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Wharton Students Tackle Urban Air Mobility with Honeywell’s Help

Wharton Students Tackle Urban Air Mobility with Honeywell’s Help

Before long, a new breed of smaller, cleaner and smarter air vehicles will take you from midtown to the airport, transport vital medicines to isolated communities and deliver important packages to your doorstep. That’s the conclusion drawn by students at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School who recently examined the future of urban air mobility with Honeywell’s help.

Urban air mobility refers to a new model of aviation using aircraft that can take off and land vertically. These aircraft exploit recent advances in batteries, miniaturized sensors and computing power, along with distributed electric propulsion technologies. Many companies, from startups to established aircraft manufacturers, are developing prototypes, and governments are hurrying to update regulations for their arrival.

That activity makes urban air mobility an ideal case study for academics, said Dr. Rahul Kapoor, a strategy professor at the Wharton School.

Passengers board an urban air mobility vehicle in this artist's rendering.

As part of a course focused on technology management and strategy, Kapoor recently invited Jia Xu, Honeywell’s senior director of strategy for UAM and unmanned aerial systems, to review and comment on case studies prepared by about 150 students working in small groups.

 “Engaging with UAM was a perfect way for students to learn about an emerging technological domain with enormous potential for business and society,” Kapoor said.

The students were asked to research the market, identify opportunities and roadblocks, and predict which UAM applications will be realized first.

“UAM is an ideal subject for this kind of analysis,” Xu said. “The students did a good job analyzing the research materials we provided and were quick to understand the challenges that come from working in a highly regulated industry like aerospace. It was great to work through the structured frameworks they used to address potential technical, regulatory and public-acceptance barriers to adoption.”

Cargo and Passenger Models

The students shared a variety of opinions about the near-term future for UAM and UAVs, with most predicting that first applications will involve UAVs carrying goods. As one student put it, “My group decided that last-mile parcel delivery will come first, because it requires less investment and there are fewer regulatory and safety concerns.” 

A small drone carries cargo in this artist's rendering.

But Xu noted the important relationship between the value of the cargo and the cost of drone delivery.

“It’s sensible to say that parcel delivery will come first – and it’s true that we see a number of online retailers and other companies experimenting with drone package delivery already,” he said. “I certainly agree with the students that there’s an opportunity for urgent documents, industrial parts or medical supplies to move from place to place on a piloted, remotely piloted or autonomous air vehicle. But you also have to consider the customer’s willingness to pay.”

Moving Toward Autonomy

Today’s aviation business models are heavily dependent on human pilots and their skill levels. But advances in automation may someday reduce the labor costs, training time and weight penalty associated with human operators – as well as increase the number of aircraft operating in the same airspace.

“Our students were truly intrigued by the UAM value proposition over a broad array of applications, and did an excellent job of analyzing the possible use cases and the business models,” Kapoor said.

Real-world Applications

These debates are more than just theoretical for Honeywell, Xu told students. The company recently created a dedicated business unit to focus on avionics, propulsion and operational systems for the UAM and UAV markets.

Students said they were excited to tackle a real-world strategy problem.

“I really enjoyed this week's session,” commented one MBA student in a post-discussion survey. “The discussion was robust and rigorous in evaluating the opportunities and challenges in urban air mobility – sharing many parallels with our in-class discussion. Our class discussion helped shape my post-graduation goals to work in this industry and help unlock greater opportunities for investors and emerging companies in this space.”

Read more about Honeywell’s technology on our urban air mobility and unmanned aerial systems page.