Tech Insights

The Impact of Battery Performance on Urban Air Mobility

November 26, 2023 by John Nieman

Urban air mobility vehicles are developing and could transform commutes worldwide by offering new routes and reducing traffic congestion. Battery performance is a central issue, and a new simulation model has integrated battery lifetime, atmospheric temperature, and other key variables to improve research on urban air mobility. 

Battery-powered aircraft that shuttle passengers to work and home seem like a quaint cinematic depiction of the future. But the future is here. The Federal Aviation Administration, NASA, and key private sector stakeholders are exploring and developing this new field of transportation.

 

Urban air mobility vehicle in flight.

Urban air mobility vehicle in flight. Image used courtesy of National Renewable Energy Laboratory 

 

Urban air mobility (UAM) refers to using innovative battery-powered aircraft to transport passengers and cargo relatively short distances. One major hurdle in making UAM a reality is maximizing battery performance, and aerospace engineer Matthew Clarke from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has developed a model incorporating more specific variables, such as atmospheric temperature and battery lifetime, to predict battery performance successfully. 

 

The Rise of Urban Air Mobility

Traffic is a daily nuisance for many but also an engineering problem. As the electric vehicle market expands rapidly to accommodate the collective pivot to renewable energy, a new transportation sector is rising: daily on-demand aviation. The UAM sector would serve shorter commuter routes for smaller numbers of passengers. A practical example of a common commuter route UAM could serve is the trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco. 

Advancements in battery technology have made this sort of local aviation possible. Yet limitations in battery performance are the primary challenge for making UAM a scalable, cost-effective solution.  

 

Battery Degradation and Route Modification 

Currently, there are no UAM passenger routes in operation, but a recent survey found that 41% of experts in the field estimate that it will only be a couple of years until there is a leap in operability that results in the practical implementation of UAM technology. This context is critical because the field is in the research and development phase and needs more sophisticated models to guide the next wave of innovation. 

Clarke’s battery degradation model fills this research gap and helps engineers improve UAM technology. His model tested four separate UAM vehicle configurations, and the average passenger or freight weight was designed to max out at 925 pounds. The model assessed an average of eight daily flights, which would be typical for a UAM passenger vehicle, and the battery was recharged after every flight in the simulation. 

 

Clarke’s study included four aircraft models.

Clarke’s study included four aircraft models. Image used courtesy of UIUC

 

The most significant finding was that after operating for just a year, there was a precipitous 45% drop in battery performance, indicating a pressing need for innovative solutions and workarounds. 

Clarke’s model has already provided one critical insight that might impact flight patterns for UAM passenger routes. The simulation has demonstrated an important correlation between nautical miles flown and the battery's lifespan. Flying just slightly shorter distances can dramatically improve the battery’s window of viability. For example, if you fly 80 nautical miles per day, the battery can last up to 200 days, but if you expand the trips to 100 nautical miles per day, the battery lifespan drops to 100 days.    

As engineers develop battery technology and build up UAM infrastructure, these improvements in modeling will be critical for supporting the advancement of this growing transportation sector. 

 

Urban Air Mobility Growth, Grid Implications 

There are a variety of complications when it comes to seamlessly integrating UAM passenger routes into existing transportation infrastructure. Concerns abound about how the FAA will regulate and control local air traffic, but for engineers, the added stress on the utility grid is of particular importance. 

Electric vehicles and their expanding charging infrastructure will create considerable electricity demand in the coming years. Experts estimate that in California alone, a 15-fold increase in EVs hitting the road will require a 42% increase in electricity production by 2035, or the grid will not be able to function without serious power outages. With UAM experts anticipating rapid growth in the immediate future, the bigger challenge of expanding the electrical grid to support this growth looms large. 

 

Electric vehicle use is projected to impact power demand.

Electric vehicle use is projected to impact power demand. Image used courtesy of IER

 

Despite such complications, UAM passenger routes offer an exciting and futuristic solution to transportation problems. With more research and testing, battery performance will improve, and the UAM sector will take off into the uncharted territory of local commuter routes in the sky.