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By Elan Head

An award-winning journalist, Elan is also a commercial helicopter pilot and an FAA Gold Seal flight instructor with helicopter and instrument ratings. Follow her on Twitter @elanhead

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Electric aircraft could be a new way to tour World Heritage sites

Anyone who has taken a helicopter tour of the Grand Canyon knows it is an extraordinary way to see one of the world’s natural wonders. But helicopter tours, besides being expensive, are also noisy and polluting — qualities that many visitors feel are fundamentally at odds with places of great scenic beauty.

Nasca Lines geoglyph
The Nasca Lines in Peru, on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites, are an example of geoglyphs that are best appreciated from an aerial perspective. iStock Photo

Take away those properties, however, and air touring offers a lot of advantages for sites of cultural or environmental significance, providing an exceptional visitor experience without the destructive impacts of hordes of tourists on the ground. That’s why University of North Carolina (UNC) professor Brent Lane believes that new-generation eVTOL aircraft — cleaner, quieter, and potentially much cheaper than helicopters — could have transformative benefits for certain UNESCO World Heritage sites that are ideally seen from the air.

“We know that in many cases, air touring of natural and cultural heritage sites has a lot of market appeal,” Lane told eVTOL.com. “So we have a strong market demand for this sort of experience, but we have a technology [in helicopters] that’s too intrusive.”

By contrast, in eVTOL aircraft, “we seem to have this wonderful potential solution that may enable a form of aerial touring of sensitive world heritage sites that would not be hampered by the intrusive effects of current technology,” he said.

Lane — who will be presenting his ideas next week at the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) Advisory Committee meeting in Marrakesh, Morocco — is a specialist in heritage economics who studies ways to help local communities capitalize on heritage assets while simultaneously ensuring their conservation. Drawing on a background in venture capital and a lifelong interest in archaeology, he is particularly interested in creative alternatives to traditional forms of mass tourism, in which crowds too often “trample a place to death and really gain very little appreciation of the site itself, other than going to the restroom and the gift shop.”

Lane noted that this problem is especially acute at World Heritage sites that are large in size and difficult to access or fully take in from the ground. These include geoglyphs like the famous Nasca Lines in southern Peru — enormous line drawings etched out of the soil of the Nasca Desert between 500 BCE and 500 CE, many of them in the shapes of animals and plants. According to Lane, there are scores of such sites, all over the globe, that would particularly benefit from an eVTOL touring option.

“It’s going to be that overlap of three characteristics: limited ground transportation, large-scale sites, and sites that are best experienced or perceived from an aerial perspective,” he said. “You can look at the [more than 1,100] World Heritage sites and rather quickly come up with about 100 of the top sites where this might be worth pursuing say in a 10-year timeframe.”

Helicopter at Grand Canyon
Helicopters offer a spectacular way to see places like the Grand Canyon, but their noise creates negative experiences for other visitors. Dan Megna Photo

Lane noted that even for many of the larger World Heritage sites, the distances involved in an air tour should be “well within the technical capabilities of this technology.” Moreover, he suggested, the diversity of World Heritage sites provides a range of regulatory and social settings in which to trial eVTOL operations.

“They’re in every potential political setting, economic setting, geographic setting,” he said. “So there’s no one model that needs to be followed, which means there are a lot of targets of opportunity.”

In addition to his presentation in Morocco, Lane has arranged to meet with the managers of several U.S. World Heritage sites to discuss eVTOL testing opportunities. He is also organizing an economic development seminar at UNC on Nov. 20 to explore future uses of eVTOLs in North Carolina.

However, he is most interested in establishing relationships with eVTOL companies that are also excited about the potential for environmentally sensitive air tours.

“The first step from my perspective is to get a cross section of the aviation side interacting with the heritage side, then we begin to have an informed discussion between these two,” he said. “There are very practical technological issues that will define the parameters — not what they are now, but what they would need to be to make this an acceptable or desirable form of tourist encounter.”

Putting on his venture capital hat, he also pointed out that for eVTOL developers, air touring could represent an attractive alternative market to the increasingly competitive urban air mobility space.

“From an investor’s perspective, I want to bet not on a horse race where there are a lot of horses, but I want to bet on a lot of races,” he said. “I want a lot of finish lines . . . which is to say a lot of market entry opportunities and not a whole lot of people rushing to get to only one.”

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  1. Your article is spot on. We spent 11 days hiking through Zyon. Bryce, and the Grand Canyon. As beautiful as these places are and how much they lend themselves to contemplation, it was difficult to take it all in with vehicles with loud straight pipes rumbling through the serenity. We took a boat ride and it was a gasoline boat. Then in the middle of the Colorado river watching those impressive red rocks, we heard loud airplanes circling above.

    It was already bad enough to see hordes of tourists playing their own music on their cellphones, talking loudly, getting in the middle of pictures without the bustle and noise from around and above. They are called picture hunters. There were even initial carvings on thousand years old ancient pictographs.

    This article is spot on. We felt the same sadness. We need quieter eVTOLs and eCTOLs ASAP.

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