Air Taxi

Air Taxis in Asia: Bell, Airbus Form Partnerships on Urban Air Mobility

By Brian Garrett-Glaser | February 12, 2020
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Bell has partnered with a major Japanese airline and infrastructure provider to bring on-demand aerial mobility to Japan, while Airbus is working with Singapore's national aviation authority, CAAS, toward a similar goal. (Bell)

Bell and Airbus have each signed agreements with local partners in Asia to bring urban air mobility to life, with Bell focused on Japan and Airbus continuing past cooperation with Singapore's civil aviation regulator.

The two aerospace stalwarts — both heavily involved in electric air taxi development — continue to demonstrate they are unwilling to settle for a simple aircraft manufacturer’s level of involvement and share of the profit expected from this emerging market.

Bell Laying the Groundwork for Air Taxis in Japan

In Japan, Bell is partnering with Japan Airlines and Sumitomo Corporation to create an on-demand air mobility network, as well as work to build the infrastructure and foster the regulatory environment required for the service to take hold.

The three companies will “develop policy and planning recommendations, identify entry into service use cases and pilot programs, and develop infrastructure requirements that integrate into both current and future transportation systems and city standards to provide safe, accessible and sustainable multi-modal transportation system to our communities,” according to a joint press release.

“We are excited to take this substantial step to bring together an international airline, a major infrastructure provider, and a VTOL OEM to work collaboratively on a more connected mobility future.” said Bell’s Scott Drennan, vice president of innovation. “While we are known for our 80 years of creating vertical lift aircraft that move people, goods, and data, we also want to help shape the operational infrastructure in which they will live.”

It’s not the first project Bell has embarked on with Japanese partners; the APT family of autonomous eVTOL cargo drones was developed with Yamato, a Japanese logistics provider responsible for the detachable cargo pods the aircraft use.

In the past year, Bell’s presence in the urban air mobility space has broadened significantly, with the company clearly stating it wants to be present in as much of the value chain as possible, short of owning real estate. In addition to manufacturing aircraft, Bell is building digital infrastructure to support the operations, maintenance and booking of air taxi services through a service it calls AerOS.

For this project, AerOS “will be considered as a potential component of an optimized flight operations system for unmanned air mobility, but [we] will also look to integrate capabilities from both Sumitomo and JAL,” a representative for Bell told Avionics.

Japan Airlines, the nation’s second-largest airline behind All Nippon Airways, said it is “eager to explore the future of air travel beyond its existing framework, and we believe this is the right team to set the standard in Japan for future cities to implement urban air mobility systems.” The airline also intends to explore UAM as a secondary transportation method for passengers to travel to and from airports.

“Through this partnership, the company is looking to assist in developing a next-generation air mobility service, such as the concept of a flying car,” Mark Morimoto, a representative for Japan Airlines, told Avionics. “In addition, we would like to deliver medical care in remote areas through eVTOL technology to achieve key sustainable development goals.”

Sumitomo, a global conglomerate with businesses in aerospace, transportation, construction, infrastructure and more, will “leverage their broad business portfolio … to support the development of the necessary infrastructure and business use cases for air mobility,” according to the joint press release.

“We have been inspired by Bell’s vision and their capability of penetrating into this urban air mobility market,” said Eiji Ishida, Sumitomo’s executive officer of its lease, ship and aerospace division. “All three companies bring a unique perspective, and we are excited to work together toward this new future.”

Bell is also one of many vehicle partners for Uber’s Elevate ecosystem, which intends to bring aerial ridesharing first to Los Angeles, Dallas and Melbourne beginning in 2023, later expanding to more of Uber’s global ridesharing network.

In Japan, however, Uber’s presence is minimal; ridesharing that relies on drivers who own their own vehicles is banned, leaving ridesharing companies to team up with existing taxi firms. The largest player in the terrestrial rideshare market is DiDi Mobility Japan, a joint venture between Chinese platform Didi Chuxing and Softbank Corp. Other players include JapanTaxi, backed by a $750 million investment from Toyota, and Sony’s S.Ride in Tokyo.

