Varon Vehicles recently announced a joint collaboration with Jaunt Air Mobility – the eVTOL aircraft developer – to help accelerate the idea of urban air mobility in Latin America.
And more recently, it announced a similar partnership with TruWeather Solutions, which will help integrate weather and micro-weather capabilities into Varon Vehicle’s Traffic Management Systems (TMS).
Led by CEO and Founder Felipe Varon, Varon Vehicles aims to create a new transportation network of vertiports and virtual lanes – starting off in Colombia, and the partnerships with Jaunt and TruWeather Solutions are vital pieces in the ecosystem jigsaw.
eVTOL Insights spoke to Felipe in more detail about the Jaunt partnership, but he also provided some detail about Varon Vehicles’ plans for cities in Latin America in the years to come.
Q: What has Varon Vehicles been up to since we last spoke? It seems like it’s going to be another busy year for you.
Felipe Varon: “We are very focused on our plan for 2021, which is to start our exhibitions phase and that has a lot of things happening in the next two to three years. We finished 2020 with the consolidation of our ecosystem and were very happy with our first company summit – Skyscraper 2020 – and are now trying to adapt to this new COVID reality.
“This year, we are focused on two very important aspects. Number one is public acceptance and number two is the legal framework in which to operate. So, public acceptance; you know it’s not just the general public. It’s communities over where we’ll be flying, politicians, policymakers including Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) officers. It is also land regulators and so on.
“I think public acceptance is really, really important right now and may even be the number one thing we need to achieve. And that’s important strategically so that once we start actual implementation, we find open doors, instead of closed ones.
“The other thing we need to start achieving is the legal framework in which to operate. We’ll be launching our first infrastructure network in Colombia and have a chosen city, so we are already moving our chips in terms of land allocation, working with the airport and other places where we’re going to have operations. And we’re also working with the CAA as we develop and design the airspaces. The vehicles will probably be piloted by regular pilots at first, but down the line we need to move away from pilots and we need to move into what we call operators.
“They’ll probably be experimental aircraft at first, eventually they’ll need to have their own regulations and that’s where the Colombian CAA really desires to have a global leadership and be a spearhead leader in that regulation side. We’re seeing a very positive environment and to achieve those two things is our focus in 2021, and probably for the next couple of years.”
Q: I completely agree with the public acceptance element, Felipe. What is Varon Vehicles going to be doing to make more people aware of this kind of technology, do you have any initiatives or projects in store?
FV: “Yes, we have a clear roadmap and a minimum viable product, which is very important. We will be able to disclose more about this in the next months, but it’s a very specific plan to target those two specific strategic purposes.
“The minimum viable product does not entail flying anywhere and transporting anybody or anything. We are planning to start operations and servicing in our chosen city in Colombia between four to six years. But to get there we need to pave the way, and paving the way not only means the integration work on the technological side which of course we’re carrying out, it means having the proper public acceptance and a proper legal framework in which to operate.
“So we’re setting out to do that right now. And there’s a very clear way how we are working with several dozens of partners and collaborators, eventual service providers, technology providers and hardware providers – all the way from the air vehicles to airspace integration systems, the vertiport systems ground systems etc. It’s all across the board.
“And it’s by showing people what it is that we’re doing, how we’re doing it, who we’re doing it with and where these technologies are coming from. That’s what we need to achieve and that’s why we’re announcing these partnerships and these collaborations.”
Q: In all the work you’ve done for Skyscraper 2020, how much of an impact has the virtual summit had going forward with these partner companies and also, for potential new ones which want to see what you want to achieve in Colombia?
FV: “It has been tremendously positive. That not only includes our existing partners in Latin America and the United States, but it also involves new companies and entities reaching out to us and saying ‘I have this capability. We’re designing these systems or we’re developing these systems, we want to be part of what you’re doing.’
“So we have seen a tremendous growth and really encourage that. Because there’s a crucial thing here. We’re all inventing a new industry. Collaboration is really picking up and we’re seeing a lot of desire from everyone to work together in partnership. That’s fantastic because within urban mobility, none of us are competitors. And when you think about it, it’s because the underlying problem we’re trying to solve is not from within the aviation industry. Skyscraper 2020 was tremendously positive to propel building and enhancing our ecosystem.”
