Why VTOL aircraft may be the answer to India’s creaking traffic infrastructure
By Satyendra Pandey | CNBC TV18 | June 17, 2019
> The business case for VTOL aircraft is predicated on saving time by bypassing airports.
> The VTOL tech will have to overcome several hurdles to gain commercial acceptance.
With rapid urbanisation and the projection of close to two-thirds of the world’s population living in cities by 2050, congestion and productivity loss — both on the ground and in the air — are huge challenges. For India this is exacerbated.
The country will see the highest increase in urban population. By 2050, India will add more people to its cities than the number currently residing in them. And this is already being witnessed in cities such as Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru, which have grown rapidly.
Unfortunately, the expansion of these cities has not been met with a concurrent expansion of transport infrastructure. The result: extensive traffic delays and productivity loss (both time and money). Congestion is reaching a point of contagion.
This issue is being exploited by firms leveraging vertical takeoff and landing technology (VTOL). The advent of VTOL is likely to redefine aviation as we know it.
The VTOL opportunity
VTOL technology enables aircraft to take off and land like a helicopter while cruising like airplanes. This enables access to otherwise constrained areas of the city besides saving time and money.
Overall, the business case for VTOL aircraft is predicated on saving time by bypassing airports. The fact that one of the biggest challenges facing general aviation is the lack of airport capacity only furthers this business case. In the case of India, there are very few secondary airports, which cements this further. VTOL is hoping to fill this gap. And the technology has the potential to disrupt an entire market via its extension to larger jets (though that may be years away).
The added advantage of VTOL machines is that they can also engage in conventional takeoffs and landings (CTOL). In fact, CTOL operations help extend the range as the power required to get off the ground and back on-to it is much lower. What this effectively does is open up the aircraft to hundreds of existing airfields thereby providing an extremely flexible transportation solution.
Key players have prototypes in various stages of development
VTOL manufacturers are spread out across the globe. Considering various factors including funding, order book, range, capacity and capability, XTI Aircraft of Denver is currently best positioned. Their prototype aircraft called the TriFan 600 successfully completed flight tests on May 2, 2019. The aircraft is a hybrid-electric design, and FAA certification is expected in 3-4 years with deliveries to commence by 2023. As a testament to its product, XTI has already taken in eighty orders worldwide, including from India. The aircraft’s versatility and cost of operation make for a very disruptive force in business aviation.
While several have dismissed VTOL as too futuristic, it is worth repeating that the United Nations estimates that by 2050 almost two thirds of the world’s population will live in urban areas. This trend has consequences that must be planned for starting today. Not doing so can result in significant wastage of human capital while causing a drain on resources. Consider this statistic: in 2017, the analytics firm Inrix, which provides location-based traffic data and analytics, estimated that lost productivity due to traffic delays caused $305 billion loss for the United States and a $110 billion-dollar loss for Europe. If not addressed, this is likely to get worse. And this is exactly where the VTOL technology can make a positive difference -- by helping maximise one’s time, which is increasingly a scarce resource in the business world.
VTOL business aircraft may just be one of the most significant disruptions to hit the market in the years to come.
Satyendra Pandey is the former head of strategy at a fast-growing airline. Previously, he was with the Centre for Aviation (CAPA) where he led the advisory and research teams. Satyendra has been involved in restructuring, scaling and turnarounds.
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