Urban Air Mobility in Asia (Part 1)

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Asia is at the forefront of urban air mobility, with cities like Jakarta and Manila, presenting an opportunity for testing and growth. OEMs predict technologies, such as eVTOL, will come to the market in the mid-2020s.

At the Rotorcraft Asia Conference, in April, David Sale of Bell Asia Pacific, Derek Cheng of Airbus Urban Air Mobility, along with Lionel Sinai of Ascent Urban Air Mobility and Denon Prawiraatmadja of Whitesky Aviation, sat down with ASG’s Chairman Max Buirski to discuss the future of this new technology.

It’s not that easy to fly around cities, especially in Asia. What can the industry do to make urban air mobility accepted to these cities?

David Sale; Managing Director; Bell Asia Pacific: The fact is that, today, the more companies there are flying helicopters around cities, this will pave the way for those of us [eVTOL and UAV companies] in the future. Whitesky Aviation, in Jakarta, and Ascent, in Manila, are at the forefront of this before the industry can move on to more autonomous flying. I encourage people to utilize their helicopter services and take their flights in Jakarta and Manila.

Derek Cheng; Head of Asia-Pacific; Airbus Urban Air Mobility:  To add on, it’s also about working closely with cities and regulators to be able to open urban skies. For that I turn to our civil aviation colleagues to make this a reality. I think some progress has been made to have regulatory sandboxes to be able to allow some of these small drones to fly in Singapore. But going forward: how do we bring this to an enhanced category for passenger mobility and I think that requires us to work together to be able to understand this and co-share data and convince the public that this is a safe and reliable service.

Denon Prawiraatmadja; CEO; Whitesky Aviation: Each country has a different challenge. In Indonesia, we understand that regulations are ensuring a high safety standard. Because at the end of the day, any kind of transportation flying around Indonesia must comply with the safety standards. Operators must ensure that these are met. In Indonesia, we have some strict regulations to comply with. For example, we’re only able to fly between 6am and 6pm. The industry is trying to lobby the government to extend hours.

Lionel Sinai: Founder & CEO; Ascent Urban Air Mobility: In terms of operation, most of the cities we are looking at – flying helicopters is a question of context. Jakarta and Manila are fairly easy cities to fly in, however, there are constraints. Thankfully, we don’t have many noise pollution constraints, so far. For Ascent, when we decide to enter into a new country, we look for the best partners that will provide the highest levels of safety; In the Philippines, this is a partnership with INAEC Aviation. This is for flying helicopters today. If helicopter operators are successful, in terms of how the operation is launched and if its scalable, then this will make it easier for David and Derek (OEMs) to introduce new platforms to bring into this ecosystem and this will hopefully help those fly, in harmony with regulators.


There’s been a lot of talk about when eVTOL technology will replace the traditional rotorcraft, particularly for urban mobility. How do you think of your investment and balancing between the traditional rotorcraft and this new technology?

David: We must balance. We’re investing in current products, but we’re also looking at the future. We look to be flying in the mid-2020s. But the challenge is going to be the regulatory piece of all of this. If you see the Nexus that we brought out, it’s comforting to see that – and we’re all in agreeance with this – it’s optionally manned. We’re going to not only have to convince the regulatory side but the general public to fly this aircraft. By mid-2020s this could be flying and mid-2030s this could be there. But again, I look to the challenges of aircraft certification and the regulatory piece of being able to fly.

Derek: For us [Airbus] there will always be a role for helicopters because it serves different types of missions. We’re looking at eVTOL technology to be able to push the needle and to create an urban vehicle that is optimal for city flying; 30 to 50km serving airport to city missions. And to be able to bring that into that level of economy, we’ll need to look at electric propulsion. And of course, there are other options, such as hybrid. For us, we believe firmly in electric technology.

We’ve invested into different technology bricks and one of those examples is about autonomy. Autonomy isn’t just about looking at how we will make our passenger drones autonomous. For us it pertains to the entire autonomy road map for the entire industry. You may have read that Airbus is looking at single-pilot operations, whereby future commercial aircraft may be flown by just one pilot, while being supported on the ground. Similarly, the detect on the voice systems on these urban vehicles allow us to strengthen the technology bricks so that these can be fed into the overall aviation roadmap for autonomy. When you asked will eVTOL technology replace traditional rotary missions – No, I think it will compliment the existing portfolio that Airbus has.

Lionel: I would agree with that. At Ascent we crafted the company from the start to make sure we can incorporate — when ready — such platforms that come along. We know that in urban environments, for short distances, eVTOL will make more sense to replace turbine helicopters. For longer distances, helicopters remain the main option available.

Denon: For us, I think we need to educate the industry in Indonesia to understand how to optimize this kind of transportation. Of course, we will need to wait for the readiness of the OEM. For an emerging country, like Indonesia, we need to promote this kind of transportation — not only for traveling within the city but to support and airline activity.

From an OEM perspective, I understand you believe this will come soon. How do you think of this technology from a support perspective? An entire support chain must be put in place.

Derek: To start, I’d like to remind everyone that this UAM topic is a brand-new industry we are trying to co-create together with different partners. That means we need to create the support and services element, as well. The future vehicles will be electric and that means we need to think about, not only spare parts replacement, but how we will create charging infrastructure, battery swapping for performing missions and what this infrastructure would look like — a single parking lot or a dispatched area to allow for a high frequency of traffic. There are many areas in the support and services that need to be looked at. Additionally, we’ll need to see how we can use digital to create more unmanned traffic management services. This is a multi-dimensional topic.

David: When you see the slides I presented before, you’ve seen how Bell must manufacture its current platform and how we’ll manufacture the newer platforms. The engineers will have to decide on how we manufacture. The technology that’s how there today allows us to manufacture in multiple places. We’re centrally located here in Singapore. But how that’s going to go into the future: what’re the time between overhauls (TBOs) on certain things, where and how will you get your electric energy, and how often do these things have to be changed. These all come into, in the end, how we certify this aircraft. So, until we get to that point, we’ll be constantly trying to understand how to sustain the infrastructure here and disperse it.  

We are excited about the eVTOL, but right now for Bell its ‘H’. The reason we think it’s a hybrid is because of the distances that need to be travelled. We’re focused on the hVTOL, for now. We are, however, looking more at the longer distances.

The mobile booking app system – the Uber model for helicopters; how do you balance the relationship with the operator, where effectively you become the client-facing entity and the operator may feel they’ve lost something. Is it a difficult balancing act? Or, have operators been open to this concept.

Lionel: For me, a platform like Ascent is just an upside to an operator. We bring a B-to-C perspective, which is something operators typically don’t focus on as much. We also become a strong partner, in terms of distribution channel, and we help to maximize optimization of their inventory. We also help to acquire sales. So, for the operator its really just an upside to use these platforms.