Indian urban air mobility startups taking to the skies | The Financial Express

Indian urban air mobility startups taking to the skies

From flying taxis whizzing passengers across cities and towns to autonomous drones delivering medical supplies to patients, the urban air mobility (UAM) sector in India is full of promise.

Indian urban air mobility startups taking to the skies

Yesterday’s dreams of electric powered taxis and flying cars/ personal air vehicles (PAVs) are turning into reality with UAM projects. Hundreds of innovators across the globe are developing ways to move people and goods aboard newer, cleaner and smarter air vehicles.

According to strategy giant Boston Consulting Group, an Indian living in a metropolitan city spends an average of 1.5 hours more on daily commute than a person living in any other Asian city , which results in a loss of US $22 billion to Indian cities every year. 

To curb the problem of traffic, companies and innovators around the world are working on new transportation systems and UAM is one of them.

UAM leverages the sky to better link people to cities and towns, giving them more possibilities to connect. UAM can unlock clean and beautiful cities and connect the country in new ways – in the air and on the ground – bringing economic prosperity, cutting emissions and improving quality of life. 

Morgan Stanley predicted that the global urban air mobility market will grow 30% annually between 2021 and 2040, reaching $1.5 trillion by 2040, considering technological advances and accelerated investment in the industry. 

In India, urban air mobility startups have been scooping up investor cash in the hope of capitalising on this market opportunity once it takes off.

Bumble Bee Flights Pvt. Ltd, a Bengaluru-based startup in December 2022, raised Rs 300 crore ($37 million) in investment from UK-based technology and manufacturing group SRAM & MRAM Technologies and Resources Ltd.

Founded by air mobility solutions expert Arjun Das early in 2022, the startup plans to launch the first human-carrying prototype by April this year, Bumble Bee Flights said in a statement.

“The startup will use the funds to set up an assembly plant in Odisha to manufacture air taxis that can be used for travel, as air ambulances, and in the logistics and supply chain sectors,” said Das.

Air taxis would become a regular feature in the world by the year 2035 when about 10% of the transportation is expected to be managed and controlled by these flying vehicles, streamlining daily commuting, saving millions of driving hours and reducing pollution drastically, Bumble Bee Flights said.

The solar power swappable battery-operated air taxis would have the capacity to carry one person along with a suitcase and can land even on the rooftop of apartments, unlike helicopters that need specific helipads, as per the company.

They can fly for 20 minutes for a distance of 20 km, it added.

Another startup BLADE India, a joint venture between New Delhi-based investment fund, Hunch Ventures, and New York-based BLADE Urban Air Mobility, began its helicopter services in Maharashtra between Mumbai- Pune- Shirdi. The startup uses helicopters now but in the future will be using electric vertical aircrafts (EVAs). 

The company recently started services in Karnataka between the Bangalore airport and key destinations within the city, and its inter-city routes between Bangalore – Coorg- Kabini. It has also introduced its services in Goa. 

“Apart from the regular helicopter services, we started BLADE Anywhere, our personalised charter services connecting destinations across India and our med-evac service BLADE Care,” said Amit Dutta, Managing Director, BLADE India.

Aiming to make helicopter services more accessible to a larger segment of the society, Dutta said, “This is done by providing helicopter service on a pay-per-seat basis. With regular flights on our routes, people have an option of availing a seat in the helicopter instead of chartering the entire aircraft,” said Dutta. 

BLADE India’s intercity route costs an average of Rs 18,000 whereas charters would typically cost upwards of Rs 1,50000. “Our intra-city flights start at Rs 4,000 in Bangalore, a cab in the same route costs upwards of Rs 2,000 and takes more than two hours,” added Dutta.

The company has brand partnerships with over 50 brands in India and with EVA manufacturer Eve, which would have Blade India leverage up to 200 of their EVAs. 

According to Dutta, the uses of air travel are wide-ranging and include anything from travel and recreation to emergency medical services, surveillance, weather monitoring, last-mile deliveries, air taxi services, aerial fire apparatus, and humanitarian and rescue missions. The vehicles include electric passenger drones, unmanned aerial vehicles, and vertical mobility craft including helicopters, multicopters, quadcopters, and eVTOLs (UAVs). E-commerce companies would be very dependent on drones for last mile logistics.

Stating that the scope for the Indian urban air mobility market is immense, Dutta explained that India has already surpassed China as the most populous country in the world. “In 2022, our urban population stood at 35.9% and is only expected to increase. Mumbai is ranked as the third most congested city in the world with the city losing 121 hours annually with congestion level standing at 53%.” 

Congestion in just the top four metro cities in India costs the nation a whopping Rs 1.5 lakh crore, larger than the entire railway budget of the year back in 2018. “Compared to these stats, if we have to look at urban air mobility as the solution, India only has 280 commercial helicopters in which 59 are already used by the Government and 50 are operated for off-shore operations,” he pointed out.

For Dutta, this provides a huge opportunity for UAM in India. Also, India’s drone market could reach up to Rs 500 billion (US$6.8 billion) in the next five years. He thinks that the Aviation Ministry’s focus on air mobility has been commendable as well while the revision of the helicopter policy has been a great boost. “BLADE is actively working with its EVA partners to develop the UAM ecosystem in India, purely because of the sheer potential of the market,” he said. 

While NASA has identified infrastructure as one of the leading challenges to UAM and investment in infrastructure as critical and expensive, Dutta is of the opinion that charging stations, vertiports, manufacturing units, pilot training, regulations and policies are some of the key areas that need to be looked into. He also feels that private players and the government need to work together to develop a robust UAM ecosystem. 

”So that by the time the EVAs are ready for commercial use, so is the infrastructure to support them.”  

According to Dutta, regulations around democratization of helicopter travel, more helicopter corridors, waving off landing charges and reduced taxes will give the industry a major push. “Furthermore, policies need to be introduced on EVAs. GST rates on short haul services need to be reduced and be on par with commercial airline taxes for better affordability.

Private players alongside the government need to jointly work together on creating a robust UAM ecosystem. Countries such as Japan are already working on such a model and have been seeing great success.”

BLADE India is also working jointly on simulations, understanding customers, EVA charging stations and other key ancillaries required to support EVAs in India with its partner, Eve. 

“Eventually, as airports and city centers become an important short-haul route, the permissions to use airports as nodal points for EVA take-offs and landings will be key,” said Dutta, who also chairs the CII taskforce on Urban Air Mobility. 

Speaking about the safety issues in electric vertical take-off and landing vehicles, he said, “The stringent regulations in aviation also apply to urban air mobility. EVA manufacturers are going through  rigorous FFA clearance processes and there are guidelines in place to address all aspects of these aircrafts. The EVAs are treated at par with commercial airlines when it comes to guidelines, clearances, safety regulations and policies.” 

Globally renowned firms are putting EVA (Electric Vertical Aircraft) prototypes through testing and are looking to UAM as the future of mobility. Cities like Dubai, Singapore, Linz, and LA have already created roadmaps for implementing UAM and using EVAs to reduce traffic. 

“Governments and organizations are doing everything possible to make UAM the next great disruption, with over $5 billion invested globally in the development of EVA prototypes. A more apt description for UAM in 2047 could be ground mobility that does not now need wheels but flies in the sky, he stated.

Elaborating on the future plans of the startup, he said, “We are looking at a pan-india expansion in the next 24-30 months, adding that domestic tourism has bounced back and so has international travel. 

Last mile connectivity has always been an issue in India and services such as BLADE eliminate it. “This will be our ideology in connecting destinations across the country.” 

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First published on: 02-02-2023 at 13:45 IST