Advanced Air Mobility Market Intelligence

The Psychological Flight Path: A Roadmap Towards Autonomous Modes of Transport on eVTOLs

The Psychological Flight Path: A Roadmap Towards Autonomous Modes of Transport on eVTOLs

An interview with Stuttgart University of Applied Sciences

Prof. Dr. Patrick Planing Business Psychologist Stuttgart University of Applied Sciences

The introduction of electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft has undeniably transformed the aviation landscape. However, as the industry embraces the shift from traditional piloted modes of transportation to autonomous operations, a multitude of psychological ramifications and considerations have emerged for operators, pilots, and passengers alike. In this feature, we delve into the intricate layers of evolving social dynamics, technological advancements, and the progressively defined regulatory framework, aiming to shed light on how manufacturers and operators can navigate the transition towards widespread acceptance and implementation of uncrewed eVTOL flights.

Autonomous Flight Testing: The Passenger Perspective

With the rise of autonomous and simulated flight testing, a pressing concern looms large in the minds of passengers: flight path operations. The absence of a human pilot in the cockpit can elicit feelings of unease, a hesitancy that numerous studies on perceptions of pilotless airborne transportation have identified as a common thread. As eVTOL consultant Keith Sarich aptly questions, “What happens if communication and data feeds are disrupted due to a grid failure, and the autonomous system can no longer receive and respond to them accurately?” Additionally, how can autonomy convincingly assure users that it possesses robust security measures and redundancies to address unforeseen cyber threats or catastrophic mechanical failures?

These apprehensions are valid fears that automation must assuage in order to build a consensus that the system, in its processes and purposes, is finely calibrated to instill users with confidence, reliability, and an enjoyable experience. Picture a seamless Uber ride with breathtaking city vistas akin to an upscale helicopter charter.

Moreover, the subtleties of the passenger experience play a significant role. The takeoff and landing phases, widely acknowledged as the most nerve-wracking aspects of any flight, remain a paramount challenge in ensuring passenger comfort within an autonomous eVTOL, especially considering the unique surroundings associated with each flight path.

To address these concerns, researchers and developers are striving to create intuitive and responsive autonomous systems that can emulate the expertise and human touch of seasoned pilots. Advancements in artificial intelligence, such as the AI pilot model developed at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, leverage natural language processing and speech recognition capabilities to humanize interactions and coordination with pilots and air traffic controllers.

Thus far, simulation tests have yielded promising results, showcasing the AI’s effectiveness in navigating complex and everchanging conditions inherent to typical eVTOL flight paths operating under visual flight rules (VFR), potentially in segregated lanes.

Furthermore, ease of use and passenger interface are crucial factors. As passengers become more actively engaged in their flight experiences, operators in this emerging market must prioritize a seamless user journey as a key selling point. Initially, interacting with an autonomous system may feel unfamiliar and disconcerting to many. Therefore, an empathetic user experience (UX) design needs to be developed, one that fosters a sense of control, comfort, and safety, bridging the gap between users and automation.

Operator’s Perspective: Refinement for Efficiency and Safety

From the operator’s standpoint, autonomous eVTOLs present a distinctive array of challenges that need to be addressed. The paramount concern revolves around maintaining optimal levels of efficiency and safety in uncrewed operations.

Operators must develop robust fail-safe systems, ensuring their ability to conduct maintenance tasks swiftly and reliably, and regularly update the machine learning algorithms that govern the aircraft’s functions. In this context, efficient data management and real-time monitoring systems play an indispensable role, allowing operators to predict and proactively address potential failures.

The second area of concern pertains to air traffic control for eVTOLs. As the skies become increasingly populated with autonomous aircraft, a sophisticated system must be in place to manage the escalating volume of air traffic and facilitate the safe coexistence of autonomous and piloted flights. Regulatory bodies like the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will undeniably exert a significant influence in shaping the management of competitive and uncontrolled airspace, with an unwavering commitment to ensuring absolute safety.

It is anticipated that substantial capital investment and collaboration with aviation regulators will be necessary to formulate and establish operational frameworks that fulfill the unique safety requirements of eVTOL systems. These frameworks must also encompass compliance with existing aviation regulations, even as they factor in the integration of non-automated aircraft sharing the same airspace. The fact that Joby Aviation has taken the lead by becoming the first Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) company to receive certification from the International Standard for Business Aircraft Operators (IS-BAO™) is a testament to their dedication to safety commitments within this sector.

The resolution of these operational challenges will undoubtedly have a direct impact on user trust and the rate of adoption of eVTOLs as a viable mode of transportation.

Psychological Implications: Changing Perception is Key

In light of the current eVTOL landscape, the shift towards autonomous eVTOLs undeniably carries significant psychological implications for both users and operators.

Potential users must overcome biased perceptions that inherently mistrust machine capabilities when compared to human competence.”

