Urban Air Mobility. Even the name of the segment is a wildly optimistic, some might say “delusional,” boast. Here’s the idea in a nutshell: Small, autonomous, electrically powered vehicles would within the next couple of years be filling the skies over the world’s metropolitan areas. The purveyors of this smog-free, snagless futuristic vision had a few problems, they admitted, that they would overcome in time and then it would be nothing but nonstop Jetsens 24/7/365 and 366 on Leap Year.
About that. This week urban air mobility aircraft non-manufacturer Kitty Hawk’s struggles were revealed in a really excellent article by Jeremy Bogaisky in Forbes that documented the enormous struggles Kitty Hawk has been through in trying, in vain, to get something resembling one of these wee craft into anything in the same universe as a certifiable product. I take that back. They have been flailing, according to the Forbes piece, at trying to get one of these things to keep running and to not catch on fire. I’m no expert on the intricacies of aircraft certification, but not catching on fire and actually working are two things most aircraft makers strive for in the cert process.
And Bogaisky says that much of the damage has been self-inflicted, citing insiders at Kitty Hawk as saying that the company took shortcuts, such as taping battery packs together instead of using fire barriers between cells. At least one of the craft caught fire in the middle of the night sitting at the factory, well, development facility is more accurate. Believe me, there is no need for a factory.
And the company put its engineers in the very worst possible position by mandating that they report safety concerns immediately and rewarding those problem reporters by firing them even more immediately. And there were non-disclosure agreements galore, which is not uncommon in Silicon Valley, though in this case, again according to Bogainsky’s story, they seemed to be more about keeping those same employees from spilling the goods on Kitty Hawk’s struggles to the press, which, thank goodness, they did anyways.
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Kitty Hawk is funded by Google gazillionaire Larry Page and headed by Sebastian Thrun, who led Google’s autonomous car efforts.
Like just about every pilot who’s been deeply involved in the aviation world for some time, it’s impossible for us to see the world through a rose-gold colored bezel. We know that doing aviation is hard, and doing it safely, nearly impossible. Which is why we have certification standards, to make sure that designers and manufacturers are going down a well-worn path, and where it’s not worn, that they run down that path over and over and over again until it’s pretty well worn too.
So when a company comes into the aviation world telling us (well at least strongly implying) how stupid we are for not seeing what the world really wants and how easy it is for them to show us the way, well, it’s such an outrageous delusion, that word again, that it’s hard to even get angry about it. It’s like your 13-year-old explaining to you how the world works in total amazement that you’ve somehow missed every detail of that process.
And the sad part is, you just need to let them think that until they don’t anymore. Thirty-ish is a reasonable target. Unfortunately, urban air mobility aircraft makers won't have 28 more years of funding.
Because the truth is, I’ve been saying it all along, that this whole thing just doesn’t add up, that the weights involved and power available and safety concerns and battery tech and infrastructure requirements along with the lack of traffic systems were not small problems, that every one of them was capable of stopping such a movement in its tracks, this while the Kitty Hawks of the world show that they are incapable of solving even one of those show stoppers.
As if admitting it had no answers, Kitty Hawk has even floated, hehe, the idea of limiting its vehicles to travel over open water, so as to avoid too nasty crash, that is, if a crash were to occur, which they won’t, of course. But, yeah, open water makes sense, they were thinking.
So, sobered by the reality of what they were attempting, the company has stopped work on its Flyer, that little single-seat autonomous multicopter that we wrote about last year as it was shown flying a reporter, a still living reporter, thank goodness, over a body of water. It’s not just the inaptly named Flyer that Kitty Hawk won’t be working on. It has by all indications stopped working on everything it does, with the exception of one program it’s doing with Boeing, a company that knows how tricky certification can be.
As tragic and sobering a tale as the 737 Max saga is, unlike Kitty Hawk, Boeing knows everything about certification already. Which is why its newly acquired joint venture with Kitty Hawk is positioned as a research and development program. When it comes to R&D, the money is spent not to get somewhere but to know more about something that could possibly lead to some other product getting somewhere. If it doesn’t work out, oh well, that’s what R&D is for.
Indeed, R&D is where urban air mobility should remain until such time as every one of those Everest sized hurdles is cleared, and by a lot, and not just by Kitty Hawk, which is only a high-visibility canary in this scary coal mine of a segment they call urban air mobility.