Varon Vehicles’ penultimate think tank about the implementation of Urban Air Mobility in Latin America was another in-depth conversation which focused on the value of the region for electric air vehicle OEMs.

Held last Thursday, the panel of speakers for this session was David Rottblatt, Business Development Director of EmbraerX, Jia Xu, Senior Director of Strategy for Unmanned Aerial Systems and Urban Air Mobility at Honeywell Aerospace.

Also joining was Dr. Colleen Reiche, who leads the aviation business at Quantitative Scientific Solutions, Dr. Mikhail Klassen, Chief Technology Officer and Co-Founder of Paladin AI, and Brian Duncan, Director of Strategic Campaigns and Business Development at Bell Flight.

Moderating the think tank was Felipe Varon, CEO and Founder of Varon Vehicles, and introducing the session he said: “Urban Air Mobility is definitely a very interesting subject, something that has probably become an icon of the future of post-modernity.

“And we love to poke people’s imagination by talking about flying cars moving towards cities, going through buildings, and servicing people’s lives on a daily basis. As fantastic as that is, and as it poses the future towards where we want to go, in this nascent industry of Urban Air Mobility and Advanced Air Mobility, we do have to convey the correct message.

“And part of that complete message is graduality: how gradual we need to implement our systems, how this is not going to happen all at once but rather in a very paced way which we need to walk a learning curve to acquire know-how.

“One of the most important questions is how do we start, where do we start, how do we play this game and how do we plan? At Varon Vehicles, we have found that an ecosystem in Latin America brings a lot of value to that, because it offers a way to make it simpler. And simpler means faster, less costs and less stringent requirements for the systems.”

The topics discussed during this hour-long session included the Value of the Latam Ecosystem for Urban Air Mobility; Faster Implementation and Placing into Service; Reduced Costs/Post-Covid-19 Budget Constraints; Certification and Flight Testing, Weather Availability Advantage and the Colombia/US/FAA Relationship Value.

Starting off the conversation, Varon asked the panel what value they see the region as air vehicle OEMs or eventual providers of eVTOL fleets.

Giving his opening remarks, Rottblatt said: “EmbraerX is very much dedicated to being an ecosystem partner, we’re obviously very excited about contributing a vehicle to the Urban Air Mobility ecosystem as we’re a partner to the Uber Elevate platform, as well as developing what we call Urban Air Traffic Management – a new paradigm for managing dense low altitude airspace for the Urban Air Mobility industry.

“There’s a lot we can learn with respect to viewing Urban Air Mobility in the lens of Latin American cities and the value proposition that we hope to build for Latin American economies. Considering the human geography and how many people are really condensed into smaller areas in cities like Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo, Bogota, there’s a lot that we can learn with so many people that live in such concentrated areas.

“When I look at Latin America and see how much we can learn, I think there’s a lot to gain from looking at the experience the Voom product had in Sao Paulo and Mexico City for example, or that Ubercopter had in cities such as Dubai. Where we started with conventional forms of transportation that seeks to build on top of existing infrastructure procedures that have already been around for many years.

That has allowed Urban Air Mobility to achieve its level of maturity that we’re at today. Now we’re simply talking about the next chapter of what I think is a very exciting and successful story, but one that seeks to bring a new level of accessibility and affordability to a broader swath of the population.”

Varon then asked Xu if he could expand on Rottblatt’s points about infrastructure, from Honeywell’s perspective.

“I agree with what you and David have said in that we need an early market validation of the UAM promise. In Latin America, among other places, it is a really amazing place to do this because of the existing teleport infrastructure that’s in place, the comfort the existing people have in the helifleet business model and the empirical test cases that was pioneered by Voom for example. I’m very buoyed by those prospects, and we do need continued proof cases and incremental advances in this domain to sustain investment and efforts.

“From a component and systems integrator perspective, timing is extremely important because by the time an OEM comes to us, our systems have to be pretty far along so that we can support their mission and make sure their system will meet the timeline they have set out. That’s why collaborating with the teams here is really important to get that early socialisation of the ecosystem.”

As well as getting Dr. Reiche’s comments about what value the Latin America region can bring to air vehicle OEMs, Varon also asked for her insight on weather, and what advantages they could see in a part of the world where weather availability is an added value.