Q: Can you tell us more about the background behind this joint collaboration with Jaunt Air Mobility?
FV: “We’re identifying the real potential air vehicle providers. We will operate more like an airline, in terms of having different vehicles depending on the business case, the location of infrastructure networks and the configuration required for the vehicles.
“For example, it is not the same to have a patient transportation business between hospitals in Lima, Peru, which is sea level, than a freight transportation service in Bogota which is very high ASL. Those will require different configuration of our vehicles, a different capability in terms of altitude over sea level and probably payload capacity.
“We’re going to have one or another type of air vehicle, and we see about 400 different ideas already. But it turns out that just a very small fraction of those are from companies which are capable of providing air vehicle fleets. Those which can undergo a proper aeronautic design, certification of their vehicle and producing and manufacturing aircraft.
“And that has to do with traceability and a manufacturing capabilities, and then companies which are able to support its fleets in terms of MRO. So we have to identify which companies promise to have those capabilities. And we have started working with those companies including Jaunt, which is very interesting. So we’re very happy to work with them as it develops its vehicle. There are a few out there already flying and operating, but it’s about being capable of providing aeronautical-related air vehicle fleets. That capability is very important.
“So we are working with them as they develop their vehicle, and as we develop the parameters for operation in which those air vehicles are intended to operate in. Our [transportation] system is the ecosystem in which they will be operating, and which probably several other air vehicle brands are going to be operating in. So we need to work with these OEMs in partnership from this moment to develop those parameters and to make sure that the integration is actually happening.
“The air vehicles will need to be operated by real people that we will need to provide, the air vehicles will need to service real customers – whether it’s for logistics, tourism etc., so we need to make sure that’s correctly integrated into the business models for the predictive business. These vehicles need to charge and we need to manage them.
“That’s why it’s important to collaborate with air vehicle and subsystem providers, aeronautics systems and airspace integration systems, with vertiport systems, ground systems and energy systems. All of those partnerships are happening at Varon Vehicles.”
Q: Jaunt’s Journey eVTOL aircraft is currently on course to be operational by 2026, so what will be happening before then between the two companies?
FV: “We are very confident that Jaunt’s aircraft design is a vehicle that is properly targeted to real urban air mobility operations and intend to have it as part of our fleet. But before we actually get there, we have to work together to achieve the legal framework and public acceptance. We’re very confident this partnership will support us in achieving that public acceptance in the roadmap we have in our strategy.
“So we are working together to collaborate and show people what it is that we’re doing, why it is safe, what type of air vehicles these are, what types of services we’ll be able to provide and what is the value for mobility and for people’s quality of life that we can bring by using Jaunt’s Journey aircraft.
“We’re focusing on ways in which we can show them why these air vehicles make more environmental sense, offer more urban applications than helicopters, and why these vehicles are safe. Jaunt is a great partner and we’re looking forward to when we can disclose what we’re going to be doing.”
Q: Can you tell us more about what the reaction is like in Colombia, and where you see the potential advantages and challenges? I understand the country’s CAA is very supportive of Varon Vehicles.
FV: “We’ve always seen tremendous support from the Colombian government and civil aviation authority, Colombian Air Force, Colombian aeronautics industry and from local partners in the country. And they are part of our ecosystem. – it’s all of us making this happen.
“We’re also seeing the same thing regionally, in Latin America. Colombia is actually leading the way in terms of spearheading the whole effort. As we enter our exhibitions phase, it’s all about showing and conveying the right message to people. There’s a lot of futuristic thinking and I love that because I’m a technology guy, but we have to convey realistic messages because otherwise, we won’t create the proper grounds for what we are doing. Expectations need to be managed properly and it’s really important that we transmit the right message.
“Part of the right message is: what is the problem we’re trying to solve? We’re all from within the aviation industry box and tend to answer that it’s traffic. The solution is that we’ll fly over the problem. We think that’s a mistake and the wrong assessment.
