Saturday 20 Jul 2024
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This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on September 25, 2023 - October 1, 2023

In a thrilling leap into the future, Malaysia is set to revolutionise its transport landscape with the introduction of electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft. This cutting-edge aircraft promises to tackle the multiple challenges that have long plagued the country’s transport ecosystem.

If successfully integrated, eVTOL aircraft — which are sometimes referred to as air taxis for their ability to navigate urban environments with ease — have the potential to resolve the persistent last-mile connectivity woes faced by Malaysians on a daily basis by providing on-demand point-to-point transport in densely populated areas, boost tourism and generate new employment opportunities in various economic sectors.

Futurise Sdn Bhd, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Cyberview Sdn Bhd, which comes under the purview of the Ministry of Finance, aims to make this a reality in Malaysia. eVTOL aircraft are able to move people and cargo between points that are currently not or not easily served by surface transport or existing aviation transport system, says its CEO Rosihan Zain in an exclusive interview with Digital Edge.

(Photo by Futurise Sdn Bhd)

“We can look into aviation as a solution, not so much for international travel or intercountry, but for mobility within a city. This is where air taxis and eVTOL aircraft will play a critical role in ensuring connectivity for the first or last mile,” he adds.

To make this work, Futurise — which has been mandated to accelerate regulatory intervention, deploy tech innovations and foster new innovative ecosystems under the National Regulatory Sandbox (NRS) — is banking on collaborations with stakeholders such as the Malaysian Industry-Government Group for High Technology (MIGHT), the Civil Aviation Authority of Malaysia (CAAM) and multiple global players in the eVTOL aircraft sector.

These aircraft represent a ground-breaking leap in aviation technology that is on course for a new era of urban mobility and sustainable transport as they can travel about 100km to 200km. eVTOL aircraft are designed to combine the benefits of electric propulsion and vertical take-off capabilities, enabling them to take off and land vertically like helicopters.

By leveraging electric power, eVTOL aircraft promise reduced emissions and lower operating costs than traditional fossil-­fuel-powered aircraft, making them a promising solution for a more efficient, convenient and eco-friendly mode of travel in the future.

That is because the aircraft produce 35% less greenhouse gas emissions than conventional engine vehicles and reduce travel time by 50% to 70% compared to using conventional roads, says Rosihan.

What is in it for Malaysia? First, eVTOL aircraft could bring in RM25.05 billion in accumulated benefits by 2030, says Rosihan. In turn, this could potentially create 2,270 full-time jobs in the Klang Valley and 300,000 for Malaysia during this period, he says.

Global consulting firm Roland Berger and Rolls-Royce in their “Advanced Air Mobility: Market Study for APAC” report released last year stated that the eVTOL aircraft industry is projected to grow from US$2.6 billion in 2022 to US$28.3 billion in 2030. This could deliver US$36.9 billion in service revenue alone across Asia-Pacific by 2050, says the report.

The researchers noted that the cities of Singapore, Tokyo and Seoul could lead the way in advanced air mobility (AAM) by offering time-saving and more convenient travel that could bring downtown, suburbs and tourist attractions closer together. The study estimates that 16,400 passenger VTOL aircraft could be in operation in Japan, worth around US$14.3 billion in service revenue by 2050, with South Korea offering the commercial potential of US$3.8 billion and Singapore US$350 million in less than three decades.

Moreover, Marketsand­Markets Research says in its “Urban Air Mobility Market — Global Forecast to 2030” report that the AAM market is set to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 34% from 2022 to 2030.

Singapore, France, Germany, the UK, the UAE and the US have already announced plans to launch eVTOL aircraft by 2025.

Laying the groundwork

Introducing eVTOL aircraft represents a colossal endeavour, despite their economic advantages, says Rosihan.

Futurise is working with CAAM to explore and experiment in the AAM industry. “This approach will allow AAM to be tested in a specific regulatory air corridor or test bed while new provisions are to be included in the current civil aviation directives and regulations. The testing phase involves regulatory testing to ensure the provisions spelled out in the regulatory framework, such as guidelines or standard operating procedures, adhere to existing laws.

“The regulatory framework will be reviewed and updated based on data recorded during the sandbox period and feedback from relevant stakeholders through a series of sectoral meetings or workshops. Hence, the growth of the industry will take some time,” says Rosihan.

“This is to ensure proper safety measures are put in place before commercialisation. For the next few years, Futurise is planning to develop an AAM sandbox and other relevant guidelines to facilitate the AAM ecosystem’s expansion.”

MIGHT has been entrusted with conducting an industry study to identify the potential opportunities and risks of AAM in Malaysia. The study is aimed at helping the parties understand the issues and challenges of introducing eVTOL aircraft and to explore the growth prospects of the AAM industry.

Upon completion, the document will include preliminary recommendations focused on regulatory frameworks, technology innovations and ease of doing business, says Rosihan.