“This crawl-walk-run approach is really critical, not only for all the other elements we talked about, but specifically for the weather,” she said.

“It is going to impact many if not all of the components of the overall Urban Air Mobility ecosystem, so it’s going to be really critical for some of the initial test cases, demonstrations and lower scaled operations to be conducted in ‘fair’ weather locations.”

Dr Reiche mentioned that prior to joining Quantitative Scientific Solutions, she led an Urban Air Mobility market study for NASA’s Aircraft Management Division, which included a quantitative assessment of historic weather conditions in 10 cities in the USA.

“Essentially, we were looking at the potential impacts just due to weather could be on Urban Air Mobility operations,” she said. “We found that in many of these cities, weather could potentially disrupt operations for most than half of the operational day, and that could include all types of weather phenomena.

“That analysis really underscored the need for focusing some of these early efforts on locations where there is minimal adverse weather, mostly clear skies, minimal thunderstorms, snow, icing – exactly what we would find in Latin America.”

Adding his points to the discussion, Klassen added onto Dr. Reiche’s points. He said: “If you look at a lot of where the flight schools are located, like Florida and Spain, these are fair weather climates that are ideal for training pilots all year round, and at Paladin AI, we’re concerned about the issues involved in pilot training.

“We saw in civil aviation, an enormous shortage of qualified pilots, and then Covid-19 happened, so many of those pilots were furloughed. Some are going to choose to retire early, look for other work and then decide they are not going to return to aviation when the industry picks up again in two or three years. The shortage that was bad before, is going to be even worse when aviation recovers.

“How do you create learning environments that can bring down the cost of training, accelerate a pilot from zero to first officer, and do that as effectively as possible? What we’re doing at Paladin AI, is creating machine learning software that interfaces with the training devices and provides instructors tools to automate as much of that process as possible, to get competency metrics for that pilot.

“What a lot of people in the Urban Air Mobility market haven’t said very much about is where are the pilots going to come from, the operators of all these aircraft, what is the training infrastructure going to look like?

Klassen added that Paladin AI has already spoken to electric air vehicle OEMs about this, asking them what they imagine their training solutions are going to look like, who is going to supply their flight simulators and what level of fidelity those simulators need to have.

“Is it going to be a full flight simulator? Those are very expensive. Do we need to train on full flight simulators to get that full level of proficiency, or can we do a lot more on lower level devices – panel trainers or fixed-based simulators. And how do you qualify a pilot to be ready to fly an air taxi?

“We’d like to see analytics used in that process, to be able to objectively qualify that pilot so they can enter into this burgeoning new market which is going to supply many new jobs in Latin America and create a whole new ecosystem that’s going to be very exciting, and I think it is happening much faster than people appreciate.”

Finishing the first part of the discussion, Duncan explained he grew up in Latin America – including Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico. He said that when working for a company in Sao Paulo, if they had a VIP guest, the only way they would have two or three meetings is to get a taxi to a heliport.

“It cost a lot of money, and only a very few people had access where you could save three to four hours. From north to south, or east to west, the only way you could get to those meetings was through the air.

“But one of the beautiful things that I see here, and everybody’s in accordance is the accessibility. We’re not making this for the VIPs anymore, this is going to be accessible to the masses. It may be a service where only a few are going to have access to as the economies of scale, but the end point is having a typical Colombian use this. How do we benefit everybody, give them back time and how do we measure that?

“The labour rates in Colombia are also going to be much lower than other parts in Latin America and parts of the world, but also most importantly, very capable talent. There are people who are doctors, that unfortunately due to the socio-economic developments, are taxi drivers or bus drivers.

“There’s nothing wrong with that, but having capable talent and putting it to good use, that’s how you advance society. There’s a lot of that in Latin America.”

Duncan also added onto Klassen’s point about pilots, saying: “My Dad is a fixed-wing pilot and we pay them a lot; they’re certified and have a very specific mission, but where are we getting the talents? For UAVs, it’s a very different talent pool.”

The final think tank will take place on Wednesday, 14th October from 12noon to 1pm EDT, which will be another conversation about vertiports. To watch this discussion in full, and register for the final session visit www.varonvehicles.com/skyscraper.