While COVID-19 restrictions have grounded most of Australia’s international and interstate air travel, the country’s government has pushed ahead with developing policy and regulatory frameworks for a future air mobility industry, including electric air taxis.
“Momentum is building,” said Natasha Santha of the global strategy consulting firm L.E.K., who advises business and government on new and disruptive transport technologies. While it “might not be visible,” she said, a lot of work has gone on behind the scenes over the last 18 to 24 months setting the foundations for an advanced air mobility (AAM) industry.
In the midst of the pandemic, the Australian government and aviation regulators released a national emerging aviation technologies policy statement outlining 14 policy and regulatory initiatives, many of which are now under way. An aviation safety roadmap is due for public consultation by the end of 2021, consultation is open on drone noise regulations, and regulators are working on an unmanned aircraft traffic management system. The government is also considering the role of AAM and remotely piloted aircraft in its broader airspace policy review.
While Australia isn’t likely to be a first mover in the AAM industry, Santha said, it won’t be far from the front. She pointed to the country’s world-leading aviation safety record, and its reputation as the first to approve commercial drone delivery.
Dr. Reece Clothier is president of the Australian Association for Unmanned Systems (AAUS). He said the “emerging aviation technology policy work by the government is laying an exceptionally strong foundation for the future for the sector, one that clearly wishes to position Australia as a leader in the uptake of AAM.”
He praised the government for concurrently addressing “policy aspects such as safety, noise, airspace, privacy, security, spectrum, finance, and land use.” He also applauded the government’s co-design approach, bringing industry representatives into the regulatory design process rather than having them review the outcome.
Alongside policy and regulatory frameworks, Australia now has a well-established civil and defense drone industry, a local eVTOL developer, and new air taxi services and delivery proposals. Melbourne-based Skyportz is working with a range of different players on planning for the infrastructure to support the existing and future air mobility industry.
Plans for an Uber Air taxi service in Melbourne — announced in 2019 — appear to have been put on ice following Joby’s acquisition of Uber Elevate and the arrival of the global pandemic. Earlier this month, however, a new air taxi proposal emerged, with locally based Microflite teaming up with Eve Urban Air Mobility to trial a “proof of concept” service. The service is likely to take off next year with helicopters, and plans to use eVTOL aircraft by 2026.
Unlike Uber Air, Microflite and Eve intend to start small with existing infrastructure and helicopters, and bring in the new technology over time. “We envisage eVTOLs will operate alongside helicopters initially,” said Microflite chief executive Jonathan Booth, explaining that the approach should help build community confidence and acceptance.
Microflite already has a substantial vertical take-off and landing business. It operates 22 emergency services and tourism helicopters and runs pilot training and aircraft maintenance services in Melbourne. Before COVID-19, Microflite transported around 30,000 passengers a year. Currently its tourism business is closed with Melbourne in the midst of the city’s sixth lockdown.
Booth is optimistic about 2022, however, since his business experienced a spike in demand when previous lockdowns were lifted. He said Microflite is the only Australian helicopter operator actively working to bring eVTOLs to market, and is well placed to form the basis for a future industry given “we operate aircraft, we maintain the aircraft, and we train pilots to fly the aircraft.”
Microflite has also partnered with infrastructure group Skyportz to protect existing helicopter landing infrastructure, as well as scope and prepare what’s needed to support a future AAM sector.
“One of the key factors at play at the moment is ensuring we can protect existing infrastructure and existing industry and existing operators; protect them and ensure that their businesses can keep running until such time as eVTOLs integrate and become part of what we do,” Booth said.
Skyportz director Clem Newton-Brown has a background in planning and state and local politics. Through Skyportz, he is building networks of interested parties — like developers and property organizations — and planning for the landing infrastructure needed to get any future air mobility initiatives off the ground in Melbourne. He agrees with Santha that the federal leadership and forward thinking by respected federal agencies like the Civil Aviation Safety Authority and AirServices Australia are “the best reason for these aircraft to come to Australia.”
Bringing the community along hinges first on new aircraft demonstrating that they are quieter to operate, Newton-Brown said. He believes this would be best achieved by starting with a small number of vehicles on existing flight routes.
Skyportz has also partnered with Electra Aero to investigate bringing electric short take-off and landing (eSTOL) planes to the state of Victoria and is developing what Newton-Brown calls “realistic” use cases for passenger and freight transport. He suggested that the first use stage would involve flying freight or passengers between existing airports and small aerodromes in regional centers. Then there’s potential to expand by using landing sites in low populated areas like city fringe sites, industrial parks, and regional cities.
Newton-Brown said that while many think the industry is far off in the future, “as soon as there’s an aircraft that can fly with a pilot, using the existing infrastructure, there’s no reason why they can’t be operating tomorrow.”
Drone delivery in Australia is already relatively well-established. Alphabet’s Wing, which provides drone delivery services in the suburbs Gungahlin, Australian Capital Territory and Logan, Queensland recently clocked up two years of operation and more than 50,000 deliveries of coffees and snacks in 2021 alone. Swoop Aero drones, meanwhile, are delivering essential medical supplies and undertaking work like shark spotting and bushfire detection.
According to AAUS, drone operators are working across many diverse markets in Australia, including civil infrastructure and construction, agriculture, environmental services, surveying, and mining.
In terms of Australian-made vehicles, local company AMSL Aero is building Vertiia, a piloted, four-passenger eVTOL aircraft for the aeromedical and passenger markets. AMSL Aero is led by aeronautical engineer and pilot Andrew Moore together with Siobhan Lyndon.
Not everything has been completely smooth sailing for the advanced air mobility industry down under, however.
A 2019 parliamentary inquiry into Wing’s first drone delivery trial in Bonython, Australian Capital Territory found residents were concerned about noise, safety, and privacy due to the collection of data on non-users. Local community groups said they were not informed or consulted prior to the trial commencing. Residents reported safety incidents such as drones landing or delivering parcels to the wrong driveway, and found the noise “extremely aggravating.”
Following Uber Air’s announcement of Melbourne as one of three global launch sites, the city council produced its new 2030 transport strategy including a policy to “protect amenity, privacy, and equity as urban air transport technology and services develop.”
And then there’s the disruption caused by the global pandemic. Travel of all forms — on the ground and in the sky — in Australia is currently significantly curtailed and is expected to remain so for some time. Apart from regulation and policy, what happens next and when for Australia’s advanced air mobility sector will depend to some extent on vaccination levels increasing and restrictions easing.