Electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircrafts are emerging as an integral node in the seamless air transport systems being built in the Middle East with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the UAE taking the lead. The pandemic revealed just how fast the region’s aviation industry is evolving with many countries telescoping the pace of development to leap ahead of erstwhile global leaders saddled with legacy systems that will be difficult and monumentally expensive to modernise.
Of course, the region’s unique topography is an added advantage: sprawling cities and vast deserts are ideal locations for setting up advanced air mobility systems (AAM) such as eVtol operations. The obvious questions are how and why which we will endeavour to answer in the next section.
Who needs eVTOLs?
Who needed motorcars a hundred years ago when roads were teeming with carriages and curricles? Who indeed! People in a hurry who needed to get to places faster and had the money to pay for the privilege. The slogan ‘Time is Money’ may well have roots in ancient times or just the 19th century but has acquired an urgent urgency in current times when ‘gridlocked’ is the most commonly used word for the intensity of traffic on most of the world’s ‘arterial’ highways.
The possibility of much faster air travel over short distances is a pressing need in congested urban areas where snarled traffic can add hours to a journey that should take minutes. With the ability to take off and land vertically, eVTOLs, often described as ‘air-taxis’, provide a faster and more efficient mode of transportation.
But who knew, in those heady 1880s, that those first steps towards faster travel would lead one day to a headlong race to the death for life on earth? It is clearly not possible to go back in time to horses and carriages so we must move forward to something else. Enter eVTOLs. More environmentally friendly than airplanes and helicopters, the technology’s potential to help reduce the carbon footprint of the oil-soused Middle East has focused minds and funds.
Given the costs though, eVTOLs won’t be replacing car travel just yet, but as part of an integrated, seamless public transport system, in combination with other technologies such as micro transit, about which more in another post, they have the potential to deliver dramatic reductions in road traffic and congestion, and eventually perhaps send cars the way of the horse buggy – preferably in a lot less than a hundred years.
All this comes with a caveat: we don’t know all the ‘side-effects’ eVTOLs might introduce into an already precarious environment. We hope it will be less bad than the effects of carbon.
How are eVTOLs better for the environment?
The answer is in the name. eVTOLs are Vertical Takeoff and Landing vehicles. They don’t need long runways and extensive infrastructure. Their electric motors are powered by lithium batteries instead of the combustion engines that power helicopters. They are able to take off vertically, fly horizontally and hover in place thanks to fixed-pitch propellers which are ‘a type of propeller used on aircraft when low cost and simplicity are more important than efficient performance‘. The blades are usually made of aluminium alloys and fixed at a pitch angle that strikes the most efficient balance between ‘allowing the engine to turn fast enough to produce the maximum horsepower for takeoff, and moving the aircraft through the air a maximum distance for each revolution, giving the best fuel economy and speed.’
eVTOls have other advantages over helicopters:
- Lower noise pollution: eVTOLs are quieter than helicopters, and therefore help reduce noise and visual pollution, an important consideration in noisy, congested urban areas.
- Lower emissions: zero-emission electric motors used to power eVTOLs during operations are cleaner than the gas-turbines that power helicopters and therefore do not add to environmental pollution.
- Lower operating costs: similarly, as electric power is cheaper to produce than gas power, eVTOLs are cheaper to run than helicopters powered by gas turbines.
- Safer to operate: eVTOLs are increasingly being designed with safety features such as obstacle avoidance systems and integrated distributed electric propulsion (IDEP) systems. This means that instead of a single rotor they can be equipped with multiple rotors thereby distributing lift and thrust across as many as 18 rotors. Known as propulsory redundancy, this is a critical safety advantage of eVTOLs over helicopters: they can remain in the air and land safely if a rotor loses power; helicopters often cannot.
