Advanced Air Mobility Market Intelligence

The Future of Air Mobility – Opportunities and Challenges in Asia Pacific

The Future of Air Mobility – Opportunities and Challenges in Asia Pacific

The global advanced air mobility market boomed in 2021. The year was chock full of financial results of manufacturers announcing huge capital injections from blank-cheque companies or hundreds of orders from major airlines. The sector secured more than US$5 billion of funding over the past twelve months that will be ploughed into certifying eVTOL (electric vertical take-off and landing vehicles) to start commercial operations. The race is on to see which OEM will get there first.

Meanwhile, at the lighter end of the eVTOL spectrum, the growth of the international small drone market has shown no sign of abating. With substantial amounts of money – albeit more modest totals – being invested into small drone OEMs and new tech products, along with some exciting new BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight) use cases, 2021 was an important evolutionary year for the market as it continued to mature.

Industry efforts in 2022 will be concentrated on rapidly advancing vehicle certification, technology maturation and progressing the landing and take-off infrastructure required to facilitate eVTOL flights – all with a view to establishing early permanent commercial operations in key markets. One such important market will be Asia-Pacific, which will remain at the forefront for AAM adoption in 2022 and beyond. The APAC market is, in fact, expected to capture around 45% of the advanced air mobility market (AAM) by 2035, translating to US$9.5 billion.

Cargo missions

The freight and logistics sector of the drone market will continue in 2022 to push the boundaries of what is possible with unmanned aircraft (UA) – forcing essential regulatory changes and airspace integration which, if successful, have the potential to unleash the full suite of socio-economic benefits of drones in the Asia-Pacific region.

In 2021, the Singaporean authorities established a Maritime Drone Estate (MDE) to act as testing environment for drone technologies in the maritime sector.

Singapore has a busy maritime industry and UA is ideally placed to provide a logistics service between ship and shore to complement existing methods. Historically, transporting small, high-value cargo back to port has been labour-intensive, is higher risk for people and is carbon intensive. Using drones, essential goods can be moved safely and securely, more cheaply and with less environmental impact. At Skyports, we have already started using the MDE to demonstrate to the Singaporean authorities how our delivery drones will fly to serve offshore vessels.

Not all countries are in the position yet to enable this type of innovative cargo operation in busy locations like ports, mainly due to the limits of the regulations. One jurisdiction that is taking the vital step to update its regulatory regime is Japan. The Japanese government has introduced legislation that aims to end its ban on BVLOS flights in populated and urban areas.

While Japan has hosted some extremely limited delivery drone services in a few remote areas, the legislative reform opens up the possibility of a large number of opportunities for cargo drones to be deployed in more congested environments from 2022.

Benefits of BVLOS

There are many countries in Asia-Pacific, such as the Philippines, Indonesia, South Korea and Thailand, that could benefit from BVLOS drone delivery operations – by overcoming congestion in urban environments, like ports, as well as connecting rural communities, challenged by geographical barriers such as mountains, rivers and seas, as well as land mass. In these sparsely populated areas, communities often suffer from a paucity of equal, reliable and frequent access to the products they need, including crucial medical commodities. BVLOS drone delivery services are ideally placed to overcome geographical obstacles.

Before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, continued global trends had already underscored the requirement to rapidly develop technological answers to the limits of current ground infrastructure, including growing levels of congestion, climate impacts, the rapid urbanisation trend and the growing importance of more integrated, efficient supply chains. Over the past two years, COVID-19 piqued interest in the role of delivery drones to keep disconnected communities linked when social separation was imposed on healthcare grounds.

In Australia, delivery drone OEM Swoop Aero, which Skyports partners globally, obtained BVLOS approval from Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) for healthcare cargo operations in Queensland in late 2021. The approval includes allowing Swoop Aero to transport critical medical supplies as well as safely integrate into airspace with crewed aircraft across the whole of the Queensland rather than a limited location, which is an important development for the industry generally.

Key challenges

The outlook for BVLOS drone delivery across APAC is positive thanks to new uses cases emerging across the region and countries’ authorities taking more of a proactive role in welcoming drone deliveries to their shores; however, parts of the eco-system must be further enhanced in 2022 and beyond for all the benefits of delivery drone technology to be realised, including the performance and reliability of UA, the safe integration of drones into the same airspace as manned aviation, and continuous regulatory reforms.

In Skyports’ view, it will be easier for regulators to approve drone BVLOS logistics operations for deployment in sparsely populated, rural and hard-to-reach areas, which is where we will be focusing the bulk of our efforts in Asia-Pacific this year.

