MEBAA Convention News

Gulf Region Buys Into Advanced Air Mobility Vision

 - December 6, 2022, 11:45 PM
Startup Tupan Aircraft hopes to be among the VTOLs used for cargo and passenger-carrying operations in the Middle East and other world regions. (Photo: Alena Korenkov)

Ambitious, future-obsessed Dubai is just the sort of place you might expect to be an early adopter of so-called advanced air mobility (AAM), including new hybrid- and all-electric eVTOL and eSTOL aircraft used for air taxi services, cargo deliveries, emergency medical support, and other public-service applications. After some early flight demonstrations a few years ago by eVTOL pioneers Volocopter and EHang, the trail appeared to go cold, until June when helicopter and business jet operator Falcon Aviation announced plans to launch eVTOL air-taxi services from the luxury resort Atlantis the Palm in 2026.

Under a partnership with Eve Urban Air Mobility, the operator signed a letter of intent to buy 35 of the manufacturer’s planned four-passenger eVTOL aircraft. Falcon believes its track record as a launch operator for several new helicopter types makes it well qualified to be an early adopter of eVTOL vehicles. According to Falcon COO Raman Oberoi, Eve—which is majority-owned by Brazilian aircraft manufacturer Embraer following an initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange—approached Falcon with the proposal to launch services in the Gulf region.

Abu Dhabi-based Falcon is planning to operate the eVTOLs initially from its existing heliport at Atlantis the Palm, from where it offers tourists a bird’s-eye view of Dubai. In 2021, the heliport was used by 45,000 passengers taking sightseeing rides from the island site. In 2019, Falcon announced plans, in partnership with helicopter maker Leonardo, to develop vertiports in the region.

The Eve aircraft also has the potential to appeal to travelers moving to and from the VIP terminal at Dubai Al Maktoum International Airport. Helicopter shuttles from Falcon’s heliport at that site have yet to take off due to the failure to effectively compete with limousine service, Oberoi said.

Eve’s four-passenger eVTOL aircraft
UAE operator Falcon Aviation plans to use Eve’s four-passenger eVTOL aircraft for air taxi services starting with flights from Atlantis the Palm resort.

In October, China’s Xpeng chose Dubai as the site for the international debut of its X2 “flying car,” which is primarily intended for personal transportation by owner-pilots. While the X2 has no wheels and looks more like one of the commercial eVTOL designs, Xpeng is also working on a model called the X3 that is more car-like and has eight retractable propellers that might appeal to high-net-worth Emiratis.

AAM expansion will also require significant investment in new ground infrastructure. Last month at Abu Dhabi Air Expo, French airports group ADP signed a memorandum of understanding with Abu Dhabi Airports to jointly prepare to build a network of vertiports in the emirate. ADP is already involved in a consortium working to launch eVTOL air services in the French capital during the 2024 Paris Olympic Games.

Meanwhile, the UAE’s neighbor, Saudi Arabia, also has ambitions to be a significant player in the AAM sector. The most recent development, in October, saw Saudi Arabian Airlines (Saudia) sign a deal with Lilium to acquire 100 of the company’s seven-passenger Lilium Jet aircraft.

Lilium's seven-passenger eVTOL aircraft could be operated in Saudi Arabia.
Lilium's seven-passenger eVTOL aircraft could be operated in Saudi Arabia under a recently-signed agreement with Saudi Arabian Airlines. (Image: Lilium)

The memorandum of understanding covers plans for the Saudi flag carrier to operate an eVTOL air-taxi network across the country. The airline will help Germany-based Lilium to secure local type certification for its aircraft, as well as operational approvals.

Saudia said its purchase will accompany new electric point-to-point connections and seamless feeder connections to its hubs for business-class passengers. Lilium promotes the Lilium Jet's flexible cabin architecture as ideal for meeting the needs of the premium market, which it believes can help drive the early adoption of eVTOLs in the discerning Gulf market.

Originally expecting to win certification of the Lilium Jet in 2024, Lilium in March said it pushed back the projected timeline to achieve approval by potentially 12 or more months into 2025. Several new eVTOLs are expected to enter commercial service that same year, including Archer’s Midnight, Joby’s unnamed model, and the Vertical Aerospace VX4—all of which will carry four passengers.

The Lilium deal follows a separate agreement announced last December between the Neom regional development project in the northwest of Saudi Arabia and Volocopter. This is aimed at launching urban air mobility services by 2024 with 10 of the German company’s two-seat VoloCity aircraft and five fully autonomous VoloDrone cargo-carrying vehicles.

Under the agreement signed, the partners plan to develop what they called a public vertical mobility system in Neom on the country’s Red Sea coast. Plans call for the development of an “industrial city” called Oxagon and a residential community called The Line that will extend for just more than 100 miles and house a population of one million people.

Developers claim the communities will be powered entirely from renewable energy sources with “zero cars, zero streets, and zero carbon emissions.” However, plans initiated in 2019 also call for the building of a new international airport.

The venture will be the sole operator of initial public transit services across Neom, which covers 10,200 sq mi and is being developed with a budget of $500 billion as part of a Saudi government plan to reduce its economic dependence on oil revenues. The partners said infrastructure will be developed in a way that can be used by other types of eVTOLs, and rival companies will be able to provide services such as logistics and emergency response.

Last month, Neom stepped up its commitment to Volocopter in backing a $182 million Series E funding round. The campaign was jointly supported by Hong Kong’s Gly Capital Management, which is part of the Chinese automotive group Geely.

Meanwhile, the UAE’s Tawazun Economic Council is supporting efforts by Cranfield Aerospace Solutions to convert existing aircraft—such as the nine-passenger Britten-Norman Islander—to hydrogen propulsion. The council, which is the defense and security acquisitions authority for the UAE Armed Forces and Abu Dhabi Police, backed a £14.4 million ($16.8 million) funding round for the UK company, which is also working on plans to develop a hydrogen-powered 19-seat regional airliner.

This week at the MEBAA show, a conference titled “Tomorrow’s Customer–Next Generation” will include a session on prospects for eVTOL air services. It will be led by U.S.-based Odys Aviation, which is working on plans for a hybrid-electric eVTOL model with an eye-catching blown-wing design.