- Cost-effective (public transport): propeller operated eVTOLs can take off vertically, hover in place, and fly horizontally and therefore do not require the palaver of airports and airport infrastructure. As operators develop strategies for building and delivering an effective ‘air-uber’ service capable of connecting city-centres to airports or offering speedier alternatives to public transport and taxi-cab users, eVTOLs may eventually emerge as a cost-effective mode of mass transit travel.
- Cost effective (logistics and cargo): eVTOLs can be used to reduce costs associated with logistics for cargo operations for both small brands and global e-commerce businesses for which last-mile deliveries can become the most expensive or challenging part of the supply chain. eVTOLs therefore have the potential to deliver significant economic benefits for countries that can afford to invest in this technology.
eVTOLs in Middle Eastern skies
A number of eVTOL operators have signed agreements to launch operations, provide services or AAM crafts. These include:
- Archer Aviation which has signed an MOU with the Abu Dhabi Investment Office (ADIO) to launch commercial air taxi operations across the United Arab Emirates by 2026. It has also signed an agreement with private aviation firm Air Chateau – a last-mile air transport specialist. This agreement includes terms to deliver ‘hundreds of eVTOLs valued in the hundreds of millions.
- Autoflight, a Shanghai based eVTOL developer which has agreed to supply the UAE’s EVFLY with 205 passenger and cargo aircraft to develop the Middle East as a ‘nascent hot spot for commercialized advanced air mobility (AAM)‘.
- Lilium, a German manufacturer of eVTOLs, and Saudia, the Kingdom’s flagship carrier, have signed an MoU to operate 100 eVTOLs in the MENA region with a view to developing a seamless urban connectivity solution.
- The German UAM service provider, Volocopter, conducted its first Volocity trials in Saudi Arabia in June 2023. It’s eVTOLs took flight in NEOM, Saudi Arabi’s innovative new smart city, in anticipation of a collaborative project to build the first flying taxi service in the region.
Not a smooth ride, at least not yet
Developing eVTOL services in the Middle East is not a challenge free exercise. The obstacles both industry, regulators and governments must overcome range from technology and infrastructure to effective policies and strong regulations:
- Infrastructure: while eVTOLs and UAMs do not require infrastructure or ancillary services at the scale required by traditional aviation operations, they will require some basic investments to ensure the safety of the craft and its passengers. These include vertipads, takeoff and landing pads for AAMs, charging stations for the batteries, as well as air traffic management (ATM) and unmanned aircraft system (UAS) traffic management (UTM).
- Technology: Cost-effective eVTOL services will need to be able to travel a certain minimum distance carrying at least five people in a relatively short period of time. The estimates are deliberately vague as the balance between safety, efficiency and cost has yet to be determined. Further, as battery-powered vehicles, eVTOLs will require investments in not only battery technology but also investments in the supply chains for the rare metals, such as lithium, required to build them.
- Regulations: to qualify for commercial operations both pilots and AAMs will be subject to regulations such as licensing and airworthiness certifications that will underpin the security of both passengers and aircraft.
- Cost: The cost of producing eVTOL aircrafts at scale while maintaining safety standards sits on top of the investments in AAM technology and infrastructure. This has resulted in a number of partnerships between AAM startups such as Archer Aviation with United Airlines and Joby Aviation (which acquired Uber’s Elevate) with Toyota. Unsurprisingly, both Boeing and Airbus are working on their own eVTOL offerings.
And finally …
While a full-fledged air-uber service may be a few years away, governments and industry are working at speed to invest in the the infrastructure and technology needed to make AAM services cost-effective and affordable for mass transit and to develop the regulations and policies that will ensure the safety of both passengers and pilots.
The Middle East home to not only some of the world’s safest cities but also some of its fastest growing economies. Low crime, high living standards, regulatory reform and wide ranging investments in health, education and entertainment designed to attract and retain high-performing talent are attracting businesses of all shapes and sizes. Foreign investment is flooding into a range of industries from artificial intelligence to logistics, from cloud computing to mining, with authorities determined to show the world a cleaner, more sustainable part to economic growth and prosperity.