Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) is poised to grow to a $115 billion industry in the U.S. by 2035, according to Deloitte, but in order to get there, the industry needs to see a lot more development—not just in AAM assets, but also in building infrastructure and sustaining assets.
Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) is more than just Advanced Air Vehicles (AAVs). The success of AAM depends on not only the technology required and the AAV manufacturers scaling their businesses from design and development to production but also on the supporting frameworks on the ground, such as infrastructure, maintenance capabilities, and spare parts provisioning. All of these elements together create the backbone or the supporting ecosystem for the future of AAM operations.
Unique infrastructure is needed to meet the demands of AAM
There needs to be substantial physical infrastructure put in place to allow for the operation of AAVs to grow to become a more accessible service. At this moment, organizations such as Volatus Infrastructure are working diligently to build up the infrastructure required for Advanced Air Mobility despite working behind the development schedule of AAVs. As the AAM ecosystem continues to evolve, the importance of infrastructure development cannot be overstated, and it is encouraging to see organizations taking an active role in shaping the future of air transportation.
A key consideration for AAM infrastructure is that it must not only support further vehicle capability but also drive consumer confidence. If we consider the case of electric ground vehicles, range anxiety (a phenomenon attributed to electric vehicle (EV) drivers) has been identified as a significant barrier to the adoption of EVs in the mass market.
Traditionally fueled vehicles are perceived to have unlimited range due to the widespread availability of refueling and maintenance infrastructure. However, it’s important to consider that conventionally fueled ground vehicles have had over a century of infrastructure development behind them. When the first automobiles were introduced at the turn of the last century, drivers had limited range and route options and often broke down without maintenance support.
Similarly, as electric vehicles began to gain popularity on the roads, drivers were faced with limitations on both the distance they could travel and the routes they could take due to the lack of charging stations. However, thanks to a decade of investment and infrastructure development, coupled with design enhancements to electric vehicles, concerns about their limited range have been significantly reduced.
The same level of investment and development in similar infrastructure is needed to support AAVs, but will need to be implemented at a much faster pace. By building a robust infrastructure that supports AAM operations, we can unlock the full potential of this technology quicker.
Availability of energy is essential
To make AAM goals a reality, it is crucial to ensure that the right charging infrastructure is in place. This involves not only developing technology that can efficiently charge an eVTOL but also ensuring that these chargers can connect to a strong grid power source at any airfield or vertiport. Fortunately, some AAV OEMs are already making significant progress in this area.
For example, while developing their ALIA vehicle, Beta Technologies also developed their own charging station technology that is even being taken up by other AAV OEMs. Now they are in the process of building charging station networks in the field. Collectively the barriers to ensure a seamless charging process in any vertiport, anywhere in the world, are slowly diminishing.
What goes up must come down…somewhere
In order to grow AAM in the passenger market, AAVs need an increased number of places to take off and land safely; for passengers to embark and disembark—they need vertiports. Although vertiports aren’t as complex as airports, they need to be far more plentiful. The most advanced players in the AAM infrastructure industry are already leveraging the existing infrastructure of airports and heliports, but using these will not extract the full potential of Urban Air Mobility (UAM). Vertiports need to be built in new locations—however, a lack of greenfield sites suitable for AAM in urban areas means that infrastructure organizations are now looking to repurpose existing structures such as roofs and parking garages. These solutions could ultimately provide opportunities to create urban transport hubs linking ground and air travel.
A new generation of aviation needs new maintenance methods
Despite being smaller and generally far less complex than traditional passenger aircraft, AAVs still need to follow airworthiness regulations—this means that they will be subject to stringent maintenance requirements.
The aviation industry has had over 100 years to build up a complex network of maintenance capabilities split between the capacity of operators themselves and for-profit maintenance providers: MROs. With the vast majority of commercial flights taking off and landing with adequate maintenance facilities at both ends, there’s rarely an issue with getting conventional aircraft maintained and airborne again.
For AAVs to land and be serviced at so many locations, staffing levels will need to rise—however, following a loss of 2.3 million jobs in the aviation industry alone following the pandemic and not all staff returning when the industry rebounded, a pre-existing staffing shortage was made even worse. As such, the prospect of staffing these many vertiports seems impossible, not to mention cost-prohibitive.
The fact that many AAVs can land at all types of different locations means that maintenance will likely follow a field service model, with mobile maintenance crews deployed to meet assets in the field rather than only being stationed at a pre-defined facility. By optimizing technician deployment with purpose-built field service management tools, AAV operators will be able to get the most out of their workforce.
A new approach, a lighter touch
The AAM sector is looking to adopt a light touch maintenance method compared to traditional commercial aviation due to the advanced technologies of AAVs—such as a modular design with quick-swap components. This means fewer hangar visits, as the majority of maintenance activities will be able to be performed in the field. The method of repair in the field will see aircraft returning to the skies in a much quicker timeframe but will also drive maintenance downstream to component level maintenance.
Many AAV manufacturers are trying to keep all maintenance activities in-house, in order to keep a greater stake in the value chain. In varying cases, this could require improving their own maintenance capability, serving all centers they intend to operate in or acting as MRO providers to their customers without relying on the existing global MRO network capacity.
Building a resilient AAM supply chain
The ultimate goal of the aerospace supply chain is to ensure that it will meet both current and future needs in terms of readiness, resiliency, production targets, and competitiveness in the entire life cycle—however, it has taken many decades to build it up to where it is today. Even still, recent world events, such as the war in Ukraine, have revealed weaknesses in the supply chain that have presented major challenges to commercial operators and MROs. The current state of the supply chain is oriented towards those operators and MROs, relying on them or parts pool providers, to understand their own stocking levels and pre-positioning of parts and materials, and manage demand signals back to the manufacturers.
As AAV OEMs attempt to keep a hold of a bigger piece of the aftermarket pie, this will drive the need for an entirely new supply chain—one that is intentionally oriented towards the OEMs themselves. This will require a significant shift in the approach to demand planning and distribution, with OEMs taking on a greater burden in these areas.
The modularity of AAV designs will drive a greater need for higher numbers of spares, changing the stocking profile, and a greater need for component level maintenance, which will require orchestration across the supply chain to track inventory levels and surplus stock with awareness of when components in maintenance will become serviceable, in order to avoid massively overstocking spares.
Revolutionizing the future of travel and transport means new infrastructure and sustainment
As AAM starts to make inroads into commercial aviation—supporting and sustaining infrastructure is essential. Fortunately, all these required systems are in development today, with work already progressing on infrastructure such as vertiports and charging networks.
For organizations undergoing massive growth and development to match the pace of the AAM movement, scalability is key. Some rigid or complex systems will not work for a small, agile company. In this market, systems and support that can grow with the business will be essential!
In the AAM space, whether you are a pure vehicle manufacturer, an AAV operator, a maintenance service provider, or planning to build and manage infrastructure—there are systems available to help you unlock your potential in supporting AAM as it revolutionizes the future of travel and transport around the world.
View our Advanced Air Mobility webinar series to learn more about the AAM movement powering the future of flight: https://info.ifs.com/future-of-flight and get more information at https://info.ifs.com/aam