Skyports is tying up with Germany's Volocopter for trials later this year.
With the number of passenger drones taking flight tipped to hit 3,000 by 2025, Singapore is positioning itself early on to gain market share in the rapidly growing urban air mobility segment.
In May, British vertiport owner and operator Skyports and German air taxi manufacturer Volocopter announced plans to build Singapore’s first mobile air taxi port within the year. Volocopter has scheduled inner urban flight tests in the latter half of the year which will be followed by public flight trials.
Damian Kysely, the infrastructure manager for Skyports, believes that Singapore is still a “great market” for air taxi services. Despite the city state’s challenging topology, he shares that Singapore still has leading vehicle manufacturer and operators and progressive regulators going for it and supporting its bid.
In an exclusive interview with Singapore Business Review, Kysely discusses how they plan to make this futuristic vision come to life in the city state .
Can you share with us your career highlights? We understand that you have extensive career experience in the air mobility space and transport space, co-founding a data analytics start-up, aerial mobility platform among others. How do you plan to leverage on this experience in your role at Skyports?
Kysely: I started my career in the traditional transport sector, with the aim of using digital technologies to improve passenger experience and operational efficiency of existing transport modes. Over time, I realised that whilst applying cutting-edge solutions to existing transport systems is important, the improvements would never be enough to match the rate of urbanisation and the ever-increasing demands on our transport infrastructure. It was clear that if I wanted to be part of something truly revolutionary, I had to look at the third dimension and find innovative ways to use the airspace.
I then co-founded a geospatial data analytics company to help companies, such as Skyports, identify more quickly suitable drone landing locations in cities. To accelerate the progress of Urban Air Mobility, I also co-founded a community platform that brings together the various industry stakeholders to support collaboration.
At Skyports, I’m able to use my expertise and experience whilst working with air taxi and cargo drone manufacturers, real estate owners, regulators and cities to build the right infrastructure in the right places to enable this exciting new mode of transport to benefit citizens of the world’s major cities.
Skyports, in partnership with Volocopter, is aiming to help air taxis take off in Singapore through the establishment of the city’s first vertiport. Why did you choose Singapore and what opportunities do you see in the city state?
Kysely: We’ve joined forces with Volocopter to bring the entire air taxi solution to Singapore. What is key for establishing air taxi operations is the presence of a leading vehicle manufacturer and operator, willing and progressive regulators, and the provider of landing infrastructure. Singapore now has all three components and that’s why we’re excited about planning and delivering a network of vertiports across the city state.
Singapore is not a typical congested city, such as Jakarta or Los Angeles, requiring air taxi services to fly over suffocating traffic. The Lion City can utilise air taxis in a way that complements its existing transport infrastructure like the MRT, connect areas such as neighbouring islands which are currently underserved, or introduce new connection for routes where existing infrastructure limits traffic flow during peak hours.
Given your experiences on spotting disused rooftop potential, would you say that Singapore has a lot of under-utilised helipads that can be used for air taxi operations?
Kysely: Singapore is one of those cities where helipads are scarce. The only public-use helipad was on the Swissotel, which is not being used anymore. With regards to under-utilised rooftops, Singapore is very good at utilising its built environment efficiently. In addition to what they’re already doing with urban farms and rooftop gardens, accommodating infrastructure for this new transport mode would further elevate the country’s efficiency in landscape planning, another step towards being a truly smart city.
Can you share with us updates on your plans to develop and implement the necessary infrastructure for air taxis? How’s it going so far?
Kysely: We are at the beginning of the journey, but we’ve been making good, solid progress. We’ve established strong relationships with the world’s leading vehicle manufacturers, sit on most standards and industry bodies, work with the aviation regulators such as EASA and CAAS to develop regulations for vertiports, and most importantly, we’ve secured tens of vertiport sites around the world with the ambition to increase the pace in the coming year.
