Helicopters, advanced air mobility and emission reductions

By Paul Callister and Sandra Callister

Debates about the use of private helicopters have been taking place in Tāmaki Makaurau. Residents of Herne Bay, Waiheke Island, and Aotea Great Barrier Island have opposed landings and take-offs from private properties. People have talked of “decks shaking, crying babies and flying deck chairs – with early morning noise breaking the peace for neighbouring properties” and the disturbance to nesting birds. There have also been some safety worries. However, a new concern has been raised. Auckland Council has been accused of holding different standards on cutting climate emissions, asking people to reduce car use but not helicopter use.

While noisy internal combustion engine powered helicopters coming and going from a few private properties in Tāmaki Makaurau have attracted attention, under some ‘green growth’ scenarios there is the potential for thousands of electric powered flying vehicles creating a new level of ‘low emission’ mobility within Aotearoa New Zealand’s cities and regionally. This would herald a new golden age of personal mobility, or as the enthusiasts describe it, “advanced air mobility” (AAM). No longer would we need light rail to the airport in Wellington or Auckland. Flying taxis would be used. And, in fact, with vertical take-off inter-regional planes as part of this green growth future, the airport for regional flights might be in the centre of town. Under this scenario, the currently uneconomic Kāpiti airport would again be thriving.

And autonomous flying machines would be dropping off our pizza orders.

Our current helicopters are, of course, an amazing piece of technology. They can rush people from remote rural locations directly to hospital, pluck injured trampers off hillsides, or lift distressed sailors from a churning sea.

But there is also helicopter-based tourism, including heli-skiing in the South Island, wine tours to Waiheke Island, and Forest & Bird advertised trips that include helicopter transfers. This is one of the many reasons why New Zealand has lots of helicopters. According to Civil Aviation Authority of New Zealand data, there were 889 registered civilian helicopters in New Zealand in 2019, up from 761 in 2010. According to international data, the civilian fleet in the United States of America in 2019 was 9,348. On a per capita basis, this means we have roughly six times as many helicopters.

Helicopters use lots of fuel and as a result are heavy emitters of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. Helicopters use much more fuel than fixed-wing airplanes because their rotors are responsible for creating all the lift. A fixed-wing aircraft uses the engine to propel the plane forward, with the wings generating most of the lift. In addition, the rotating rotor blades of a helicopter will cause a lot of drag when the helicopter cruises.

Helicopter manufacturers are aware of the need to decarbonise and offer up the same set of solutions as for fixed wing aircraft, promoted as moving to ‘zero emissions’. But as we know for fixed-wing planes, none of these solutions are without major challenges. For example, it is possible that the biofuel used to run them might be made primarily with food crops or palm oil and contribute to our environmental problems rather than solve them.

Advanced air mobility

There are startups all over the world promoting flying cars  in various forms and small electric planes for regional travel. In an interview in late 2021, the CEO of Volocity set out his vision for AAM:

Volocopter is working on three types of eVTOL vehicles: the VoloCity, a two-seater urban air taxi; the VoloConnect, for traveling between cities and suburbs; and the VoloDrone, for transporting cargo. VoloIQ, the company’s digital platform, is designed to connect all of these services and allow consumers to book flights easily. Volocopter is one of several eVTOL companies that have recently gotten considerable traction in the investor community; the company has raised more than $350 million in equity and has formed partnerships to bring its services to a number of cities, including Los Angeles and Paris.

If one thinks this is only the vision of fantasists, look at the just released Victoria state government AAM strategy document. In a ministerial forward it is stated:

Globally, the Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) sector is moving fast, with several companies seeking to enter the market from 2024-25. This fast-approaching horizon further emphasises the necessity for governments to develop the foundational structures, systems and market frameworks required for AAM.

The use of AAM in Victoria has the potential to revolutionise logistics, service delivery, emergency services, regional connectivity and passenger transport – providing opportunities for improvements in safety, time, cost and noise. As a zero-emission transport mode, AAM will also support the decarbonisation of our society.

In its Innovation for a Green Transition 2022 Environmental Report , the United Nation’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has a chapter on flying cars.

Archer Aviation, based in Palo Alto, California, USA, is working to build an electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft and aerial ridesharing service that will move people throughout congested cities in a quick, safe, sustainable, and cost-effective manner. Through their work both on their eVTOL aircraft, and with partner cities such as Los Angeles and Miami, they are laying the groundwork to curb the growth of urban congestion, and the resulting historic levels of emissions in populous areas.

Closer to home, Tātaki Auckland Unlimited is working with Wisk Aero, creator of autonomous air taxis, to help bring them to Auckland one day.

There are also regular media stories about larger electric planes, including those that can take off vertically. These are seen as transforming regional air travel. In fact, some airlines are now promoting this concept as a way of getting people out of cars and onto ‘zero emission’ planes. This is despite the energy and emissions benefit of passenger rail for many of these journeys.

Such visions gloss over challenges. Many of these electric flying machines turn out to be harder to produce than initially advertised, with often major range issues.

Another is the huge amount of renewable electricity required to keep these machines in the air. The laws of physics still apply to these descendants of helicopters. They use lots of power. As we decarbonise the whole economy, scarce renewable electricity would be better used to heat houses, power our buses and electrify our whole rail network.

There are also serious concerns as to whether there are enough minerals and other materials available to manufacture the vehicles.

But, even if possible, is this a future we really want? While probably quieter than helicopters, having our skies increasingly filled with flying machines would create other problems, including safety. And would this be only an option for the well off, while most of us wait in a queue for the low emission, low energy use electric bus?

We now need to carefully consider how we manage helicopters and the flying machines that may eventually replace them. There are clearly some new policy issues emerging as we try and dramatically reduce emissions, while at the same time trying to make our cities better places for all people to live in. The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment has recently published a discussion document called Aotearoa New Zealand Aerospace Strategy with submissions just closed.

Further thoughts on these issues can be found in our report, Chickens, roosters and helicopters: Emissions, noise, flying cars and a fair transition.

3 thoughts on “Helicopters, advanced air mobility and emission reductions

  1. First Law: If you want to make a small fortune from aviation start with a large one.

    The number of helicopters in USA is given as 9348. That corresponds with the number of commercial helicopters given here: https://www.statista.com/statistics/778282/commercial-helicopters-fleet-size-country/

    Many if not most privately helicopters in NZ are Robinson R22, which is in essence a microlight (and R44, 4 seats). I very much doubt it counts as ‘commercial’ in the US. But yes, the rich like their toys.

    I will have lost my pilot licence long before the skies become darkened with electric fixed-wing let along rotary-wing dreams.

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