Taking zero-emissions air taxis from science fiction to reality

Forget about taking a car to your next meeting; fly instead. Once reserved for an elite few, short-distance air travel will become increasingly accessible. Hon Lung Chu, head of APAC at Volocopter, shares how zero-emission air taxis will reshape urban mobility.

By Economist Impact | 30 Jan 2023

Imagine arriving at Singapore’s Changi Airport, one of the world’s best airports. You clear customs seamlessly, before boarding an air taxi that whisks you to the rooftop of a building in the city-state’s central business district. After signing off on deals, you step aboard another air taxi to neighbouring Malaysia, arriving in a matter of minutes.

While most people can only imagine zero emission air taxis flying above our city skylines, Hon Lung Chu, Volocopter’s head of APAC, believes this vision will become reality within a few years.

“We expect the first route in Singapore to be a tourist experience in the Marina Bay area,” he says. “We plan to expand these to commuter belts, neighbouring commercial hubs, and to and from Changi Airport.” For Chu and his industry-leading urban air mobility (UAM) employer, obtaining safety approval from the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) is the next milestone. A memorandum of cooperation between EASA and the Civil Aviation Authority Singapore (CAAS) will allow the firm’s VoloCity air taxi to obtain concurrent certification validation in the Lion City.

For business travellers, these journeys will translate into significant time and emissions savings. Key for UAM taking off will be small and highly automated electronically-propelled aircraft that launch and land vertically, like helicopters; except much quieter.

6.7 billion

Estimated number of city dwellers worldwide by 2050, up from almost 4.4 billion in 2020

Aside from providing greater convenience and environmental benefits, UAM could also help alleviate traffic congestion. By 2050, an estimated 6.7 billion people worldwide will live in cities—up from almost 4.4 billion in 2020. From a mobility perspective, this translates into far greater volumes of goods and people moving from place to place than today. At the same time, urban cities are already facing limitations in expanding physical infrastructure with new roads, tunnels and railways. UAM can help to facilitate this shift.

“I want to work in an industry that’s contributing to meaningful change in sustainable urban living,” says Chu. “Air taxis is one such sector.”

We expect the first route in Singapore to be for tourists in the Marina Bay area. We plan to expand these routes to commuter belts, neighbouring commercial hubs—and to and from Changi Airport.

Finding the perfect base

Chu lives and breathes technology. Educated at Duke University and Harvard University in America, he has worked in leading tech pioneers such as Google, Rakuten and Twilio.

$3 billion

Target economic value that Volocopter Southeast Asia aims to create by 2030

Over that time, he has worked in global tech hubs in America, China and Japan, where he’s spearheaded market-first innovations such as the Rakuten AirMap—a joint venture between Rakuten and US-headquartered AirMap enabling e-commerce companies to log the flight plans of delivery drones, and examine airspace conditions prior to launching these aerial deliveries.

For his next adventure, Chu chose Southeast Asia. That Singapore is one of the most technologically-propelled nations in the world was one reason. The chance to work in a dynamic industry within the world’s fastest-growing region was another. For its part, beyond being a category-defining company at the forefront of cutting-edge technology, Volocopter’s APAC hub aims to create $3 billion (S$4.18 billion) in economic value and employ up to 1,300 people by 2030.

The power of partnership

When it comes to pioneering a whole new industry, collaboration is key. Singapore’s transportation industry houses a vibrant ecosystem of different actors across technology, manufacturing, infrastructure, operations and regulation, all working to transform the sector. As Volocopter works with commercial partners such as CAE, DB Schenker, Grab, Lufthansa Industry Solutions and Skyports to realise the potential of UAM in Asia, the government and other institutions play their part by instilling pro-market policies, and robust safety and industry standards.

Volocopter completed Asia’s first crewed public test flight of eVTOL aircraft in Singapore’s Central Business District in October 2019, and will be launching air taxis in Singapore by 2024.

In a new industry with little or no history, public-private partnerships between innovators like Volocopter and development authorities like the CAAS and the nation’s Economic Development Board (EDB) are critical. Each player relies on one another to advance the industry, by sharing know-how and technical competence.

Recently, Volocopter signed an MOU with EDB and JTC Corporation to create an advanced air mobility (AAM) hub at Singapore’s Seletar Aerospace Park. AAM uses electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft to move people and cargo between places not currently or easily served by surface transportation or existing aviation modes. These eVTOL aircraft, which range in size from single-passenger aircraft to larger shuttles, will bring accessibility to cities, underserved communities and geographically distant locations underserved by existing modes of transportation.


Singapore’s global ranking in KPMG’s 2021 Technology Innovation Hubs report

With strong public-private partnerships, Volocopter can also test-bed innovations in a real-world environment before launching, commercialising or scaling these efforts across Asia. Singapore’s Smart Urban Co-Innovation Lab, for instance, is an initiative dedicated to piloting smart city solutions. It collaborates with 30 of the world’s most innovative companies, from Amazon Web Services to Microsoft and Cisco systems across multiple sectors, including mobility. Such front-footedness saw Singapore rank number one globally in KPMG’s 2021 Technology Innovation Hubs report. Volocopter completed Asia’s first crewed public test flight of eVTOL aircraft in Singapore’s Central Business District in October 2019, and will be launching air taxis in Singapore by 2024.

For these reasons, the company chose the city-state as its regional base from which it intends to expand into other Asian markets. The company is already working with China, Korea, Japan and Malaysia. Furthermore, CAAS’s globally recognised high standards can help open doors for aerospace companies seeking to expand into markets that likewise enforce strict entry requirements.

Great minds think alike

In any pioneering venture, it is important to engage with like-minded people. Not only do Chu’s colleagues and industry peers inspire him to achieve new heights—they also encourage him to foster new ideas that can make an impact. In the same vein, Singapore’s connectedness has consistently earned the city its place among the world’s top start-up ecosystems.

I want to work in an industry that’s contributing to meaningful change in sustainable urban living. Air taxis is one such sector.

Connecting with peers locally and from around the world is also essential for personal success, adds Chu, no matter where people live. To this end, the Singapore Global Network connects those who are passionate about building connections, and uncovering new opportunities, including high-flying talent in the tech, urban mobility and innovation space. Connecting with Singapore’s aerospace community has been particularly enlightening for Chu, whom he continues to leverage ideas and know-how from a wide range of professionals, from pilots to regulators and industry peers.

Chu says: “For overseas professionals and entrepreneurs considering Singapore, you can develop your skills and know-how within a thriving ecosystem, and become part of a community of collaborative innovation.”

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This article was first published by Economist Impact.

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