Though still partners, competition has developed between Bell and Uber, as the former intends to present AerOS to cities as another platform option. The two companies have also diverged in their approaches to safety; both seek to deliver highly reliable aerial transport, but Uber believes that can be achieved via aircraft manufacturing standards that are slightly less stringent than commercial aerospace, instead focusing on operational safety. Bell has voiced its support for existing commercial aerospace standards regarding vehicle failure rates.

Bell said it intends to use its own aircraft, including the Nexus 4EX, to “mature and validate” the Japanese on-demand mobility project, but didn’t rule out allowing non-Bell aircraft to participate in the final product. The Nexus 4EX is slated to be ready for commercial use in the “mid-to-late 2020s,” according to Drennan. Bell recently pivoted from a six-rotor, hybrid-electric design to the 4EX, choosing to pursue efficiency in inner-city transit missions over longer range and greater hover capabilities.

"The Japanese market, in theory, is perfect for a distributed aviation system powered by electric propulsion aircraft, including both fixed-wing and VTOL," Darrell Swanson, director of the Swanson Aviation Consultancy, told Avionics. "There are a number of smaller airfields in the greater Tokyo region that would act as sub-regional hubs, bringing in fixed wing traffic from the rest of Japan to connect to Bell's Nexus 4EX.  With the 4EX having a 97 km or 60-mile range, these sub regional airports will act as perfect hubs for transport into the heart of Tokyo and its surrounding region."

The challenge for Sumitomo, Swanson explained, will be ensuring that vertiports complement — rather than compete — with public modes of transport, else they risk their planning applications being rejected by the relevant authorities. For Bell and Japan Airlines, the challenge will be looking for network opportunities that can feed traffic for their domestic and international routes.

"This is also an opportunity for Narita [Tokyo] Airport, to claim back runway slots that are otherwise filled with domestic-only passengers but could be deployed for long-haul international routes, which have a much high value to the airport and the country," Swanson added.

The project will focus on Japan, but the team may also consider opportunities elsewhere in Asia, according to Bell.

Airbus Expands UTM Efforts in Singapore

Meanwhile, Airbus signed an agreement with the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) to bring urban air mobility to the city-state, building on earlier unmanned aircraft trials — a project called ‘Skyways’ — the two have conducted in Singapore since 2016.

Airbus' Jean-Brice Dumont, EVP of engineering, signed an MoU with Kevin Shum, director-general of CAAS, to enable urban air mobility in Singapore. (Airbus)

Airbus and CAAS will work to develop the unmanned traffic management (UTM) system and services to support the initial use case of UAM, as well as study feasibility and requirements for further cargo and passenger transportation solutions. The two partners will also engage in fostering public acceptance, developing standards and establishing safety frameworks.

“UTM is a key enabler for Airbus’ vision for urban mobility, and is paving the way for digital traffic management solutions,” Airbus wrote in its press release. “It will be a critical component to allow new aircraft, such as air taxis and UAS, to enter and share the skies safely.”

Under the Skyways proof-of-concept trials, Airbus’ Skyways drone, developed for the project, autonomously navigated pre-determined corridors in the sky to deliver parcels within the campus of the National University of Singapore and spare parts and consumables to ships anchored at Eastern Working Anchorage.

“CAAS supports the beneficial development of UAM,” said Kevin Shum, director-general of CAAS. “It fits within our Smart Nation vision, where we aim to take full advantage of technology to solve problems, address challenges, and develop Singapore into one of the most outstanding cities in the world to live in.”

Another benefit of integrating urban air mobility, powered by electric aircraft, will be a reduction in nationwide emission for aviation and general transportation.

"Five percent of global aviation carbon emissions come from routes of less than 500 km (310 miles)," said Swanson. "With a well-developed network of electric fixed-wing operations, coupled with last-mile eVTOL flights, Japan has a significant opportunity to beat the world at zeroing out its domestic aviation emissions."

This article has been updated with additional comments from an aviation consultant.

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