessible. Public sector partners help define urgent transportation problems and opportunities in Los Angeles. Businesses and communities collaborate to design proofs-of-concept and test new mobility solutions. Throughout the process, input from outside partners validates solutions and measures outcomes.”  Founding Corporate Partners with the City of L.A. on the UML’s efforts include the Avis Budget Group, Lyft, Waymo, and Verizon.

The Urban Air Mobility (UAM) Partnership is a project housed at the UML and is a “year-long effort to educate and engage Angelenos around this low-noise, electric aircraft expected to fly in L.A.’s skies as soon as 2023.  With financial support from Hyundai Urban Air Mobility and Archer, Urban Movement Labs will work with a UAM Fellow to develop and implement a comprehensive public engagement strategy. To assist with visualizing this innovative new technology, Urban Movement Labs will lead a multi-stakeholder effort to envision a “vertiport,” a new piece of L.A.’s transportation network where people can access urban air mobility aircraft. The one-year partnership will culminate in a policy toolkit, which will serve as a model to cities, counties, and tribal governments and be used to build capacity within the City of LA.”  (2)

Following are the current framework and working definitions of the project:

Urban Air Mobility: A future mode of transportation that uses lighter, quieter, and more affordable aircraft to increase access to air mobility for travel within the city.

Vertiport: Landing stations that can be located across the city for urban aircraft.

Electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing (eVTOL): The new aircraft under development that will be used for Urban Air Mobility.

On the UML blog, they elaborate on the vision of UAM with a discussion of What is Urban Air Mobility?:

Recently, Urban Air Mobility (UAM) technology has been compared with flying cars that would fulfill visions of The Jetsons cartoon. While this imagery is fun, it’s important that we remain anchored on the fact that this technology is the future of aviation, regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) with safety as the top priority. While UAM offers opportunities to complement and enhance other modes of transportation, we must be clear that this is not “flying cars,” nor is it a new form of the private automobile. (3)


Source:  Hanwha

As reported by Kevin Smith from the Orange County Register by way of Mass Transit Magazine:

Ever wished you could step into an air taxi and glide above LA’s traffic gridlock?

Two local companies have partnered to make that dream a reality with a fleet of all-electric, vertical-takeoff taxis that will ferry passengers and cargo across the skies of Southern California.

Urban Movement Labs, a transportation-minded nonprofit launched by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti in 2019, and Overair, an electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing company based in Santa Ana, hope to have the vehicles up and running in 2026.

Overair touts its “Butterfly” aircraft as an alternative transportation option in metropolitan areas. Each Butterfly — equipped with four rotors — will be capable of carrying up to six people (five passengers and a pilot), or 1,100 pounds of cargo.

They’ll be able to travel about 100 miles at speeds of up to 200 mph, powered by all-electric propulsion. The aircraft will be capable of taking off and landing at existing pads that service helicopters, company officials said. They have yet to reveal what Butterfly’s dimensions will be.

“We’ve tested some smaller prototypes and a full-sized propulsion system,” said John Criezis, Overair’s head of mobility operations for Overair. “We’re in the process of building a full-sized prototype now.”

Overair recently secured $145 million in funding from Hanwha Systems and Hanwha Aerospace to continue the development of its aircraft, bringing the company closer to its goal of flying an experimental prototype in 2023.

The company’s first step will be to get the vehicle certified for flight by the Federal Aviation Administration. Criezis said they’ll make “learning adjustments along the way as needed.”

“It’s a very involved process,” he said. “They will be flying at an altitude of 1,000 to 3,000 feet.”

Sam Morrissey, Urban Movement’s executive director, said his organization is looking to stay ahead of the curve.

“We wanted to look at advancements in air mobility before the technology arrived to put it into effect,” he said. “We’ve partnered with a number of companies that are working on this through the Urban Air Mobility Partnership.”  (1)

Source:  New Atlas

New Atlas explains the innovation, including the military pedigree of the Overair technology:

Overair is a passenger eVTOL startup spun off by Karem Aircraft. Karem Aircraft, founded in 2004, has been involved in a number of US Military contracts, including the Joint Heavy Lift, Joint Future Theater Lift, Joint Multi-Role, and Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft programs. Its founder Abraham Karem is referred to as the “Dronefather,” having built the predecessor to what became the Predator drone in his own garage workshop in the 1970s.

In the late ’90s, Abe Karem pioneered the “optimum speed rotor” technology that allowed the A160 Hummingbird to fly higher and farther and more efficiently than any helicopter currently in operation, using an innovative system that could vary blade speed as well as pitch. Karem Aircraft’s key focus today is large tilt-rotor aircraft, and the crossover potential into the eVTOL world is obvious.

Overair’s aircraft is called the Butterfly, and it mimics Karem’s approach with its fossil-burning heavy-lift tilt rotors. Its design is unique among eVTOL competitors simply because of the size of its rotors. This is a reasonably traditional-looking airplane design, with large, wide main wings and a V-tail. On the ends of the V-tail sit 3-bladed tilting rotors with a diameter maybe somewhere around 2 m (6.6 ft). Positioned along the main wing are two much larger tilting rotors, maybe twice the size of the rear ones. (4)

What Next?

  • Map your organizational capabilities and offerings to the future market:  Consulting Group SMG has taken a cue from the Gartner Hype Cycle and created the informative Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) Reality Index.  
  • Some market metrics for strategic consideration by your organization: Munich, Germany-based Skyroads Partners has also recently partnered with the UML. In the press release announcing the partnership, the company offered some formative total addressable market and immediate market metrics:  “Advanced Air Mobility (AAM)* is taking off. In 2021 $7 billion was invested, with most of those funds directed to aircraft manufacturers. In addition, $26.1 billion in orders and letters of intent were submitted for nearly 7,000 aircraft, an order of magnitude more than orders for conventional aircraft.  The digital infrastructure to manage AAM operations is a key enabler for the scalability of this technology that is often overlooked. Skyroads has developed a new decentralized networking system for intelligent infrastructure required to manage air traffic safely and efficiently in busy airspace. This technology integrates the safe operations of the next generation of aircraft, such as drones and electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) vehicles within urban airspace, as described in their comprehensive whitepaper, “A Roadmap for Flight Automation in Advanced Air Mobility.”(2)
  • New market opportunities abound: The Urban Movement Labs also has the Workforce Development Initiative, which is “designed to accelerate the transportation workforce of the future in industries already clustering in the LA region.” What is interesting is that these ‘industry clusters’ are also new market creation, ripe for new business models and value proposition design.  They are what regional advantage/urban redevelopment policymakers call “multiplier effects” – branches of value creation that will grow out of the umbrella Urban Air Mobility (UAM) Partnership and the growth of the AAM marketplace overall.   Opportunities for your organization (classified by the UML as the “transportation workforce of the future”) include:
    • Transportation and Data Analytics
    • Urban Air Mobility
    • Connected and Automated Mobility
    • Cybersecurity and Real-Time Data
    • Data/Tech-Driven Transit
    • Data-Tech-Driven Logistics

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Daniel Pereira

Daniel Pereira

Daniel Pereira is research director at OODA. He is a foresight strategist, creative technologist, and an information communication technology (ICT) and digital media researcher with 20+ years of experience directing public/private partnerships and strategic innovation initiatives.