In the meantime, Futurise is in talks with original equipment manufacturers (OEM) that are keen to enter the Malaysian market and are looking for partners. These include Brazil-based Eve Air Mobility, Germany-based Autoflight and Volocopter, France-headquartered Airbus and US-based Joby Aviation. Infrastructure players such as France-based ADP Grouppe, UK-based Skyports and Canada-based Vports have indicated their interest.

“We need comprehensive and multiple solutions to handle the public transport issues in the country. Inevitably, [eVTOL aircraft] are the next wave of evolution for the nation. When the global aviation industry took off in the last century, we were not even a country yet. We don’t want to be left behind right now, with the next wave of evolution,” says Rosihan.

Hence, Futurise is already in talks with several states in Peninsular Malaysia to conduct an initial study and suitable test beds.

“States have commissioned us and requested feasibility studies. [This is to evaluate] the socioeconomic impact of the AAM industry because they [the states] are interested in pursuing it and [looking for] better strategies on how they can go about adopting AAM,” says Rosihan.

The memorandum of understanding (MoU) that Futurise entered into with the UAE Regulations Lab under the General Secretariat of the UAE in July is expected to be beneficial in terms of research and development (R&D) initiatives and fast-tracking new technologies, alongside other innovations.

When will this be a reality?

As the AAM industry is still in its infancy, there are currently no hard timelines for the deployment of eVTOL aircraft in the country.

“We are very cognisant of the fact that in 2026, we will start seeing the big rollout from the manufacturers to the operators. From 2028 onwards, there will be a more realistic expectation for public use. So that is four years from now and that will give us time to [prepare] the regulatory framework,” says Rosihan.

“It will give time for the maintenance, repair and operations (MRO) [people] to pivot to this new wave of transport. It will also give the industry time to raise the necessary funding and [come up with] their own corporate policies or strategies to meet this wave. I think three to four years will be a comfortable amount of time for Malaysian aviation to accept and embrace AAM in a bigger way.”

Having said that, eVTOL aircraft are already making their mark in Malaysia.

AirAsia’s Advanced Air Mobility, which is a unit of AirAsia Aviation Group, has signed a letter of intent with Skyports to explore the development of air taxi infrastructure in Malaysia. AirAsia also has plans to lease 100 eVTOL aircraft from Avolon, according to its website.

AeroTree Flight Services Sdn Bhd, a local aviation services company, has entered into a partnership with China-based EHang to develop the urban air mobility sector in Malaysia, such as MRO and training. The partnership also saw AeroTree placing a pre-order for 60 eVTOL aircraft.

As the country strives to develop its AAM ecosystem, it can take inspiration from abroad. For example, in terms of regulatory policies, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has proposed rules for the safe operation of eVTOL aircraft. This is to establish a comprehensive regulatory framework to address new operational and mobility concepts based on innovative technologies, according to its website.

The 2024 Summer Olympics and Paralympic Games will see the dawn of eVTOL aircraft. These aircraft will be used to offer air taxi services to the general public. Closer to home, Singapore is collaborating with Volocopter to launch commercial air taxi services using the latter’s VoloCity aircraft in the city state within the next two years.

“The aviation sector is very important, not just as an economic source but for the social development of the country. eVTOL aircraft have many purposes and can fulfil many needs and [close] different gaps. We definitely need more from the private sector, whether as MRO operators or local assemblers. If there is commitment from both the government and industry, we could take the lead to become a hub for AAM and eVTOL aircraft in Southeast Asia,” says Rosihan.

 

Regulatory challenges likely to persist

With regulatory hurdles already holding back Malaysia’s drone industry, the country faces challenges in implementing electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft effectively.

Getting drone regulations right is crucial for the successful implementation of eVTOL aircraft because it would ensure safety, manage airspace congestion and foster public acceptance of the technology.

While Malaysia’s standing in the Drone Readiness Index (DRI) has improved significantly, with the country rising eight spots to reach No 21 in the rankings this year, regulatory hurdles continue to hold back the advancement of the local drone industry. The DRI was developed by Hamburg-based commercial drone market intelligence firm Drone Industry Insights and compares various countries’ drone regulations.

Currently, there are four drone sandboxes and funding options for drone service providers. Government support, particularly from the Malaysian Research Accelerator for Technology and Innovation, has been actively promoting the drone industry.

The two significant challenges are regulatory hurdles involving multiple government agencies and the slow pace of legal reforms. Drone operators in Malaysia face a complex approval process, including permissions for flying in restricted zones, which continues to hinder innovation and growth of not only the drone segment but the advanced air mobility (AAM) sector at large.

The Malaysia Drone Technology Action Plan 2022-2030 (MDTAP30) was launched last year to streamline some processes but there is still a lack of a unified authority to handle drone approvals and investments. The presence of multiple agencies and bureaucracy further contribute to a lengthy approval period.

