Urban Air Mobility in Asia (Part 2)

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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.

In Part 2 of the discussion, panelists take questions from the audience.

I’m sure you’ve heard the adage: ‘Buy land God’s not printing any more of it.’ This is equally applicable to spectrum. I’ve just been reading situations where first-mover advantage has overcome technical inadequacy in platforms. The relevance of this preamble: In the same space you’ll have UAV-based package delivery competing for both real estate and for spectrum, and probably preceding your business model by about five years. What measures are you putting in place to secure the real estate in this spectrum to enable autonomous urban air mobility?

Derek: I’d like to start by saying this spectrum problem is a universal problem. It’s a topic which still has ongoing debate, even for our air to ground connectivity for commercial aircraft. We are still also looking at how we achieve the right network spectrum. It’s about working together with our network architects to be able to understand what the future connectivity requirements of the vehicle will be. That is also complex because we need to reflect that and how the spectrum is able to offer us the space to ensure our vehicles are always online. That’s important for us to make sure our vehicles are always traceable and to not have blind spot, especially when our vehicles are flying in cities.

 

You’re all painting a vision for the mid-2020s, in terms of the systems, different vehicles, and networks that will be operating. Do you see a need for common standards — infrastructure, vehicle design, or the types of batteries being used — to prevent close ecosystems from forming. I’m thinking about it from the perspective of, say, we have an Apple ecosystem, as well as an Android ecosystem, which aren’t compatible with one another. What happens to infrastructure in the cities when the systems aren’t compatible? Are there standards being formed? And, if so, who is driving those?

David: I think that all of us are working with the different agencies. In my opinion, this comes down to the certification. We were at CES [conference, organized by the Consumer Technology Association] this year and it was interesting how many cities came up to us to understand this technology. Those are the big questions — related to engineering and certification — that EASA and the FAA will be asking. I think the industry, not just Bell, must come up with what those standards will be together. Safety is paramount. This is the focus for all of us and no one will fly this aircraft if it’s not safe. This will be a challenge. But we will have to take into account what the certification will end up being.

Derek: Airbus is already participating in this. We work closely with EASA and the FAA and are also present with our Project ‘Skyways’ in Singapore to be able to write the project document together with the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) to develop these drone regulations. With the FAA we are participating in the Auto Pilot Program (APP). We are also present in Europe, participating in these drone tracking ID topics. Beyond all of this, Airbus – as a traditionally commercial aviation company – is represented on the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA), which is responsible to try to galvanize the industry needs and requirements. For Airbus, we find that such associations and international organizations will be helpful to be able to contribute to these complex problems that we’re trying to solve. The reason is because, unlike just stopping the journey at airports, we’re going into urban spaces. By going into these spaces, city councils become involved, national development agencies become involved. To work we need these agencies to ensure a specific transport infrastructure is going to be open to allow for any type of vehicle to be able to land on it because a city will never allow for a monopolistic action by a single vehicle provider to be able to land on a single, fixed spot of prime land in a city.

 

It appears the technology has outpaced the regulatory environment. What kind of commitments are being made from regulatory agencies to ensure this technology becomes useable and doesn’t just get lost in a bureaucratic certification process?

David: Its all of us working together through industry cooperation, direct contact and working with the FAA and EASA. We are having to write the regulations, and this is a part of the challenge too. We’re committed to working together. What we do see is that the agencies are open to discussion – which are all having conversations about this. I wish we had a set timeline, but unfortunately we don’t have that at the moment.

Derek: For Airbus, we’re trying to achieve this in baby steps. In Europe, we have worked on the European Innovation Partnership and signed an informal MoU with 25 cities, 12 of which will embark on demonstrated projects. The reason why I mention that is not that Airbus is forcing these cities to look at drone adoption. But it is cities themselves that are wanting to learn how to integrate drone adoption, and these technologies, in their everyday lives. Through that, regulators will be looking at how to develop the right regulations in baby steps. First, they’ll look at parcel delivery drones and later on look at passenger drones and eVTOL. We’ve also signed an MoU, in Singapore, with EASA, CAAS and Airbus to be able to co-write some of these regulations. So, we’ve all agreed to work together to solve the common problems. The next step is about public demonstration – being able to prove and gain the trust of others. Lastly, it’s also about public acceptance. Once the public is convinced the regulators will write the right rules. At the end of all this safety is paramount.

 

What’s the noise signature of these products in comparison to traditional rotary-wing products?

David: I don’t know specifics on the decibel level. Compared to current model it is quieter. Going into the urban environment, we must know the noise signature on these models because of noise pollution. We focus on that with the Nexus – our current design.

 

What percentage of flying into the city is noise abatement and what percentage is safety? The fear of having a crash in the city versus the noise of disrupting people.

Lionel: Safety is always the highest one. These are two different matters that we address. So far, in the cities we are in, noise is not the major concern. This is due, in part, because of the frequency of flights, which is not as much as, for example, Sao Paulo. Safety is the big deal for us.

Denon: The biggest concern, in terms of city transportation – for Jakarta and Manila, is the large population. One of the requirements from the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) is to propose a route that is accepted by them. Despite all of the activity in the air, we must always ensure the safest routes. Every route that we propose must also have the chance for emergency landings.

 

On the topic of safety: How do you vet the operators you’re using? How do you think about auditing or monitoring the operators?

Lionel: We select and look for deep audits of the operators and the way the perform each operation. We need to be sure that according to their environment the operator is certain of the way they fly and maintain their fleet.