Commercial

Voom by Airbus: ‘Experimental Bridge to Tomorrow’

By James T. McKenna | September 27, 2017

Voom CEO Uma Subramanian

Voom CEO Uma Subramanian. Photo by Ed Garza

Airbus is investing in the concept of "urban air mobility," or the use of vertical-flight aircraft (particularly electric-powered ones) to ease severe and worsening congestion in the world's mega-cities.

Among its investments is CityAirbus, a four-passenger, all-electric, shrouded quadrotor that the OEM said will fly next year. At Helitech International Oct. 3 in London, Airbus Helicopters SVP Research and Innovation Tomasz Krysinski will discuss CityAirbus as part of “an in-depth view of the breakthrough technologies impacting customer satisfaction.”

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A top investigator of those breakthrough technologies is Uma Subramanian, CEO of Voom by Airbus, an experimental helicopter ride-sharing project launched last April in São Paulo, Brazil. She provided a detailed update on that project to attendees of R&WI’s Rotorcraft Business & Technology Summit. (That event was held Sept. 20 and 21 in Fort Worth, Texas.) The following Q&A is based on her presentation.

What is driving the intense interest in urban air mobility and the use of electric vertical takeoff or landing aircraft to address it?

Helicopters have been used for large-scale service in cities before. At its peak in 1967, for instance, New York Airways was flying 500,000 passengers a year around greater Manhattan, at the price of around $5 a journey from Manhattan to JFK International Airport. That’s about $40 in today’s prices.

That precedent is what everybody is betting urban air mobility will be able to recapture.

We are very excited about the urban air mobility space. We believe that it’s real. Many people in that space are pursuing new “eVTOL” platforms for urban air mobility markets. Airbus is among those. Our thought at Voom, and at Airbus, is why not try to do some of this experimentally today? We believe that we can do something slightly different and create worth for our operators today while learning and building tomorrow’s experimental vehicle.

At Voom, we are in the market today to gather data, as much data as possible, to help influence the design of the optimal urban air mobility vehicle. We are building an experimental bridge to tomorrow.

How is Voom building that bridge to tomorrow?

Helicopters are urban mobility. They are VTOL. They are the only vehicle platform certified to fly in an urban airspace today.

Today, Voom is an on-demand, mobile-optimized platform that allows passengers to book helicopters as and when they want them. We are working with best-in-class Part 135 operators in São Paulo. Everything we are doing is within the confines of their existing Brazilian Rules of Civil Aviation 135 certificates. We are also working with heliports that have a reputation for reliability and safety.

Launched in April, Voom has flown more than 1,000 passengers. We are flying 20 to 30 passengers per day. On our busiest day, we flew 70 journeys in the course of six hours.

Our hope with Voom is to create liquidity in the secondhand market while we collect data on the urban air mobility market, the desires and habits of passengers that will influence it and the best vehicle configurations and operational procedures to meet passenger demand. When I looked at this about six months ago, there were 1,600 aircraft for sale across platforms. There is a ton of spare capacity. One of the things that we’re trying to do with Voom is get these aircraft back in the air.

Airbus Voom Helicopter Taxi

Photo courtesy of Voom

Why São Paulo?

São Paulo is the pre-eminent city for helicopter air travel. Over 700 helicopters. More than 400 helipads. Dedicated helicopter traffic control. They have solved clearance issues. They have dedicated helicopter lanes. Their helicopter air traffic control is very actively moving aircraft around the city. It's a system that works today. The regulator is very open about having conversations about increasing traffic. The city also has a culture of urban air travel. So we found São Paulo to be a really welcome market for us to want a first test.

What market factors are you investigating, and what has surprised you?

With urban air mobility, we are going to radically change consumer behavior. We’re going to get them to take to the air in a way that’s never happened before.

A major area surrounds the question of, if we can get passengers to start flying today, how are they going to do it? What are their behaviors actually going to be? How are they going to think about putting air into their transport ecosystem? How are they going to move within cities? What kind of journeys are they going to be taking? Are they going to be flying from the airport to the city center and that’s it, or can we get them to use air as part of a broader transportation system?

Other questions we are trying to get answered concerned whether people will actually fly on demand? Today, flight is something that tends to be pre-planned, tends to be pre-scheduled. At Voom, we launched an on-demand service and very quickly realized everyone wanted to schedule a flight. So we added scheduling features to our system.

In São Paulo, we’ve found that 60% of the passengers that fly with us bring luggage. What do those things tell you about the optimal vehicle configuration?

How do you think your findings may affect the helicopter design and manufacturing business?

In the helicopter business, we’ve never really focused on total operating costs as a design feature. It’s always been about what are the capabilities that the system has to have and the operating costs fall out.

But we are learning a lot of information about what passengers are willing to pay for in a service like this. Even though this is air travel, people are very price sensitive. For example, they have an idea of what it costs to get to the airport and that's what they want to pay.

The data that we are collecting will help us influence the total operating cost design point in our future vehicles.

We're trying to create an ecosystem where the operators get value and where we are able to offer something at a competitive price to the customer.

For the operators, we know that the majority of a helicopter’s costs are fixed, and so the more you fly the cheaper it gets. We know that, on average, light single aircraft are being flown 200 to 400 hours a year, and we know from the offshore oil and gas market, and from precedent in the early 2010s, that these aircraft can fly 1,600 to 2,000 hours a year without a problem.

Right now, we are talking to operators about delivering twice their annual flight hours, and the Voom project is not at scale. At scale, we believe we can reach the effective utilization of the aircraft 1,600 to 2,000 hours a year.

What are Voom’s next steps?

We are looking at our next markets to launch. Our plan today is to roll out across Latin America and then into South and Southwest Asia.

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