Scaling up UAM as a Commuting Service

Doctoral Candidate’s Model Helps Airport and Regional Planners Explore the Feasibility of an Urban Air Mobility Commuting Service

Mark Kotwicz Herniczek knew he wanted to work in aerospace engineering for most of his life.

“My dad was a fighter pilot in the Air Force, which led to my interest in aerospace and aviation,” says Kotwicz, who earned a bachelor and master’s degree from Carleton University, one of Canada’s few dedicated aerospace schools, in 2017.

Looking to expand on his graduate school research around methods for predicting propeller noise, Kotwicz applied to top U.S. aerospace engineering programs and was drawn to Georgia Tech after meeting with faculty member Brian German, Ph.D., co-director of Center for Urban and Regional Air Mobility (CURAM).

“Brian’s work focused on aircraft design and included an emerging area at the time — Urban Air Mobility (UAM),” recalls Kotwicz.

At the time, UAM, unlike the commercial aerospace industry of the past decade, represented a fresh opportunity “to be part of something that was changing and growing very quickly,” he says.

At German’s suggestion, Kotwicz applied for the highly competitive  ACRP (Airport Cooperative Research Program) Graduate Research Award (GRA), awarded to doctoral students pursuing promising applied research on airport and related aviation systems issues. 

Funded by the Transportation Research Board (TRB) in collaboration with the FAA, the program awards recipients a one-year stipend and pairs the researchers with industry experts who could help them bring their research “to a higher level of relevance and importance,” Kotwicz says. At the end of the year, the researchers present their research at TRB’s annual meeting.

Kotwicz was one of 12 researchers selected for the 2018 cohort. His project explored the feasibility of deploying UAM vehicles as airport shuttles that would provide a faster, more reliable and comfortable method of transportation to the airport, by flying over road congestion and potentially offering an expedited security screening process.

“Essentially, we tried to answer the question: if we wanted to bring commuters in or out of an airport, where would we be able to place vertiports within or near the airport region, to facilitate that kind of mission? Also, what would the impact of different types of airspace restrictions have on that kind of mission?” he explains.

Through the program, Kotwicz was paired with FAA staff and industry professionals, including Danielle Rinsler, then a senior advisor/FAA liaison in the Office of Outreach and Project Development, Build America Bureau for the U.S. Department of Transportation.  Rinsler, who now is a senior manager of Aviation Policy at Amazon, has remained engaged in Kotwicz’s research, serving on his doctoral thesis committee.

Rinsler says she’s impressed with Kotwicz’s research that identifies the practical challenges that airports and cities will face when planning for broader deployment of eVTOL services in the future.  

“It’s one thing to have low volumes of these services, but when we begin to scale the services, it becomes much more challenging,” Rinsler explains.

Kotwicz’s research identifies what needs to change in the way airspace is managed in the U.S. and globally to accommodate more of these services. According to Rinsler, his work touches on the different components, from the physical infrastructure, including identifying where these aircraft should land and depart from, to the airspace challenges of integrating these new emerging technologies – insights that also apply to electric aircraft that will take off conventionally.

“Having a dynamic tool that enables us to look at the interactions between the infrastructure and the airspace and also think about where the demand is coming from will be crucially important,” she concludes.

In addition to policy experts, Kotwicz consulted with air traffic management personnel at major airports, among them, Los Angeles International Airport, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.

“Being able to talk to air traffic controllers and airport operations personnel for some of these airports really elevated the relevance of the research,” says Kotwicz.

This early research proved foundational to Kotwicz’s doctoral studies. His initial research focus included a broad range of areas, from high-level vehicle performance analysis and vehicle sizing to battery modeling, and more recently, UAM operations research. For the latter, Kotwicz has created a framework based on public datasets to help airport and urban planners evaluate the feasibility of UAM services in a given region.

“My thesis research focuses on the UAM commute option – to identify service areas of interest, optimize potential vertiport infrastructure placement for those areas, and investigate the impact of parameters such as UAM ticket cost and constraints such as vertiport size on the feasibility of the service.”

The framework also addresses airspace optimization, to minimize its complexity and decrease air traffic controllers’ workload by making their airspace as simple as possible.

“The simpler the airspace, the easier it is for everything else to work and the safer it is,” the Georgia Tech researcher says.

On the question of vertiports serving airport commuters, Kotwicz says Atlanta’s international airport is laid out well for “scalability of UAM operations to some degree.”

“Based on discussions with the tower control in Atlanta, there’s a direction there where you can potentially place vertiports north of the runways, which completely separates UAM traffic with existing commercial traffic,” he says.

In contrast, scaled-up operations at LAX and DFW are expected to require the adoption of new technologies, procedures and regulations.

Kotwicz says he found that very small-scale operations are possible in the near term but once these flights are scaled up, infrastructure issues emerge.

“[Using my framework], you quickly recognize that it’s very difficult to get throughputs of thousands of passengers per day without dedicating significant land area to vertiports,” he says. “Vertiport capacity and vertiport size are two major constraints without even considering airspace safety and complexity issues,” he adds.

Kotwicz expresses hope that his research contributes to the safe and thoughtful adoption of urban air mobility, as well as improving public understanding regarding the feasibility and scalability of UAM commuting services. He is scheduled to defend his thesis this spring before graduating in May with his Ph.D. and remains excited about the future prospects for continuing a career in the UAM research sector.