INTERVIEW: Dr. Fethi Chebli of VPorts discusses the company’s vertiport vision for Quebec and beyond

‘A new era of avi­a­tion is emerg­ing and a new gen­er­a­tion of lead­ers is unfold­ing, with Que­bec and Cana­da lead­er­ship is at stake’

The lev­el of ener­gy and enthu­si­asm for Advanced Air Mobil­i­ty’s eco­nom­ic and social promis­es is too large for Mon­tre­al’s aero­space clus­ter to ignore. Cana­di­an start­up VPorts has emerged with a bold vision for the province of Que­bec and the rest of the world. Its recent announce­ments include to deploy a net­work of ver­ti­ports in Que­bec and an AAM air­space cor­ri­dor between Cana­da and the USA.

eVTOL Insights spoke to VPorts founder and pres­i­dent Dr. Fethi Chebli, who dis­cussed his short and long- term vision and VPorts’ strat­e­gy for this new form of trans­porta­tion. 

eVTOL Insights: What is your view on the AAM mar­ket?

Fethi Chebli: “This is a promis­ing scal­able busi­ness case. Even though the word­ing is new, AAM is a very fast-grow­ing indus­try. The expres­sion ‘Advanced Air Mobil­i­ty’ was coined only in 2020 by NASA by refer­ring to in-demand aer­i­al indus­try and use cas­es. 

“The eVTOL air­craft’s relat­ed tech­nol­o­gy is almost grasped for a rel­a­tive­ly nascent indus­try. The 600+ pro­to­types, 350 com­pa­nies involved and $20 bil­lion invest­ed in the air­crafts side of AAM are a vote of con­fi­dence. This is dri­ven main­ly by a fast advance­ment in bat­tery tech­nol­o­gy readi­ness, elec­tri­cal propul­sion, and auton­o­my tech­nol­o­gy. For air­wor­thi­ness cer­ti­fi­ca­tion, eVTOL OEMs will need hours and hours of flights test­ing in dif­fer­ent weath­er con­di­tions and flight con­fig­u­ra­tions.

“They also need to col­lect data to demon­strate that their air­crafts are safe to fly and show the pub­lic that this is the safest mode of trans­porta­tion. To be suc­cess­ful and to scale dif­fer­ent busi­ness cas­es, AAM will need to address three key chal­lenges:

“The first one is relat­ed to urban inte­gra­tion and social accept­abil­i­ty. AAM oper­a­tions need to be inte­grat­ed with cur­rent cities and inter-cities infra­struc­ture in ways that are accept­able to local
com­mu­ni­ties, while pro­vid­ing ser­vices and expe­ri­ence that offer time sav­ing, good price and safe jour­neys. 

“The sec­ond chal­lenge is relat­ed to the Air Traf­fic Man­age­ment inte­gra­tion. AAM will most prob­a­bly evolve in low space, and the indus­try would need to deploy new tech­nol­o­gy and pro­ce­dures to inte­grate the AAM flights with­in the exist­ing air traf­fic sys­tem. The third chal­lenge is relat­ed to reg­u­la­tion.“

eVTOL Insights: Could you intro­duce your­self to the indus­try and how you have come to be involved in AAM?

FC: “I am an ICAO air­port expert, and as such I draft­ed and deployed reg­u­la­tions, includ­ing cer­ti­fi­ca­tion and enforce­ment in many dif­fer­ent coun­tries in the world. Based on this back­ground, it was clear for me that the chal­lenges relat­ed to infra­struc­ture and air­space need to be addressed to enable any busi­ness cas­es for AAM.

“I start­ed dis­cussing these two aspects with friends, col­leagues, and men­tors. Then, I spoke to a few investors, fund man­agers, air­line man­agers and heli­copter oper­a­tors that are involved in SPACs and direct invest­ment in eVTOL air­craft.

“As we wit­nessed dur­ing the first day of the avi­a­tion busi­ness, I believe the indus­try is grow­ing very fast, and some adjust­ments will be need­ed for a safe and reli­able busi­ness case. Very soon, some play­ers will be forced to decide about the line of busi­ness they have to focus on.

“We are based in Mon­tre­al, and we have an inter­na­tion­al ambi­tion. We are in Cana­da, the US, UAE, Brazil, Switzer­land, and we have dis­cus­sion in east Africa and India. We believe that these coun­tries will lead the AAM to the next decade.”

eVTOL Insights: What about reg­u­la­tion?

FC: “That is one of the most com­plex ele­ments of the AAM. We will need an Inter­na­tion­al Frame­work of reg­u­la­tion and we need spe­cif­ic body of reg­u­la­tions in each coun­try and/ or region. Fur­ther­more, these reg­u­la­tions need to be inter­na­tion­al­ly har­monised. It is not easy to draft an AAM reg­u­la­tion dur­ing these times. Reg­u­la­tors are fac­ing com­pet­ing forces that is gen­er­at­ing a lot of pres­sure.

