Automated & Connected

(Image courtesy: SAE International/Mark DeAngelo)

Battery technology is still the key barrier to better urban air mobility

During a panel session titled “Flying Cars – Will You Have One In Your Garage?” Mark Moore, former NASA engineer and current engineering director of aviation at Uber, recalled Orville Wright’s thoughts on aviation: that it can have a daily impact on our lives.

The potential of daily on-demand aviation in and around cities is a major goal of many aerospace start-ups, including those that participated in the panel at SAE International’s AeroTech Americas 2019 event in Charleston, South Carolina. Companies like Zeva Aero, Detroit Flying Cars, and Varon Vehicles, are continuing to develop various vehicle types, whether they generate lift during forward flight or use a multi-rotor vertical flight approach, to make widespread personal urban air mobility (UAM) a reality in the coming years.


Learn more about urban air mobility


“We’re in a new age of Wright Brothers-like flight where there’s all sorts of new opportunities,” said Moore. “Some of these small companies are going to turn into future aerospace giants because they have the agility and the ability to execute and attract talent that big companies don’t have right now. We’re in a very exciting time of disruption in aerospace, especially in regard to the urban air mobility market.”

Many of these companies and their representatives have different answers when pressed with “Why is UAM taking off?” including the availability of advanced enabling technology like microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), the congestion of conventional urban mobility corridors, or the prevalence of funding from Silicon Valley entities like Uber or global engineering competitions like the Boeing-funded GoFly Prize.


Read more: GoFly announces Phase II winning teams at AeroTech Americas


However, engineers were more or less untied when pressed with “What is the major challenge for UAM engineers?”

Battery technology is still the main issue for lightweight, transportation-capable UAM systems. In order for these systems to be effective, a 30 percent of the vehicle’s weight must be dedicated to batteries or energy storage. The conversation also turned to “depth of discharge” for various vehicle purposes.

Complexity of software systems was also identified as another challenge, as the certification and validation of increasingly complex code requires significant cost investment.

All participants also acknowledged the importance of social normalization and acceptance, which hinges on noise reduction and safety being key requirements in the beginning of UAM vehicle design. The notion that these vehicles might only be expensive toys for the rich and famous also needs to be avoided

For vertical flight-type UAM vehicles, high rotor tip velocity often translates to an increase in high frequency noise during operation. Many companies designing these types of systems are investigating ways to mask or “hide” these noises in ambient “city noise” at proposed urban skyports.

With the seeming inevitability of UAM, these issues will likely be solved for. And after listening to experts as only just a few of these innovative companies, they’ll likely be solved soon.  

Also, if you missed SAE International’s recent AeroTech Americas event, there’s always a chance to participate in the conversation at AeroTech Europe this September!


Learn more


William Kucinski is content editor at SAE International, Aerospace Products Group in Warrendale, Pa. Previously, he worked as a writer at the NASA Safety Center in Cleveland, Ohio and was responsible for writing the agency’s System Failure Case Studies. His interests include literally anything that has to do with space, past and present military aircraft, and propulsion technology.

Contact him regarding any article or collaboration ideas by e-mail at