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UAE urban air mobility set for takeoff?
Things finally seem like they are falling into place for urban air mobility
Residents of the United Arab Emirates are now used to seeing bold announcements about plans for future technologies such as robot workers, delivery drones, driverless cars and flying taxis. Although announcements are gaining new credibility, there have been plenty of futuristic plans announced by both public and private sectors over the years that have seemingly disappeared.
In the urban air mobility (UAM) space, electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) startups EHang and Volocopter both conducted test flights in Dubai during 2017, announcing partnerships with Dubai's Roads and Transport Authority (RTA). It was announced at the time that an aero taxi trial with Volocopter would start by the end of that year. The trial didn't materialise for a number of reasons, among them that the German eVTOL startup has delayed all commercial deployments several times over the past few years and now expects to be ready for commercial services only in 2024. However, there was also a lack of aviation policy and infrastructure to accommodate eVTOLs.
So, what's changed over the past five years?
Firstly, after years of delaying plans, developers of eVTOL aircraft seem to have more certainty over their commercial launch dates. As mentioned, Volocopter is now targeting 2024. Manufacturers like Archer Aviation, Embraer's Eve Air Mobility, Joby Aviation and Lilium are all scheduling for 2025. Meanwhile, Hyundai's new UAM subsidiary Supernal is planning for 2028 and EHang seems to be targeting a similar time-frame to that of Volocopter.
Secondly, as one might expect, the past few years of engaging with the new eVTOL industry has left aviation authorities, regulators, government departments and the wider aviation ecosystem better informed and prepared. Aviation authorities have had time to look at urban air mobility management, whilst airports and city administrations have been able to consider how they support and manage landing ports - called ‘vertiports' - for eVTOLs.
Thirdly, the time lag has given aviation regulators the chance to catch up with the technology, coordinate with aviation authorities globally and debate specific national regulations that affect aircraft type certification, air traffic control, data communications, safety policies, risk management, passenger safety and other issues.
So, a pivotal moment in the UAE's journey towards a new future of urban air mobility was the publication of the world's first national regulation for vertiports by the UAE General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) in December. The GCAA has longstanding agreements with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) on type certification for aircraft, but regulation must now cover many new areas specific to eVTOLs.
Published in draft for public consultation, the new GCAA regulation covers the design and operational requirements of vertiports, whilst ensuring a regulatory environment that supports the efficient and safe operation of vertical take-off and landing aircraft. The authority expects the final regulation to be published during the first quarter of this year, providing a foundation to ensure safe and seamless operation of urban air mobility in the UAE.
This week, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai revealed via Twitter that the emirate will have flying taxis within three years (so, that would be early 2026). This timeframe is consistent with eVTOL industry forecasts and the progress made in regulation.
According to the information made available this week at the World Government Summit, Dubai's prototype vertiport design - developed by UK-based Skyports Infrastructure for the RTA - has been approved. The authority has planned an initial network of four vertiports connecting four main areas of Dubai: Downtown Dubai, Dubai Marina, Dubai International Airport and Palm Jumeirah. The initial concept showed how future vertiport infrastructure might look and how it will integrate with existing transportation, including Dubai Metro services and Dubai International Airport. Each vertiport will include four stands for aerial taxis and two landing areas.
Although the RTA presented the concept jointly with Skyports (which recently closed a $26 million Series B funding round) and Joby Aviation (which this month became the first eVTOL aircraft manufacturer to complete the second stage in FAA's type certification process), the authority was also clear to point out that it is still early days and ongoing partnerships and commercial arrangements have yet to be finalised.
According to RTA statements, Dubai is looking for private sector investment in this new eVTOL infrastructure to make it possible to build the vertiports and introduce aero taxis. It also said that negotiations are in progress with global investors familiar with UAM infrastructure projects.
As noted by the RTA, it is early days, but it does look like Dubai's urban air mobility ecosystem has room for multiple operators of both vertiports and aero taxi services. In December, Canadian aviation infrastructure company Vports announced that it had signed a 25-year lease agreement with Mohammed Bin Rashid Aerospace Hub (MBRAH) to establish an advanced air mobility centre on a 37,000-square-metre site within Dubai South. Vertiport provider Kookiejar of Sweden (KOS) also has plans to establish a vertiport in Dubai South in partnership with Dubai-based Air Chateau.
Air Chateau, a United Arab Emirates heliport operator with a heliport & VIP Lounge Terminal at the Dubai World Central (DWC) Al Maktoum International Airport-Dubai Helipark, can now add vertiport operations to its portfolio of services.
In another announcement last year, Abu Dhabi-based Falcon Aviation Services signed a letter of intent to acquire 35 Eve eVTOL aircraft to launch tourist flights in Dubai starting 2026. The helicopter and business jet operator plans to operate eVTOL aerial tours from the Atlantis Resorts property on The Palm island.
Abu Dhabi also has UAM aspirations. The government recently signed an MoU with Groupe ADP (formerly Aéroports de Paris) to work with local authorities on the planning, design, development, and operation of vertiport infrastructure in the capital for future eVTOL services. The group is already developing infrastructure for the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris and, by the way, was also an early investor in Skyports.
While many details remain sketchy as to the potential investors, operators and public-private partnerships that will create the UAE's new eVTOL sector, it does finally feel like the countdown to launch has started.
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