In Singapore, our partnership with Volocopter has proven to be very beneficial as we’re able to bring the entire end-to-end solution to the city. Moreover, we can progress much faster together as we double-down on our respective expertise; Skyports focuses on planning and developing the infrastructure and Volocopter focuses on certifying its vehicle and planning for flight operations. It is already public knowledge that Volocopter plans to carry out flight trials in Singapore by the end of this year. We are also building the very first full-scale VoloPort prototype which will be revealed at the ITS World Congress in October by Marina Bay!
What factors do you consider when it comes to building the infrastructure for UAM? Can you share with us the strengths of your infrastructure and service quality? How important is getting infrastructure right?
Kysely: We’ve developed a very rigorous process for assessing sites for their suitability to accommodate a vertiport. There are numerous feasibility factors we take into account, including structural viability and likelihood of planning approval, achieving aviation regulation sign-off and finally from community impact.
When designing a network of vertiports we carefully investigate the demand for such services at individual locations. It is absolutely crucial to get the infrastructure right as it will directly impact the safety and efficiency of air taxi operations. It is also disruptive and costly to adapt infrastructure that has already been put in place and is already operational. For that reason, we ensure our vertiport designs are vehicle agnostic, provide a seamless passenger experience whilst not compromising on safety and security, and ultimately our landing fees to operators are affordable.
A number of Singapore-based firms have chosen to operate in markets outside Singapore, citing stringent regulations as challenges. What regulations are these and why are they making it difficult to operate vertiports and air taxis in Singapore? How do you plan to work with regulators?
Kysely: From our experience with the government so far, they are stringent on issues related to safety and security, and that's something we appreciate and is in line with our own standards as well. Singaporean agencies are also very strategic in planning for the next 10-15 years and we must make sure that we are aligned with those objectives.
I suspect that the companies you’re referring to operate traditional helicopters which can be quite noisy and expensive to operate, which is one of the reasons why helicopter traffic is not very common in Singapore. Electric air taxis, such as Volocopter, bring an entire new paradigm and possibilities for urban aviation. These vehicles will be quieter, safer and cheaper to operate, offering Singapore an alternative mode of transportation which is highly complementary to its MRT.
In your opinion, what regulations are in need of revisions to ensure smoother operations for air taxi operators?
Kysely: Technology, in this case drones and air taxis, offers new possibilities and progress if implemented correctly and Singapore is seizing the opportunity here by leading the pack. Countries around the world are racing to be the first adopter with a robust regulatory framework and commercialised drone services. New or changes to existing regulations are required across the board to enable air taxi operations; however, that’s simply the nature of the regulatory process. Technological innovation always comes first, and regulation follows. The most progressive regulators minimise the time gap.
What milestones are you hoping to achieve this year? What about your long-term outlook?
Kysely: Our efforts currently are largely focused on the build-up of the VoloPort prototype at the ITS World Congress in October. We hope this will accelerate our conversations with landlords and regulators by allowing them to touch and feel what a real vertiport looks like. It has never been done before and so a big part of it is about collecting feedback and ideas that will test and improve our designs. Our discussions with landlords are generally very positive and we look forward to working with them even more closely to lay the ground-work necessary for establishing a vertiport network in Singapore. We always look to bring new real estate partners on board!
Given your focus on Southeast Asia, how are you currently dealing with regulatory differences across SEA nations? What are your future plans in Singapore and SEA?
Kysely: The regulatory regimes, use-cases and cultures are quite diverse across Southeast Asia. There's no one-size-fits-all approach, and we'll have to be very mindful of these differences as we expand across the region. Fortunately, Singapore is perceived as a role model for many cities worldwide, particularly in Asia, and so once the regulatory framework is developed here, hopefully other nations will follow in its footsteps. Nevertheless, we’re committed to developing a close working relationship with all respective authorities before entering a new market. The SEA region has huge potential for Urban Air Mobility. It is home to many cities with expanding economies but also increasing congestion which air taxis and drones can help remedy. But for now, we’re here to make Singapore the first country in the world with electric air taxi services.
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