“At Varon Vehicles we believe that, at least in Latin America, the urban situation is quite unique. It’s very much unlike the USA and other developed countries. Traffic, high pollution levels, poor air quality and inaccessibility of cities and parts of cities – they are not the problem, but symptoms. We think the underlying problem is a lack of mobility infrastructure.
“That’s why you do not see urban sprawl in Latin America. That’s why you see very small, densely packed cities with some of the worst mobility problems on the planet. It’s not the traffic. It’s not the air quality. It’s because we don’t have overwhelmingly capable governments able to provide road systems and metro systems – we’re lacking that and this is the underlying problem we’ve identified.
“It’s not an aeronautics problem, it’s a city development one and for us, Urban Air Mobility is about providing the proper mobility infrastructure to alleviate that pressure for city growth. Governments in the region are systematically incapable of providing that proper mobility infrastructure because of the immense – and impossible to achieve – cost of not only refurbishing existing road systems but providing new physical mobility infrastructure to allow cities to grow properly.
“So here we come in and say we’re bringing a legacy from aviation, a new type of mobility infrastructure that does not require per-mile physical infrastructure. You can place an airport in New York and one in Dubai, without needing to build anything in between and can fly to generate the connection. We’re saying to governments and urban developers that we have a way to create new connectivity, and just need to place vertiports here and there without the need to build anything physical in between to generate connection.
“That’s where the potential for disruption lies and why we’re seeing such positive traction and support from Latin America in general. The deep problem is here.”
Q: Can you expand more on the infrastructure side of the ecosystem? There is a lot of focus on eVTOL aircraft and rightly so, but infrastructure is a vital part of the puzzle which needs to be in place before the first services launch.
FV: “We believe the word infrastructure, when seen within the aeronautics box, is immediately reflected to refer to the vertiports. Because in aviation, the infrastructure is the airport. I think terminology is really crucial in creating our new industry. For example, what urban air mobility is in the United States is not really urban in Latin America, and regional air mobility in Latin America isn’t really regional in the US, so there’s a factor about terminology as we create this new industry.
“When we say infrastructure, it is not the vertiports. We see urban air mobility in its entirety as infrastructure. It’s a new type of mobility infrastructure and the potential for disruption lies in the fact that it does not require physical construction per mile unlike road systems and metro systems where you need to build the roads, bridges, tunnels, etc.
“There’s very high per mile cost in physical mobility infrastructure, so here we come with this legacy from aviation and say we can approach the problem in a different way. We can generate connectivity without the need for per mile construction and that’s where the potential for disruption lies. Not in aviation, but in mobility infrastructure.
“So we have a plan already set. But it’s not only about the air vehicles, as challenging and cool as they are. They are a component of the entire system. We are working in laying down the grounds of the air vehicles side, airspace integration architecture side – which has a whole host of branches from weather systems to route generating systems. Then to the ground systems that include the vertiport designs and energy systems.
“We are working in pre-selected locations in cities in Colombia. We’re working on those airspace routes over cities. And we are preparing everything to make this integration happen between technologies. That’s why the public acceptance and the legal framework strategy is an integral part of our plan all the way to the time we start operating.”
Q: Thanks, Felipe. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
FV: “It’s just about getting the right message out there in order to manage expectations and achieve public acceptance. We have to be very realistic and what we are doing is saying that urban air mobility is something that has to do with mobility as a service, something that will resemble more a metro system.
“We have vertiports instead of stations, virtual lanes instead of tracks, and instead of trains we have our VTOL vehicle fleets servicing between our vertiports. That in its entirety, is a new form of mobility infrastructure. It allows many different potential transportation services to be provided to many sorts of different customers – aerial logistics chains, tourism – which is very important in Latin America, law enforcement, government applications, disaster relief, emergency response, medical uses, and many others.
“We’ll also be partnering with ride hailing companies, through which we will be providing air taxi services for their end users. We are already having these conversations, and air taxis are a big part of this large pool of potential applications for urban air mobility.”