Taking air travel to the streets, or just above them


An artist’s conception of an urban air mobility environment, where air vehicles with a variety of missions and with or without pilots, are able to interact safely and efficiently. PHOTO/NASA/Lillian Gipson

There was a time when people and goods were moved through the crowded city on the ground, restricted to the busy street surfaces by necessity and gravity.

So, inspired visionaries considered new ways to get about town and dreamt of innovative flying machines that could safely transport passengers and ship cargo within the urban jungle by rising above the congestion below.

No, we’re not talking about the Wright Brothers in 1903.

This is the new era in air transportation that NASA and a community of government, industry and academic partners are working together on, right now.

The goal, known as Urban Air Mobility (UAM), is a safe and efficient air transportation system where everything from small package delivery drones to passenger-carrying air taxis operate over populated areas, from small towns to the largest cities.

And it’s no dream.

“The convergence of technologies, and new business models enabled by the digital revolution, is making it possible to explore this new way for people and cargo to move within our cities,” said Jaiwon Shin, NASA’s associate administrator for aeronautics research.

But there’s still much research to be done, tests performed, demonstrations conducted, and operating rules and regulations to be written and adopted before you should expect same-day package delivery by air on the roof of your office building downtown.

Leading the Way

To that end, NASA is committed to leading the UAM community to identify the key challenges still ahead, and is exploring the research, development and testing requirements needed to address those challenges.

NASA’s part in this process, Shin said, reminds him of the quote often attributed to President John F. Kennedy, who was fond of saying “A rising tide lifts all boats.” NASA-developed technology and systems related to UAM will help lift a new aerial marketplace to success.

It’s a role within aviation NASA has successfully played throughout its history, beginning more than a century ago with its predecessor organization, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics.

The result is that, today, every U.S. airplane and air traffic control facility has on board, or relies in some way on, aeronautics technology that originated with NASA.

The story is expected to be no different for UAM, which NASA began exploring as early as 2003 when a NASA researcher presented a conference paper entitled “Personal Air Vehicles: A Rural/Regional and Intra-Urban On-Demand Transportation System.”

Building its expertise in this area, NASA continued to study the topic and in 2016 published a study about On-Demand Mobility, the results of which helped inspire and define a path for turning the UAM vision into reality.

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