NASA RAM Report – The Foundation of a Rural Air Renewal



Airports are closer than most people think, NASA says

As with so many developments in telecommunications and broadband, rural areas can be the testing ground for the next generation of air transport. This is one of the important implications of the recently released NASA report, Regional Air Mobility (RAM).

Investors, community leaders, policy makers, industry and the general public are the target audience for this aptly named report. Although published by NASA, the authors are drawn from academia, the aviation industry, capital markets and, of course, NASA. In short, the report shows how the country’s 5,000 existing airfields provide a starting point for low cost electric aviation.

“RAM takes advantage of the plethora of existing and underutilized airports across the United States, eliminating the need for vertical take-off and landing. “

The premise is that RAM will provide reliable, efficient and affordable transit from 50 to 500 miles and take the strain off hub airports; 17 of them are expected to be limited in capacity by 2030.

The scalable approach suggested in this report does not require the huge initial investment in vertiport infrastructure, as required by Urban Air Mobility (UAM). While UAM may look like George Jetson’s future, regional air mobility is the extension of traditional air travel beyond the airport hub. To be clear, UAM and RAM are complementary and, over time, probably start to fade.

Improving the quality of life thanks to more accessible aerodromes #

In many ways, the way forward is that which was envisaged in 1946 with the adoption by Congress of the National Plan for Integrated Airport Systems (NPIAS (PDF)). The goal was to ensure that all of the American population lived within 20 miles of an airport. The hope was that these airports could serve as a catalyst for economic development in their communities.

This future was disrupted by the advent of the jet and its need for longer runways. The number of passengers required per jet flight to achieve equilibrium has eliminated the commercial viability of many destinations. The approach described in the RAM document offers the possibility of reversing this trend. It even suggests that there might be enough savings to reduce or eliminate the Essential air service program, which subsidizes travel to some rural airports.

An image of the RAM report showing the customer journey.
An image from NASA’s RAM report showing the customer journey.

The report features “Voices from the Near Future” on how RAM will transform travel. These fictional stories of different characters paint a picture of how pairs of rural or underserved airports could positively impact people’s quality of life;

  • a harassed Bakersfield couple who were able to escape for a cheap weekend on Catalina Island,
  • a farmer from Iowa who has to visit his father in Mexico City for an unexpected surgery,
  • a town in southwest Texas served by low-cost, unmanned, super-quiet freight deliveries,
  • a quality assurance inspector who must occasionally travel between Groton, CT and Newport News, RI.

It goes without saying that such a service must be safer and more affordable than alternative modes of transport. Echoing Darrell Swanson in his recent interview with Viodi View, having community-compatible planes is the key to success. NASA research suggests that the noise problems associated with electric airplanes may be a thing of the past with their engines being quiet and the resulting torque.

“The plane of tomorrow may be able to climb fast enough and use engines and propellers quiet enough so that the plane’s ‘noise footprint’ – the region where a person on the ground can hear the plane – is contained. within the airport limits. “

As touched on in one of their fictional use cases, the cheap and fast movement of goods can have as much social value as the movement of people. For example, 28% of the US population does not have same-day or day-to-day access to Amazon’s service. In addition, like the current airline model, the shared use of freight and passengers will help RAM’s business model.

Aerodromes as energy hubs #

The report suggests that increasing local demand for electricity will improve the return on investment of renewables.

“By introducing another large consumer of local energy, either directly in the form of electric power or other energy storage products that harness renewable energy from airports, RAM can dramatically improve the ROI potential of airports. local airport renewable energy projects – without causing some of the headaches associated with moving or storing advanced renewable energy elsewhere on the grid.

Indeed, the aerodrome becomes an energy hub for communities, where energy production and use are practically at the same point and therefore transmission losses are much lower than traditional methods.

Solar panels on farmland courtesy of USDA.
Solar panels on farmland courtesy of USDA.

This is an area of ​​continuing research for NASA, as they examine “how much solar energy generated by airports could offset or even eliminate the electrical loads of regional aircraft from the national power grid.” NASA highlights TRB research which identified 225 existing renewable energy airport projects.

The expansion of AMR will often be in rural areas, where there is sufficient land for the implementation of solar energy. Private land in the areas surrounding rural airports appears to be in a good position to implement so-called agrivoltaics and help electrify the local airport. This would provide farmers with another source of income, while potentially increasing the efficiency of the farm, according to research from the National Laboratory of Renewable Energies.

An interstate relief valve #

US Highway 95 at the Idaho-Oregon border.
US Highway 95 at the Idaho-Oregon border.

Another positive impact of RAM will be the removal of cars and trucks from the interstate and interstate roads across the country. RAM offers the possibility of extending the transport network with a much lower investment in fixed infrastructure compared to land modes. It also complements these modes, whether rail, river or road.

The Transportation Research Board recommends that the United States spend $ 45-70 billion annually over the next 20 years to maintain the Interstate system; it does not include money to improve access and throughput. From an infrastructure perspective, public investment is already in favor of air transport, as Peter Shannon of Radius Capital suggested in a 2018 article that every dollar of annual spending on roads supports 22 miles flown each year, compared to 205 passenger miles per year for similar investments in aerodrome infrastructure.

As the report indicates,

“Significant investments have already been made to maintain this infrastructure [airfields] and RAM will just allow more people to use it “

Shannon, who also reviewed the NASA report, suggests that RAM is a nodal transport network that has the benefits of

  • create direct connectivity between each point
  • no path infrastructure to build or maintain (author comment: other than the signaling / communications channel)
  • flexible capacity
  • resilient to disturbance (such as mesh communication networks)
  • Small footprint and easy stacking in already developed areas

The shared nature of air travel is also likely to drive the demand for shared autonomous electric shuttles to transport people to and from city centers and help solve the first / last mile transport problem from the airport.

Prepare for take off #

RAM will be scalable according to NASA
RAM will be scalable according to NASA

While the transition to electric flight looks set to take decades, the NASA RAM study suggests an evolutionary phase that builds on existing infrastructure and systems. For example, FLOAT Shuttle offers a subscription service that uses a conventional Cessna 208B to transport up to nine passengers between general aviation airports in Southern California.

This approach lends itself to an evolutionary upgrade path where aircraft electrification and various forms of flight automation are gradually implemented in an economical and safe manner. It may seem like it could take forever to electrify U.S. airfields, but, as the report points out, it took less than a decade for the number of U.S. automotive electric charging stations to grow from 541 to 78,301.

Finally, the report suggests that for regional air mobility to reach its potential to transform travel for the better, everyone – including policymakers, consumers and researchers – will need to contribute to realizing the vision.

Remarks #

According to the report, FLOAT Shuttle charges as low as $ 29 one way or $ 1,250 per month for a monthly subscription. This is similar to Viodi’s rough modeling of a trip from San José to Merced that could cost using an electric plane.

² The increased level of security that might be required at airports which have low security because they currently do not provide commercial service is not explicitly addressed. The implication is that at some of the smaller airports this is akin to private travel as “users will often be able to park near the aircraft itself”. It looks like there will be a way to ensure safety, especially since the destination could be on the airside portion of a larger hub airport.

³An aspect not mentioned in this report is the smooth ride. In other words, given the short distances and the relative low altitude flight path, will the ride be more turbulent than what people are used to with traditional jet travel? If so, will it be reprehensible enough to limit the passenger market?

Author Ken Pyle, Editor-in-Chief


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