For pilots, an existential crisis looms on the horizon as the cockpit empties out. Their roles are undergoing inevitable transformation, transitioning from aviators to instrumental operators overseeing autonomous systems. Nevertheless, pilots are poised to remain indispensable in mitigating operational risks and ensuring passenger safety. They will serve as a vital component in a complex safety system that will likely involve advanced AI interventions for assistance.

As the pilot shortage looms large, exerting pressure on existing commercial aviation operations, automation developments within the eVTOL domain could potentially address the manpower shortfall while simultaneously safeguarding pilots from burnout resulting from overloaded flight schedules.

Trust emerges as the psychological linchpin in driving the implementation of autonomous eVTOLs. Drawing from the realm of self-driving cars, the concept of “trust in automation” becomes equally relevant here. However, it is important to emphasize that multiple levels of trust are at play in eVTOL operations. These levels encompass trust and perceptions towards various aspects of the eVTOL ecosystem, including trust in flight technology, trust in automation and regulatory systems, and perceived trust in the operator.

Perceived trust simultaneously includes people indirectly involved within the ecosystem. The European Union Safety Agency (EASA) has conducted feasibility studies across Europe, shedding light on the significance of considering concerns from local residents and the broader public regarding their surrounding environment. Factors such as noise levels in an increasingly crowded airspace could potentially disrupt their way of life, necessitating careful attention. According to EASA Executive Director Patrick Ky, the agency’s first worldwide assessment (Environmental Protection Technical Specifications) for regulating noise levels to facilitate type certification of eVTOLs will become a benchmark to both measure and limit aircraft noise emitted during different stages of an eVTOL flight.

Building trust among users and operators hinges on perceiving the autonomous ecosystem as reliable, transparent, and capable of effectively handling unforeseen circumstances. Therefore, operators must clearly communicate the capabilities of their autonomous systems, providing substantial evidence of their dependability. Business psychologist Prof. Dr. Patrick Planing suggests that eVTOL companies should take a crucial step by conducting additional pilot studies and test rounds, offering the general public more exposure to the technology and opportunities to witness or experience autonomous systems in close proximity.

Potential users could be afforded the chance to familiarize themselves with autonomous eVTOLs in controlled and simulated environments, potentially supported by virtual reality. This approach would undoubtedly alleviate embedded concerns and fears surrounding the flight experience. Through deeper interaction with automation in action, perceptions of flying autonomously can gradually change on a larger scale than currently available.

As of the time of writing, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has recently unveiled a blueprint outlining plans to initiate small-scale air taxi operations utilizing existing infrastructure and implementing gradual procedural changes in flight corridors to accommodate the growing eVTOL traffic flowing in multiple directions. Created collaboratively with industry stakeholders and NASA, this blueprint aims to serve as a guideline to support further research endeavors and steps towards implementation. It also seeks to instill confidence among the general public by demonstrating the presence of expert authority driving this solution forward and enhancing mobility for a diverse range of users.

Moreover, attention should be paid to the messaging when promoting and marketing eVTOL services. Emphasizing and educating users about the perceived benefits, such as time and cost savings, as well as enhanced convenience, will be crucial in shaping public perception. The framing of how accessible this mode of transport will be for the general public is likely to shape perception regarding the value proposition of autonomous flight; whether the service benefits a wide social demographic or is limited to the exclusively privileged will influence the extent of both acceptance and resistance to its introduction.

When it comes to the ambitious goal of achieving fully automated air travel, eVTOL manufacturers like Archer and Joby Aviation have recognized the single-piloted model as a practical starting point for scaled operations. However, unlike autonomous cars, the general public is accustomed to entrusting pilots with the safe navigation of aircraft through airspace. Professor Planing raises an important question about whether introducing autonomous flight from the outset would necessarily be met with a high level of apprehension, considering that passengers are often unaware of the extent to which automation controls the aircraft behind the cockpit door.

Assuming significant advancements in regulatory approval and seamless technological integration, the mounting concerns regarding security and safety can gradually subside. At that point, the focus can shift optimistically towards the perceived benefits and advantages of autonomous travel.

Just as the introduction of commercial supersonic flight in 1976 provided passengers with a historic view of the Earth’s curvature at 60,000 feet, the emergence of a new mode of travel that offers enhanced time efficiency, affordability, and personalized flight experiences will undoubtedly evoke a range of emotional responses. Whether it sparks amazement at the democratization of air travel, dictating our schedules on any given day, or triggers residual apprehension about potential system failures, the introduction of autonomous technology in the AAM sector is bound to become a fiercely contested area of opportunity.

The journey towards fully autonomous flight encompasses not only technological and regulatory challenges but also psychological ones. While the anxieties and concerns of passengers and operators are significant, they are not insurmountable. The future success of autonomous implementation has the potential to significantly impact the planning and construction of cities and civil infrastructure worldwide, considering this mode of transportation. By conducting continuous testing, adopting user-centric designs, fostering trust, and demonstrating empathy, the industry can navigate through these psychological obstacles toward a future whre autonomous eVTOLs are as commonplace as hailing a cab.