The Asia-Pacific region has been a key market for VTOL (helicopter) air charters (true on-demand air taxis) and for scheduled airshuttle services for decades. While helicopters came to the fore in the Burma campaign in 1944 with the deployment of the Sikorsky R4, the first commercial civilian helicopter, the Bell Model 47, played a major part in the Korean War not only as reconnaissance helicopter, but also as a medivac / air ambulance, saving countless lives. Today VTOL air mobility plays an important transportation role in the Himalayan region in Nepal and Northern India especially, while urban and peri-urban helicopter airtaxis and airshuttles have been, and are in use, in many major cities and metropolitan areas, like those of Ascent in Manila and Blade in Mumbai and Pune.
While the aircraft with the associated noise and sustainability are important, one needs to look at the operating models and the various players that are active or are entering the eVTOL market.
Traditionally, air charter / airtaxi services have been provided by Part 135 or equivalent commercial operators of both CTOL (Conventional Take Off and Landing) and VTOL (Vertical Take Off and Landing) aircraft, whilst regional airshuttles are provided by Part 135 operators and airline passenger aircarriers, which feed into the bigger regional, national, and international aircarriers hub operations.
What we have seen starting with Lockheed Martin’s Evolux Technologies flight/ride hailing /sharing app in 2008 (pre Uber) followed by Blade Urban Air Mobility in 2014, Airbus’ now defunct Voom in 2017 and Asia’s own Ascent and Blade India, is how such services contract in helicopter operators to provide the flights. Ascent last year entered into a deal with Embraer’s EVE to provide Ascent with 100,000 eVTOL flying hours.
A new trend is the advent of a full service (build, own, operate) air carriers, like EHang, Embraer’s Eve, Joby Elevate, Lilium, Hyundai’s Supernal, and Volocopter, for urban air mobility. It seems judging from Joby’s acquisition from Uber and EVE’s recent deal with Ascent, that the ride hailing / sharing apps will be provided by companies like Ascent, Blade, Evolux, Flapper and Uber.
While noise has been a major concern for urban air mobility since the first recorded passenger UAM flight in New York on 9 July 1953 (New York Airways) VTOL operating costs have not been a major inhibitor for more widespread use, as has high landing fees and capacity constraints, not only in terms of the number of public helipads and heliports, but also throughput constraints (no of flights / movements per hour) for any helipad or heliport.
To be of optimal value, urban air mobility must supplement other mid-mile services like rapid bus transit and rail, as well as integrate with first and last mile surface mobility and airline operations, so any vertiport should ideally be located at existing airports, train stations and bus terminals. Station rooftops will make ideal vertiport sites, whilst airports should have space for a vertipads adjacent to or on top of the terminal building(s).
Key infrastructure players in the Asia Pacific region are the UK’s Skyports (with Volocopter in Singapore) Australia’s Skyportz (with Electra.Aero in Australia). Dronext in Japan and the UK’s Urban-Air Ports (partenered with Hyundai’s Supernal).
I have deliberately ignored the much-hyped flying cars (roadable aircraft). While they do have emergency service and law enforcement applications, they are very much nice to have recreational vehicles and appeal to the supercar owner, who is looking for something new to play with.
For urban mobility, we are looking at commercial aircraft under development, and this is not limited to pure eVTOLs (vertical takeoff and landing) or eSTOVL/eVSTOL (aircraft capable of both conventional and vertical take-off and landing, like the Leonardo AW609 and Joby S4. A number of companies, like Airflow.Aero and Electra.Aero, are developing eSTOL (short takeoff and landing) aircraft that would only need a 100 meter / 300 ft long runway (equivalent to 3 adjacent vertipads ) to operate. While there are large number of urban airfields and airports in North America and Europe that will allow for eCTOL (conventional takeoff and landing aircraft) to be used for urban air mobility, space is at a premium in most major Asian cities.
China is the dominant player in electric aerospace in the region with Japan having one company, Skydrive, and South Korea three, Korea Aerospace Industries, Hyundai’s Supernal and Hanwha’s 30% stake in the US’ Overair. The two main and global Chinese players are Ehang and Geely’s Terrafugia. Other Chinese companies include Autoflight, the Chinese aerospace giants AVIC and COMAC, MuYu Aero, Pantuo, TCab, Volant Aerotech, and Xpeng’s HT Aero.
EHang is the first and only Asian company to formally start the type certification process with the EHang 216 under the auspices of the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) in 2021. EHang is listed on the US NASDAQ Stock Market (EH) and is the one of only two Asian eVTOL companies that feature on SMG Consulting’s Advance Air Mobility Reality Index. The other is Hyundai’s Supernal.
The Asia-Pacific region is a key market for UAM and for premium transportation modes in markets like China, India, Singapore, and South Korea that have significant concentrations of dollar millionaires and notoriously heavy road traffic. UAM will certainly complement other mid-mile transportation systems, but will need to well integrated with eScooter, ride hailing, taxi and other transport services to ensure seamless integration and a complete intermodal transport / mobility as a service solution for cities.
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