‘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.”