The level of automation and the role of the remote pilot in BVLOS cargo operations are expected to change as the technology matures and greater amounts of operational experience are generated. Certainly, the more remote pilots that are required to support a BVLOS operation, the greater the cost of the service. For drone operators like Skyports, increasing the amount of automation into each platform will be a vital advancement towards the value of logistics services. Achieving full autonomy is years away, and will require the support of APAC regulators and communities alike. Upping the levels of automation in logistics drones, generating data to prove the platforms and the way they are operated are safe, as well as taking the public on the journey so they can see first-hand the social benefits, provides a roadmap that the industry can follow, and which will provide the groundwork for autonomous passenger carrying eVTOL.

Passenger eVTOL

Just as the drone delivery operations are expected to expand further in Asia-Pacific over the coming year, 2022 is set to be another important one for passenger carrying eVTOL aircraft as governments and industries across the region seek to lay the foundations together for AAM (advanced air mobility) to take off in the next year or two.

Authorities have been busy over the past year or so setting the trajectories for adopting AAM within their jurisdictions. In South Korea, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport (MoLIT) released a UAM commercialization roadmap (K-UAM roadmap) in March 2021 with initial commercial operations commencing by 2025. On the back of the publication of the K-UAM roadmap, in November 2021, German UAM (urban air mobility) pioneer, and Skyports’ partners in Singapore, Volocopter, completed the first ever crewed public test flight of a fully eVTOL air taxi in South Korea, helping the country build momentum for the roadmap implementation.

In Japan, the Osaka Prefecture’s ‘Green Table’, a collaborative roundtable platform launched to accelerate the commercializationof AAM, accepted some additional members, including Skyports. The ‘Green Table’ is a forum in which to examine the operation, technical and infrastructural requirements of realising an eVTOL network, with the 2025 Osaka-Kansai Expo a common milestone by which the consortium aims to initiate the use of eVTOL.

Further south, the Australian federal government and state of Victoria authorities agreed in December 2021 to speed up the launch of eVTOL aircraft, as well as logistics drone operations.

The government is investing $35.7 million in emerging aviation technologies addressing priority community, mobility and cargo needs in regional Australia.

Infrastructure in common

A common theme among all these AAM initiatives is the essential role that infrastructure will play in operational realisation. Significant effort, time and capital is being invested into vehicle technology, yet infrastructure does not receive the same attention. Without safe, secure and efficient facilities for eVTOLs to take off and land – known as vertiports – electric air taxis will never take off – literally.

This is where Skyports comes in. We design, build, own and operate networks of vertiports in numerous markets around the world, including Asia-Pacific. In 2019, Skyports and Volocopter showcased the first-full scale passenger air taxi vertiport prototype in Singapore.

Our joint goal remains to commence initial commercial operations in the city state by 2023-24. The Singapore government is very proactive in building a smart and connected nation, with a well-coordinated approach to AAM between the various government agencies and our partner Volocopter; indeed, in our view Singapore is leading the way in Asia-Pacific and will continue to do so in the near future, acting as the gateway for Skyports to launch operations in other parts of the region.

As part of growing our vertiport network and partnership in Southeast Asia beyond Singapore, Skyports and Volocopter last year announced a collaboration with Malaysia Airports on a feasibility study to explore vertiport development just over the border in neighbouring Malaysia.

Infrastructure challenges

Infrastructure delivery poses a series of challenges such as securing sites in strategic locations, and ensuring adequate services for eVTOL operators, such as electric grid capacity and access, passenger access and jointly setting regulatory requirements with the relevant authorities. What all this means is that there will be long lead times for vertiports to be in place, which is why at Skyports we are laser focused on continuing the progress we have made to do to meet our mid-2020s timeline for initial commercial operations.

By far the biggest challenge is the creation of the regulatory regime that is essential to support the growth of the industry and implementation of air taxi services. Regulation tends to lag industrial development and technological advancement. With longer lead times, the industry needs the regulation for vertiports to be in place as soon as possible so that it does not become a drag when AAM is introduced, which is why we work so closely with the authorities across Asia-Pacific and internationally. Active industry involvement in regulation development, especially through sharing of vehicle performance data, will be key to making progress.

Skyports takes its role as an industry leader in AAM ground infrastructure – as well as UAS for drone delivery – seriously, by playing a dynamic role in regulatory development across the region. We are fully committed to making AAM a reality and we want to collaborate with like-minded partners across the Asia-Pacific region where the outlook for new forms of mobility is bright.