January 2024
The Power of Advanced Aerial Mobility: Implications on the Ground as We Take to the Skies
<a href="https://sundbergferar.com/author/lynnaea-haggard/" target="_self">Lynnaea Haggard</a>
Lynnaea Haggard

Marketing Manager

The Power of Advanced Aerial Mobility: Implications on the Ground as We Take to the Skies

While flying cars still seem like something you only see in the movies, this emerging technology is upon us — or perhaps more literally, above us.

More than 150 companies are developing air taxi projects[1], while in 2021, the estimated global market hit $8.5 billion[2]. In recent years, advanced air mobility (AAM), which refers to the next generation of accessible, efficient and sustainable air transportation systems, has extended to even more applications, including the following:

  • Electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft: These small electric aircraft, which have multiple rotors or propellers for taking off and landing vertically, are currently being developed for urban air taxi services and short-distance transportation. Hybrid variations of these aircraft, known as fixed-wing eVTOLs, can transition from vertical to horizontal flight, enabling them to cover longer distances.
  • Electric airplanes: These traditional airplanes are powered by electric motors instead of internal combustion engines. Developed for regional flights, they’re intended to reduce emissions and operating costs.
  • Delivery drones: These autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) are being used for various applications, including package delivery.
  • Personal air vehicles: Designed for personal use, these small aircraft can travel short distances and are envisioned as a mode of individual transportation in the future.

If done right, these vehicles should unlock benefits like providing new levels of convenience and time savings, reducing emissions and congestion in urban areas, enabling people to access previously unattainable places of work, education and leisure and moving time-sensitive cargo quicker and more efficiently than ground transit. But if we take our eyes off the ideal outcomes of AAM technology, we could end up with a technology that does more harm than good.

Meeting these goals might seem like a long shot — and to be sure, it’s no small task. As innovators race to make these and other AAM technologies a reality, there are still technological, social and regulatory barriers impacting the innovation process for AAM vehicles.[3] There is also a lot of work to be done in reforming public perception of this emerging technology.

Fortunately, the right design thinking can help. Let’s take a look at how human-centered design strategy can help us shape the social impact of AAM technology, understand stakeholder needs and perceptions of AAM, and tell a compelling, research-driven story that can help make these next-generation technologies a reality with a positive impact.

AAM Innovation Strategy for Positive Social Impact

To understand how aerial mobility affects people and communities, we must approach our design process across the entire lifecycle:

Pre-launch: Design, material procurement, production and transport. Before AAM technologies even hit the market, companies face social considerations like conducting fair labor practices, promoting employee health, safety, equity and diversity, and respecting the rights of the local communities. Taking these actions will set up the AAM industry to make positive social contributions that support the health and longevity of the company and those around it.

Product design strategy and purposeful context of use. Beyond the company’s operating principles is the design strategy itself. In particular, we must ensure we’re designing AAM technology for a purposeful context of use — i.e., taking into account all the stakeholders, such as the pilots, riders (in the case of passenger aircraft) and maintenance technicians, to name a few.

Potential considerations at this phase include designing for the diversity of the target audience. For example, for regional air taxi services, it’s important to consider everyone — from the professionals commuting between offices each day, to the families traveling for a weekend getaway. There are also those who will interact with the vehicle and its infrastructure in less direct ways. For example, to make AAM solutions viable over a long lifespan, it will be important to design them with the technicians in mind, providing them with straightforward maintenance access, design for repairability and the incorporation of safe procedures.

Stakeholder research and community engagement must occur prior to and during the design phase. These processes help us understand the preconceptions that exist in the AAM use-case and aid in gathering feedback that informs design iterations. Alleviating negative experiences and unfavorable perceptions in the design itself is paramount to the long-term positive social impact of not only your solution, but the future of the AMM category.

Post-launch: Use cases and end of life. Once the aircraft is ready to take to the skies, we encounter a different set of considerations. A much-heralded benefit of AAM technology is the potential to help make communities more sustainable in the long run by deploying passenger aircraft in dense yet growing urban areas. Designing AAM aircraft capable of carrying lots of people and cargo quickly to their destination reduces ground congestion and allows communities to use their spaces for healthier, more enriching purposes. Another highly anticipated AAM use case is public service — such as medical transport or emergency response.[4] An unmanned drone will deliver medical supplies between facilities, or a passenger aircraft will transport first responders and medical personnel to their destinations more quickly than currently possible using ground transport.

Because there is far less flexibility to make changes to AAM technology post-product launch, the strategy and design phases are of utmost importance in ensuring the solution’s success “in the wild,” as well as an appropriate end-of-life process. However, players in this space can maximize their chances of success even after product deployment through ongoing stakeholder support — including education, training and collecting feedback via continued research — that will inform the next-generation design.

Determining Infrastructure, experience and ecosystem. Each AAM solution is as unique as the use case it addresses. But one thing all companies and communities have in common is the need to collaboratively strategize what AAM infrastructure should be — physically, functionally and experientially — and how their solutions fit in to truly be sustainable. For example, until standards emerge for AAM infrastructure, companies in this category must find ways to strategically partner to ensure a cohesive infrastructure strategy and experience regarding things like ports, routing and and airspace management.

For example, there will likely be various types of people passing through an eVTOL port, such as riders, pilots, maintenance technicians and traffic controllers. There are also secondary functions to consider — like space for vendors to sell goods and pre-boarding seating for riders. A myriad of practical implications affect the social impact of these ecosystems and must be addressed by the infrastructure.

