Back in the early days of what has become the advanced air mobility (AAM) boom, Dubai appeared a likely candidate for early adoption of new eVTOL (electric vertical takeoff and landing) aircraft for applications such as air taxi services. More recently, however, ambitious cities like Los Angeles, Singapore, Miami, and Paris seem to lead the race to embrace the new mode of air transportation, with eVTOL pioneers like Joby, Archer, Lilium, Volocopter, and Vertical Aerospace all promising initial commercial operations starting in 2024.
In 2017, Dubai’s Roads and Transportation Authority (RTA) seemed ahead of the game when it conducted air taxi demonstration flights with early prototypes of autonomous eVTOL models under development by Germany’s Volocopter and China’s EHang. At the time, the emirate’s government set an ambitious goal of making 25 percent of all local traffic, both on roads and in the air, self-driving.
This year has brought a flurry of significant orders for eVTOL aircraft to a mix of charter operators and scheduled airlines. However, none have so far originated in the Middle East region.
Nonetheless, the 2021 Dubai Airshow may provide some clues about whether the region is preparing to restart its plans for a future in an AAM sector now attracting new investments at markedly higher levels than mainstream air transport.
The show’s Advanced Aerial Mobility conference on November 17 will explore the potential for what is also knowns as urban air mobility (UAM), including a presentation by Alexander Asseily, Lilium’s chief strategy officer. The German start-up, which recently completed an initial public offering on Wall Street, is developing a seven-seat model called the Lilium Jet.
With ducted fans in its wings, the project has already attracted multiple pre-orders and would offer a range of up to around 155 miles, making it suitable for connections such as Dubai to Abu Dhabi. Lilium says the size of the design can grow to accommodate up to around 16 seats.
"The Lilium Jet has the potential to make a big impact wherever it is deployed, with zero operating emissions," said Tassilo Wanner, vice president for global public and regulatory affairs. "Dubai is one of the world’s most exciting places to be. If Lilium Jet operations were established there, connectivity within and around Dubai could facilitate otherwise unachievable travel times. Dubai presents interesting route opportunities that could include the international airport, which handled almost 90 million passengers a year before the pandemic.”
Other conference sessions will include contributions from ground infrastructure specialist Skyports, Boeing, Dubai’s RTA, the UK Research and Innovation Agency, which is running the FutureFlight Challenge research and development program, Airbus’s UAM team, NASA, and the UAE’s Civil Aviation Authority.
Several exhibiting companies at this year's Dubai show are actively developing eVTOL aircraft. Unfortunately, none plan to demonstrate prototypes at the event, but may provide updates on their intentions and expectations for the AAM sector in this part of the world.
UK-based vertiport developer Skyports has begun working on a study with Israeli eVTOL start-up Urban Aeronautics to assess the infrastructure needs for introducing air taxi services in cities across the Middle East. The company is developing a hydrogen-powered eVTOL model called the CityHawk, which would carry four passengers almost 100 miles at speeds of 150 mph.
The Eve Urban Air Mobility Solutions subsidiary of Brazilian airliner and business jet maker Embraer (Chalet A26, Stand S11) is working on a four-passenger eVTOL that it expects to enter service in 2026. The company has already attracted more than 200 provisional commitments to buy the all-electric model, which will fly to a range of up to around 60 miles, from several operators, including most recently offshore helicopter transportation group Bristow.
In September, Airbus (Stand 1050, Pavilion P9) unveiled an eVTOL design called CityAirbus NextGen. The fixed-wing model, with a V-shaped tail and eight sets of electric motors and propellers, would carry four passengers up to around 50 miles at speeds of 75 mph. The European aerospace group expects to complete type certification in 2025, having commenced test flights with a production-conforming prototype in 2023.
Despite the closure last year of its Boeing NeXt technology incubator, the U.S. aerospace giant (Chalet A22-25) still harbors ambitions in the AAM space. Its Wisk Aero joint venture with Kitty Hawk conducts extensive test flights with a fully autonomous two-seat eVTOL called Cora and says it has begun design work on a larger, longer-range model.
Italy's Manta Aircraft is also exhibiting at the Dubai show. The company is developing twin- and single-seat hybrid electric fixed-wing aircraft called, respectively, the ANN2 and ANN1. It says these will be able to operate in either VTOL or STOL modes, offering a range of up to 373 miles.
Bell (Chalet A44-45) has been working on an eVTOL design called Nexus, but since launching the design in early 2019 it has fallen largely silent about the project's progress. Similarly, rival rotorcraft group Leonardo (Stand 530) has stopped talking about its once declared ambitions to develop electric-powered aircraft.
More news on the subject appears likely to come in the fairly near future from Textron Aviation, which earlier this year launched a new electric aviation division called eAviation. That move might represent a response to plans by independent electric propulsion specialists, including MagniX and Ampaire, to electrify the ubiquitous Cessna Grand Caravan utility aircraft.
For its part, Volocopter appears to have switched its attention to the U.S. and other international markets, having recently exhibited its VoloCopter design at the EAA Air Venture show in Wisconsin and China's Zhuhai Airshow. The Volocopter is a two-seat model, but the company also harbors plans for the larger, longer-range VoloConnect aircraft.