Why Urban Air Mobility Needs Open Innovation

It has been an extremely adventurous year for the Urban Air Mobility (UAM) industry. As the reality of democratised aerial mobility — Aviation 4.0 — dawns upon us, it is closer than ever for our childhood dreams of everyday-flight to be coming true.

With the Uber Elevate Summit and the Farnborough Airshow behind us — where numerous novel concepts have been introduced into the design landscape — the UAM industry is rushing towards the climax of its hype cycle with many of its characteristics comparable to the early pioneer era of aviation, which you can read about in my previous article here.

How many of us have felt like this when we were 6 years old?

From the announcement of Uber’s 5 strategic partners:

  • Aurora Flight Sciences
  • Bell
  • Embraer
  • Karem Aircraft
  • Pipistrel

to the swift growth of the British eVTOL landscape:

  • Aston Martin Volante
  • Autonomous Flight Y6S
  • Rolls-Royce eVTOL
  • Samad Starling Jet
  • Neoptera eOpter
  • VRCO NeoXcraft

the rate of entry into the industry has been at an all-time high with over 55 various designs in the field aiming specifically for urban use cases.

Uber Elevate eVTOL Landscape
From top left clockwise: Bell Air Taxi, EmbraerX DreamMaker, Karem Butterfly, Pipistrel eVTOL, Aurora eVTOL
British eVTOL Landscape
From top left clockwise: Samad Starling Jet, Aston Martin Volante, Neoptera eOpter, Rolls-Royce eVTOL, VRCO NeoXcraft, Autonomous Flight Y6S

However, when one looks at the ecosystem integrator landscape, there are only two companies in the world in this space (yet):

  1. Uber’s Elevate initiative, which is moving fast by holding annual UAM summits, partnering up with cities in the US and abroad, and generating a Silicon Valley-style wide-reaching hype; and
  2. Airbus, which is in the vehicle design business by having introduced three distinct concepts, whilst partnering up with numerous European cities and companies through the European Innovation Partnership on Smart Cities and Communities (EIP-SCC), as a serious competitor to Uber in Europe.

The following questions remain: 1) is this duopoly healthy? and 2) are the approaches taken by these two companies the most effective in accelerating the adoption of UAM solutions?

The Need

Let’s take a step back and consider the main reasons for the urgent need for Urban Air Mobility solutions:

  1. Urban congestion → as the world is predicted to have 41 megacities — cities with more than 10M people — by the year 2030, expensive ground transportation solutions will not be able to keep up with this strenuous growth
  2. Climate change & urban air pollution → if the world is to comply with emissions regulations, it is essential to pivot towards shared and emission-free transportation solutions swiftly
Where are the megacities of the world today and tomorrow? Source: Airbus & World Urbanization Prospects

Due to these reasons, like a flock of geese migrating from the North — escaping the cold winter of Yukon to ensure the continuation of their species — the rush towards sustainable and futuristic transportation needs to be faster than ever to ensure the health and safety of the human species for many generations to come.

Any solution within the scope of UAM needs to have sustainability as one of its core aspects. Source: Sun Prairie UMC

On top of this, since the eVTOL industry is nascent with designs popping up only in the last 3–4 years, it is essential for the UAM community to adopt philosophies that will facilitate the aerial mobility revolution in the most effective, safe, and responsible manner. This is exactly why open innovation principles need to be diligently implemented amongst all stakeholders as opposed to the current industry practices that are defined by semi-aggressive competition.

(However, it should be noted that it is quite natural for a company like Uber to pursue few strategic partnerships rather than encompass the whole vehicle designer landscape of 55+ companies, due to conspicuous reasons.)

Enter Open Innovation

Before we get into how we may create this paradigm shift, it’s important to map out the UAM industry from an open innovation perspective.

According to Alexy, Salter, and Criscuolo (2009), the UAM industry can be characterized as a “turbulent puddle”, explained in the following:

  1. High technological uncertainty with regards to batteries and vehicle design
  2. Numerous concepts competing in a future where the commercial use cases are not clearly defined yet
  3. UAM is changing the structure of the aviation market as companies external to aerial vehicle design are entering, such as Audi and Rolls-Royce
  1. Number of external knowledge and potential partners of vehicle design companies are relatively low and concentrated e.g. civil aviation authorities (single national entity), city councils (single urban entity), platform service providers (e.g. Uber Elevate regional monopoly), infrastructure providers (few players), and so on
Intellectual property & open innovation framework applied to UAM. Source: Alexy, Salter, and Criscuolo (2009)

However, unlike what the framework recommends, the state of the UAM industry as exemplified by the attitudes of Uber and its 5 strategic partners is quite private and semi-closed in terms of information flow between the stakeholders and potential contributors in the public. To give an example, Uber Elevate aims to monopolize vertiports and skylanes in cities whilst signing exclusivity deals with vehicle manufacturers. For an industry that is yet nascent, this aggressive attitude towards the adoption of UAM solutions is not the most ideal for the optimum diffusion of the technology.

What Needs to be Done?

Vehicle design companies need to establish “research clubs” to collaborate in pre-competitive research, unlike the competitive intellectual property (IP) strategy that the many companies in Uber’s network – including Uber itself – pursue. This will reduce technological uncertainty upstream e.g. certification and safety of eVTOLs, whilst leveraging a concentrated supplier’s power for the sale or licensing of such vehicles to downstream companies like Uber. Thus, there needs to be - albeit limited - sharing of IP and co-opetition among the network before technological and market uncertainties are eliminated. Then, vehicle manufacturers can acquire first-mover advantages in a free market environment by developing second-generation vehicles. This will not only give the opportunity for lesser known but high-quality designs to succeed in the market but facilitate the adoption of UAM solutions in an accelerated manner, allowing them to reach international markets ever more swiftly.

A similar approach has been taken by Tesla by openly sharing its patents and promising to “not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology.”

Co-opetition — rather than competition — is what’s going to fuel the initial growth of the UAM industry.

Enter Aviary

This is why I believe that The Aviary Project is perfectly positioned to introduce healthy co-opetition to the industry, bringing all stakeholders — including the likes of Uber Elevate — together without the restraints of private and exclusive partnerships. With its guiding principles grounded firmly in open innovation, Aviary is creating a community of UAM professionals, startups, corporates, and government bodies, and connecting them with resources such as talent, investment, and industry expertise. Such an approach will effectively lead to the faster overhaul of civil aviation regulations, efficient labour mobility, intelligent capital investment, and better understanding between all stakeholders, thus the swift but responsible adoption of UAM technologies.

Onwards to Aviation 4.0!
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