Just as important as functionality is location. Research shows that access to reliable transportation and short commute times are key to increasing upward economic mobility.[5] Imagine the benefits of transit options that allow riders to quickly and regularly travel in urban areas without getting bogged down by rush-hour gridlock.

On the flip side of these and other benefits, it’s important to also consider the potential downsides of neighborhood transportation hubs, such as increased aircraft noise and the fire safety concerns[6] that come with battery-powered electric vehicles. In short, as we plan for AAM infrastructure, we must account for its impact on the surrounding community.

So, what are the barriers to achieving the large-scale adoption and social benefits of this technology?

The Missing Link in AAM Design

With all the technological and logistical hurdles keeping AAM technologies on the ground, perhaps the most understated barrier is public perception and acceptance. Say we pass the required legislation and meet all the technical requirements. How, then, can we achieve mass adoption?

The answer is to shift our focus away from warm and fuzzy vignettes of utopian mobility experiences, sexy aircraft renderings and other context-less visions of cutting-edge AAM technology. Instead, we need thoughtful, believable storytelling that addresses the user experience while showing how the benefits of mass adoption outweigh the drawbacks.

Grounding Our Evidence

Using a human-centered design and innovation strategy, we can successfully replace vague, inspirational visions with carefully calculated storyboards, animations, proof-of-concepts and user experiences based on robust research. At Sundberg-Ferar, research is an integral part of our design process, enabling us to gain insights and build confidence in our design direction.

One recent and successful example of this approach involves LuftCar, a U.S.-based startup that is developing a “flying car” that works as an eVTOL and road vehicle. Luftcar had developed an initial CAD model but needed to elevate and mature its concept for investor pitching and funding. Applying our human-centered design expertise, we worked closely with this company to successfully evolve and refine its design, creating more realistic parameters while achieving LuftCar’s cargo storage capacity goals. You can read more about this case study here.

LuftCar is just one example. As part of our human-centered design approach, we have helped countless companies over the years narrow their use-case focus, gain a deeper understanding of their users and develop a robust product experience through believable show-and-tell. Here are some of our tactics — and how they will take the AAM industry to new, exciting heights:

Design the right product. This step involves thinking about the use cases you’re designing for and conducting research to validate those use cases. Is there a demonstrated need for your product? Where is the market demand and how should you position your product development efforts? We know this process can be daunting — and that is why we’ve helped dozens of companies using our Genesis Innovation Strategy.

Define your target users. Make sure you’ve defined a specific user segment based on research into where the best market opportunities lie, as well as an assessment of your own internal strengths and technologies to find the intersection of both. In short, who are you designing your AAM service for? Hint: If you’ve answered “anyone,” there’s more work to do before you’re ready to start designing.

Conduct design research. This step involves researching and understanding your target users through quantitative and qualitative methods. What pain-points do your users see in the experience? What do “safety” and “convenience” mean to them? How will they use this service? What compromises are users forced to make with current options? How can we design our solution to utilize already existing behavior patterns and paradigms that users are familiar with? If solutions require a change in user behavior, how can we make that change as simple and intuitive as possible?

At Sundberg-Ferar, we’re no stranger to conducting comprehensive design research to identify people’s needs, fears and desires in a variety of applications — and not just in the emerging AAM market. For example, we captured the unique experiences of administrators, teachers, parents and students contending with remote learning during the pandemic. We also dove into the wants and needs of retirement-age individuals in a senior community, changed the game for teens using football equipment and created an enjoyable, emotionally fulfilling eating experience for those with disabilities.

Make a decision — then ideate. Empowered with all this research and evidence, it’s now time to choose which specific pain-points your AAM experience will address and ideate. Part of the design phase, this step involves creating rough sketches, models and prototypes, testing and validating these concepts with users, and providing designers with feedback. In our workshops, we love to uncover information from users on their likes and dislikes, all of which inform the design direction.

Tell the story and prove it. Finally, creatively and compellingly tell the story of the experience you’ve created, and make a clear connection to the problem you’re solving for your users. Use tools like prototypes, storyboards, photos, videos, illustrations, proof-of-concepts and animations to show the experience is believable and within reach. Finally, prove the validity of the solution by tracing it back to your research and user data.

We’re Here To Help You With Your AAM Design

The design and innovation process for AAM technologies of course includes many ambiguous stages. Which market segment should you pursue? What needs are you addressing from all the pain-points that surface in your research? How do you decide which concept to prioritize and develop?

Answering these questions requires experience. Fortunately, we’ve been practicing new product development and human-centered design for nearly nine decades and would love to help you take the guesswork out of this journey. Whether you’re a large company or a startup, we’re here to help you create a unique, socially conscious and environmentally friendly AAM experience for all stakeholders.

Unsure of your next strategic step? Drop us a line! We have many strategy and design sprints, workshops and offerings to help you get unstuck, move forward and set the stage for long-term success.

The Power of Advanced Aerial Mobility: Implications on the Ground as We Take to the Skies


Lynnaea Haggard

Marketing Manager

Lynnaea Haggard has a natural passion for storytelling and building relationships. She leverages her background in industrial design and communications to support studio projects as well as design and develop Sundberg-Ferar’s marketing and communications materials.

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