Commercial

Brazilians Might Soon Hail a Helicopter Like an Uber With New Airbus Start-Up

By S.L. Fuller | April 6, 2017
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Airbus Voom Helicopter Taxi

Photo courtesy of Voom

Airbus Group’s A3 has launched a beta version of on-demand helicopter service in São Paulo, Brazil. Initiated by the Silicon Valley outpost, a start-up called Voom says it can provide urban transport to customers in as little as 60 minutes from booking to takeoff.

“São Paulo was a logical first market as it is a city plagued by congestion; traffic back-ups often stretch for more than 130 miles / 210 km,” wrote Uma Subramanian, Voom’s CEO, on the company’s blog. “With over 400 helipads in the metropolitan area, 700 helicopters and a dedicated helicopter air traffic control system, São Paulo is one of the best cities for helicopter transportation.”

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This concept had a short trial run in the same location last summer in partnership with Uber. Subramanian said that Voom received thousands of bookings in one month at the time. The beta service works similarly to Uber: The user enters the starting and ending address and is then matched with the nearest helipad. Then, the user selects a preferred boarding time and books the flight. Then, all the user has to do is show up 30 minutes prior to boarding.

Like Uber's infrastructure, Voom does not own or operate the helicopters. All operators in the Voom network are RBAC 135 air taxi companies. In terms of affordability, Voom says it offers flights for up to 80% less than traditional helicopter services and for the same price as a private car service, made possible by “a proprietary ‘pooling’ technology.”

Subramanian said that Voom plans to expand to other cities worldwide in the coming months. But news reports said that cities in the U.S. are not next on the list. Voom’s next steps would likely be in other Brazilian cities, then other Latin American countries, then perhaps cities in Asia. Noise pollution is one obstacle to deploying urban air mobility in the U.S. — especially in metropolitan areas, where the service would operate. There is also the issue of private heliport infrastructure in the U.S. Would an urban air transport network in the U.S. require an overhaul of the FAA’s database?

Voom air taxi

Voom's air taxi service app, modeled after Uber, is in beta testing. Photo courtesy of Voom

“Currently there are no truly accurate and reliable national databases in existence in the U.S. for ‘private’ PPR (prior permission required) airports and heliports. The majority of databases in existence today, to include the numerous online flight-planning websites and hundreds of GPS cockpit navigation units, pull their information from a single master source, e.g. the FAA 5010 Airport Master Record,” wrote Rex J. Alexander in R&WI's June 2016 issue. “When it comes to ‘private’ facilities, that master source, however, has been shown to be based on some very outdated and oftentimes inaccurate information. This is primarily due to the fact that there are no federal regulatory requirements for these facilities to ever have their information re-evaluated or updated by anyone from the FAA or in most cases the residing state Dept. of Transportation once this data has been entered into the system.”

Those questions are to be addressed, if not answered, by the industry. Uber is gearing up to host a summit on urban VTOL at the end of this month to address various obstacles to launching such a service. Energy, noise, airspace, investment and infrastructure barriers are all on the agenda. Now that Voom has launched its beta service, the argument for accessible urban air transport is becoming more compelling.

“Voom is democratizing helicopter travel in the world’s most congested cities,” wrote Subramanian, “giving more and more people access to a mode of transportation that to date has been reserved for the ultra-wealthy.”

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