In essence, despite initial improvements, service operators still need to navigate complex procedures and face delays in obtaining necessary approvals for their drone-related activities.

When asked about the potential ramifications of these persistent issues and their implications for AAM vehicles like eVTOL aircraft, particularly considering the obstacles that regulatory agencies encounter when implementing drone regulations, Futurise Sdn Bhd CEO Rosihan Zain offers the following response:

“I think it’s only fair to expect shifting priorities with different mindsets. The core programmes and initiatives have not changed, they are still going strong. We’re still trying to ensure that development happens from a wider perspective.”

Thus, challenges to implement the widespread use of eVTOL aircraft are to be expected as, difficulties aside, it is pertinent that Malaysia embarks on this initiative, asserts Rosihan.

“The challenge is to get even greater support to ensure our rollouts, our development plans and policies are implemented well and solve long-running problems that we have with first- and last-mile connectivity,” he says.

“We really need to start now because there is a lot of work to be done. If we don’t start now, we will not be ready for it.”

Infrastructure will be a major concern, which includes vertiports, which are necessary for eVTOL aircraft to take off and land. A vertiport is the space needed to support the landing and take-off of the aircraft and for passengers to embark and disembark.

“We are looking at creating hubs or vertiports around the city, or wherever the user space is. Vertiports will present a challenge in terms of infrastructure and funding. It will need a certain scale, so there will be a challenge in terms of vertiport connectivity,” says Rosihan.

“There are different makers of vertiports and they seem to have different approaches and priorities. There are some that are very focused on congested and very busy urban situations, while others are focused on outside of the city kind of setting. They all have their strategies coming into the industry, and for their business models and reasons, they’re looking at different aspects of integrating into the ecosystem.”

Given that eVTOL aircraft will have an impact on the aviation industry, airport infrastructure too will have to be adapted and new spaces for travellers to embark and disembark will have to be constructed. Moreover, there are technological, industry and regulatory challenges as well as certifications and regulatory approvals that need to be addressed.

For example, commercial airlines may begin to provide ultra-short-haul flights using eVTOL aircraft, as airlines try to capitalise on the emerging market.

Malaysia Airports Holdings Bhd already started laying the groundwork in 2021, when it entered into a tripartite memorandum of understanding with vertiport infrastructure start-up Skyports and eVTOL aircraft manufacturer Volcopter to conduct a feasibility study to explore vertiport solutions.

 

(Photo by Reuters)

A path to sky-high efficiency and reduced traffic bottlenecks

Electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, which range from nimble single-passenger wonders to large shuttles, hold the promise of bridging geographical gaps and enhancing accessibility for cities, marginalised communities and remote regions.

eVTOL aircraft have a multitude of uses. Beyond their role in revolutionising urban transit, they could be used for taxi services, transporting cargo and, most importantly, emergency response. As the world eagerly anticipates the grand spectacle of the Paris 2024 Summer Olympics and Paralympic Games, eVTOL aircraft are poised to join the festivities as air taxis, in addition to traditional forms of public transport.

Consulting firm Roland Berger in its “Advanced Air Mobility: Market Study for APAC” report divides eVTOL aircraft into two categories: passenger and non-passenger transport. For passengers, the airborne vehicles can be used as a city taxi, an airport shuttle and for inter-city connectivity.

China-based EHang states in its 2020 white paper on urban air mobility (UAM) systems that a UAM system should be autonomous, quick and hassle free, have a centralised platform and use green energy. The Nasdaq-listed company launched the first UAM passenger service in May 2019 in China’s Zhejiang province, connecting the harbour to a boutique hotel on an islet. Travel time was significantly reduced to a five-minute air ride from a 40-minute road journey.

EHang says UAMs could also eliminate car accidents and pollution. Its autonomous aerial vehicles (AAVs) can be used to deliver goods to hard-to-reach urban and rural areas, industrial parks and islands.

Improved connectivity and faster travel times with eVTOL aircraft could have a positive impact on the tourism industry. That is because these aircraft can access remote areas in Malaysia while making it easier for tourists to visit multiple destinations in a short period of time, says Futurise Sdn Bhd CEO Rosihan Zain. eVTOL aircraft could also provide new experiences for tourists such as aerial tours of the country’s landmarks.

Most importantly, eVTOL aircraft could have a promising role in emergency response, which is not limited to medical aid but can also include evacuation. These cutting-edge vehicles are able to swiftly descend on emergency sites, outpacing their grounded ambulance counterparts while maintaining a cost advantage over traditional helicopters. As we look to the horizon, it becomes evident that eVTOL aircraft may soon become the vanguard of aeromedical transport in the years to come.

The deployment of eVTOL aircraft is expected to create job opportunities in areas such as construction, engineering and project management because of the development of the necessary infrastructure. Other sectors include manufacturing, training, support services and maintenance, repair and operations (MRO).

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