“From one side, busi­ness com­mu­ni­ties, includ­ing us, are push­ing for the reg­u­la­tors to move quick­ly. The pub­lic and key stake­hold­ers main­ly in large cities are expect­ing safe and reli­able oper­a­tions. The 600+ pro­to­types span air­crafts of dif­fer­ent sizes and dif­fer­ent degree of com­plex­i­ties.

“The pace of inno­va­tion is very high, the con­cepts of oper­a­tions are high­ly diver­si­fied, the num­ber of eVTOL air­craft will be larg­er than exist­ing air­space users com­bined and the automa­tion, human / machine inter­ac­tions are expect­ed to take a larg­er space in the AAM tech­nol­o­gy. All these ele­ments should be con­sid­ered by the reg­u­la­tor.

Based on my back­ground, the reg­u­la­tors will set up a legal and over­sight frame­work that
are out­come-based, and not pre­scrip­tive of solu­tions. There­fore, the reg­u­la­to­ry frame­work will be phased in its devel­op­ment and imple­men­ta­tion, aligned with inter­na­tion­al stan­dards and reg­u­la­tions where ben­e­fi­cial in the local con­text, while being sen­si­tive to the cost bur­den imposed on the indus­try.“

eVTOL Insights: When do you think this indus­try will take shape?

FC: “I think by 2025, we will see the car­go, region­al and health-relat­ed busi­ness cas­es take shape. Reli­able rev­enues will start to be mate­ri­alised between 2025 and 2030. We believe that by 2030, con­sol­i­da­tions will shape the AAM map and should set up the foun­da­tions for a new era of the indus­try.

“But it will need the involve­ment of gov­ern­ments in dif­fer­ent capac­i­ties: Reg­u­la­tions and fund­ing of the infra­struc­ture. Gov­ern­ments involve­ment will pave the way for their nation­al com­pa­nies to lead­ing the way inter­na­tion­al­ly.

“The recent US Advanced Air Mobil­i­ty Coor­di­na­tion and Lead­er­ship Act estab­lish­ing AAM inter­a­gency work­ing groups to plan and co-ordi­nate efforts relat­ed to the safe­ty, infra­struc­ture, phys­i­cal secu­ri­ty, cyber secu­ri­ty, and fed­er­al invest­ment nec­es­sary to bol­ster the AAM ecosys­tem is fol­lowed by some oth­er gov­ern­ments.”

eVTOL Insights: Do you think the pub­lic will accept eVTOL air­craft fly­ing over their hous­es?

FC: “I think the debate about the social accept­abil­i­ty is shaped by the debate we’ve had, as a soci­ety, about Heli­copters. eVTOLs are much qui­eter than a heli­copter; you most­ly see it before you hear it. For us, the urban inte­gra­tion is a crit­i­cal ele­ment in our strat­e­gy.

“We will use the tech­nol­o­gy to assess the impact of any and each loca­tion of our ver­ti­ports. We will devel­op a dig­i­tal twin of all the cities we will be involved with to visu­alise the impact of our ver­ti­ports on the city oth­er trans­porta­tion modes. Immer­sive expe­ri­ence will be test­ed and deployed to intro­duce a real expe­ri­ence for all play­ers to have a ‘live’ expe­ri­ence of being around and in a ver­ti­port.

“I think the reg­u­la­tor will engage in a phased process, where manned air­crafts have to show their reli­a­bil­i­ty, first. Peo­ple have to be com­fort­able to con­sid­er an eVTOLs as part of their trans­porta­tion options. We need to be mind­ful and respect­ful of this shift and the social impact of the AAM on our day-to-day life.

“I think the pres­sure from the indus­try in deploy­ing unmanned eVTOLs is dri­ven by the cost of the ride per mile. It is true that the cost of eVTOLs oper­a­tion will be reduced dra­mat­i­cal­ly when these air­crafts are not manned. But the Reg­u­la­tor will need more of a com­pelling argu­ment than
an eco­nom­ic and busi­ness one.”

eVTOL Insights: What will a VPorts’ ver­ti­port look like?

FC: “Our archi­tec­tur­al con­cepts will be aligned with the busi­ness cas­es we are deploy­ing and with the coun­try we are in. How­ev­er, in all cas­es, pas­sen­gers will have to move very fast. Our vision is not to stop you, we let you fly. We need to work with reg­u­la­tors to deploy a dif­fer­ent strat­e­gy for secu­ri­ty.

“The key stake­hold­ers involved in Secu­ri­ty busi­ness have been work­ing in air­port and avi­a­tion, and some adjust­ments will be need­ed as these air­crafts are much lighter, have dif­fer­ent con­fig­u­ra­tion, speed, and source of ener­gy.

“The ver­ti­ports are much less expen­sive than air­ports, as we don’t need run­ways and taxi­ways. We would need light­ing, charg­ing, air nav­i­ga­tion aids and sen­sors to build a reli­able com­mu­ni­ca­tion with and between the eVTOLs.

