On-Demand Aviation: Governance Challenges of Urban Air Mobility ("UAM")

20 March 2020

The first generation that has never known a world without smartphones and social media may be close to making the world forget about traditional cars. Investment is pouring into urban air mobility (“UAM”)—the local, on-demand movement of people and goods by air using a range of piloted and semi- and fully autonomous electric aircraft that take off and land vertically. In fact, the innovation of aerial ridesharing at scale—a technology that is still very much associated with the 1960s cartoon series “The Jetsons”—may be at market as soon as 2025, according to some estimates. UAM—which is also referred to as on-demand mobility (“ODM”)—will revolutionize urban transportation and personal mobility and impact matters from airspace management and property rights to environmental matters and safety in unknown ways. For example, UAM will compete, supplement, and/or exist alongside traditional air and ground traffic operations, while in other cases, traditional transportation nodes such as airports might be intertwined and become a functional element of UAM systems themselves. To say that airports and the communities surrounding airports need to understand and anticipate the effects and opportunities of the UAM market is an understatement. This article addresses the emerging UAM market, including the relevant technologies from a legal and regulatory perspective. In conceptualizing a new world in which UAM is real, this article will explore the various stages of legal, regulatory, and technological development of UAM. It will also address practical questions such as how UAM and traditional transportation aviation operations might coexist in shared airspace and if and how communities will respond to environmental concerns such as UAM-generated noise. In all, this article presents the substance and scope of UAM governance as presently configured, and where gaps exist (and many do), explores the regulatory and socio-technological challenges posed by advances in autonomous-, self-, and optionally-piloted aircraft systems.