By: Amy Romano

Image Credit: Wisk Gen 6 eVTOL Prototype displayed at HAI Heli-Expo, Anaheim, CA, February 27-29, 2024.

There has been a lot of chatter in this first quarter of 2024 about the next evolution in aviation. Advanced Air Mobility/Urban Air Mobility (AAM/UAM) buzzwords like air taxi, flying car, eVTOL, vertiport and transportation ecosystem seem to be becoming part of the everyday vernacular thanks, in part, to an increasing number of vertical flight-related announcements, panel discussions and product introductions at CES in January, February’s HAI Heli-Expo in Anaheim, and earlier this month at SXSW in Austin.

With the increasing number of companies playing in the AAM space and the FAA’s Innovate28 plan, it could almost feel like helicopters are on their way out and a more “Jetsons” future of vertical flight is already here.

Even the world’s oldest industry association dedicated to vertical flight, Helicopter Association International, opened the aperture beyond helicopters by changing its name to Vertical Aviation International, and the name of its annual trade show from Heli-Expo, to VERTICON.

With the flurry of technology developments underway in the vertical flight arena – not to mention the decade’s long use of drones and tiltrotor aircraft that take off and land like a helicopter but achieve forward flight like an airplane in both military and commercial applications – many would say this evolution to the more inclusive Vertical Aviation International was long overdue. I agree. To a point.

2024 is my 10th year in the vertical flight industry (15th in aviation/aerospace and defense). Having worked with OEMs, systems & accessories developers, integrators, and operators for both commercial and military vertical flight operations, and now with Lambert, I can honestly say vertical flight has never been more thrilling.

Not only did the last-ever Heli-Expo boast its highest attendance EVER with 15,000+ unique attendees, but there was also palpable excitement about the inevitable transformation of vertical flight and the immensity of the air transportation ecosystem. With announcements and updates related to traditional helicopters, unmanned utility aircraft, sustainability, new tilt wing and tiltrotor aircraft for both commercial and military operations, AI-integration opportunities, augmented, virtual and mixed reality simulation and training equipment, and so much more, my head was spinning!!

It was not just exciting, but also inspiring to me that advanced air mobility (AAM) and eVTOL (electric vertical take-off and lift) were among the leading topics on people’s lips. At the forefront of Heli-Expo’s industry sessions and panel discussions, experts from across the ecosystem (OEMs, developers, operators, regulators, cities, states, etc.) discussed how this transformational evolution of runway-independent vehicles was (getting) ready to take off (pun intended).

And whether you are in the ‘It’s a Jetsons Future – NOW’ camp—already in line to buy the first certified flying car or anxiously planning your Uber-esque flying taxi transport experiences with Overair, Airbus, Archer, Beta, Joby, Lilium, Wisk or others, or you think the whole eVTOL space is going to come to a screeching halt, advanced air mobility (AAM) themes dominated more than just industry sessions and press conferences at these events. While I don’t believe the new breed of AAM/UAM aircraft will displace helicopter operations, the eVTOL/AAM/UAM conversation has some really powerful positives:

  • Time saving – last and middle-mile eVTOL travel could reduce travel times by up to 50% (depending on the distance) according to a 2020 paper issued by NASA.
  • Lifesaving – with myriad use cases under development, unmanned UAVs can rapidly transport lifesaving supplies—including blood and organs transport and helping to ensure “everyone goes home” by conducting the often dangerous and dirty jobs without putting a pilot and crew at risk.
  • Environmental health – people want non-polluting vehicles that can help reduce carbon emissions and mitigate the impacts of climate change.
  • Good business – a July 2023 study by Custom Market Insights cited the global market for advanced air mobility could be worth more than $68 Billion by 2032.

And while some say eVTOL may not be the ultimate AAM solution, it definitely advances us towards whatever that solution is going to be.

At some point, powered vertical lift aircraft may very well become as common as the growing number of electric vehicles on the roads today, able to come and go from any driveway or rooftop. Right now, however, the technology, the use cases, and the infrastructure are all still evolving. Everything from certification guidelines and regulatory & safety considerations to air traffic management systems, pilot and crew requirements, and infrastructure needs (among others) still being defined.

Despite the proliferation of AAM/UAM products making international headlines, a Jetsons-style life isn’t reality just yet. And that’s okay. It might be 62 years after the debut of that iconic cartoon sit-com, but we are still nearly 40 years away from the period depicted. So just because we’re not there yet, doesn’t mean we’re not going to get there. In fact, the UK’s recently announced Future of Flight roadmap has both piloted and unpiloted cargo and passenger operations becoming a ‘regular way of life’ by the end of the decade!

And when you consider where we ARE with some of the other high-tech gadgets and capabilities the Jetsons had, how far off could the transportation pieces really be?

  • On-demand communications like the Jetsons “televiewer” – CHECK. Thanks to laptops, cell phones, Zoom, Teams, FaceTime, etc. we can be connected to friends, family, customers or bosses instantly, from anywhere.
  • Smart ‘things’ – CHECK. How often do you ask Alexa, Siri, or Google to turn on this, unlock that, tell you about the weather or play a song?
  • Automation – CHECK. We may not be able to work only 3-hours a day like George, doing whatever it is that George did, but industries from automotive and aerospace to manufacturing, oil and gas refining, waste management, food processing, packaging, warehousing, and healthcare, among others, have been fully transformed by automation technologies.
  • Cleaning robots – CHECK. While house cleaning robots may currently be limited to variations on the Roomba for floors, pools and windows, the AI-powered humanoid robots actively in development for a whole host of applications are really cool!

Embracing the art of the possible is what advances capabilities. And a relentless drive to turn those possibilities into realities is what advances not just industries, but societies.

Though my position in our industry is now different, my role remains the same: to partner with iconic industry brands, upstarts, technology innovators, analysts and media to tell the amazing stories of innovation and opportunity that help advance the narrative of the awesomeness of aviation’s future… and I couldn’t be more excited.