“We can start with exist­ing air­ports, gen­er­al avi­a­tion facil­i­ties and heli­pads. But these are built and locat­ed to answer dif­fer­ent busi­ness cas­es and new ver­ti­ports will need to be deployed to scale AAM dif­fer­ent busi­ness cas­es. I think we are far away from air­craft fly­ing over build­ings.”

eVTOL Insights: You announced a net­work of ver­ti­ports in Que­bec and a Cor­ri­dor between the US and Cana­da, back-to-back. Can you tell us more about these two announce­ments?

FC: “For Que­bec Net­work, VPorts, UAM Geo­mat­ics, Crown Con­sult­ing, NUAIR and Innovitech team up to under­take two stud­ies: socio-eco­nom­ic and tech­ni­cal stud­ies. The socio-eco­nom­ic study aims to assess the move­ment of goods and car­go with­in Que­bec and between Que­bec and the US. Based on this first study, we iden­ti­fied key loca­tions to enable our busi­ness cas­es.

“Then, the tech­ni­cal study fol­lowed to assess oth­er con­sid­er­a­tions, main­ly obsta­cles, exist­ing air­space con­fig­u­ra­tion and weath­er. The net­work of ver­ti­ports in Que­bec is a result of these two stud­ies. Of course, this is not enough. We need next to engage with the com­mu­ni­ties and elect­ed offi­cials to dis­cuss the exact loca­tion of each and every ver­ti­port.

“Deploy­ing a net­work of ver­ti­ports to con­nect the com­mu­ni­ties in the north of Que­bec is cru­cial for us. We will start with deploy­ing our ver­ti­ports in the air­ports that are oper­at­ed by Trans­port Que­bec. Then, with the lead­er­ship of the local com­mu­ni­ties, we will iden­ti­fy key oth­er loca­tions enabling to
reduce the cost of goods, to sup­port local hos­pi­tals and health sys­tem and to pro­vide a reli­able and safe trans­porta­tion mode. We already start­ed the process and some meet­ings took place and oth­ers are sched­uled.

“For the Cor­ri­dor between the US and Cana­da, we can be spe­cif­ic now in terms of the exact loca­tions of our Ver­ti­ports. The first cor­ri­dor will be between Syra­cuse Han­cock Inter­na­tion­al Air­port (New York, US) and VPorts’ ver­ti­port in Mirabel (Que­bec, Cana­da).

“Our objec­tive is to fos­ter the estab­lish­ment of an AAM ecosys­tem that will pro­vide a plat­form for full com­mer­cial car­go trans­port oper­a­tions using eVTOLs. We estab­lished a con­sor­tium of inter­na­tion­al organ­i­sa­tions includ­ing VPorts, NUAIR, Aéro Mon­tréal, Innovitech, the Unmanned Aer­i­al Sys­tem Cen­tre of Excel­lence (Alma), Heli­jet Inter­na­tion­al and UAM Geo­mat­ics.

“The aim of the cor­ri­dors is to build an AAM ecosys­tem that will pro­vide a plat­form for full com­mer­cial car­go trans­port oper­a­tions using eVTOLs. They will allow the consortium’s mem­bers to explore all aspects of AAM, includ­ing goods trans­porta­tion, charg­ing readi­ness, stake­hold­er man­age­ment, busi­ness cas­es, secu­ri­ty and safe­ty pro­to­cols, social accept­abil­i­ty and urban inte­gra­tion of infra­struc­ture and oper­a­tions.

“We’re delight­ed by the sup­port of New York State Gov­er­nor Kathy Hochul as one of the con­sor­tium mem­bers. She recent­ly announced the State will be pro­vid­ing NUAIR with an addi­tion­al $21 mil­lion in ‘Cen­tral New York Ris­ing’ Upstate Revi­tal­i­sa­tion Ini­tia­tive fund­ing, that will allow NUAIR to con­tin­ue to cul­ti­vate the world lead­ing uncrewed air­craft sys­tems (UAS) and AAM indus­try hub in Cen­tral New York and the Mohawk Val­ley.”

eVTOL Insights: What are your next big steps?

FC: “We are going through the first round of fund­ing. NEXA Cap­i­tal Part­ners will lead the ini­tial invest­ment round, assem­bling a con­sor­tium of investors already active in the Advanced Air Mobil­i­ty sec­tor.

“We have com­plete con­fi­dence in NEXA Cap­i­tal Part­ners exper­tise in suc­ceed­ing the ini­tial invest­ment round. This is a struc­tur­al step in VPorts Inter­na­tion­al and Nation­al Growth and are work­ing with some gov­ern­ments in deploy­ing impor­tant projects which under­line their ambi­tions and inter­na­tion­al lead­er­ships.”

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Jason Pritchard

Jason Pritchard is the Editor of eVTOL Insights. He holds a BA from Leicester's De Montfort University and has worked in Journalism and Public Relations for more than a decade. Outside of work, Jason enjoys playing and watching football and golf. He also has a keen interest in Ancient Egypt.

eVTOL Insights is part of the Industry Insights Group. Registered in the UK. Company No: 14395769