Urban Air Mobility: How to build an operating system in Latin America
Interview with Felipe Varon, Co-Founder and CEO at Varon Vehicles
Most of the prominent UAM companies are based in the USA, China or Europe. However, UAM has also arrived in Latin America. Despite the discontinuation of Airbus' VOOM helicopter services in Sao Paulo, Varon Vehicles is eager to revolutionize people's mobility. Read in our interview with Felipe Varon, Co-Founder and CEO of Varon Vehicles, about his vision of a Latin American version of UAM and how it will provide a solution for urban mobility and environmental problems.
For our readers out there – can you briefly explain who you are and what the mission of Varon Vehicles is?
I am the CEO and founder of Varon Vehicles. We are a team of five Colombians and we have a very specific plan to implement Urban Air Mobility in Latin America, starting from Colombia. We are not reinventing any lightbulbs, but we are working with all ecosystem partners together from VTOL aircraft, airspace integration and vertiports. We are developing the required operational parameters and the "integrator" of putting it all together to ensure smooth implementation of UAM in Latin America.
What was your idea behind it? When did you start it?
The idea for VTOL (Vertical Take-Off and Landing) aircraft crossed my mind around 22 years ago. The aircraft would consist of a solid structure powered by electric motors and fixed propellers and controlled by onboard electronics. At that time, we called these radically new flying devices "flying platforms" as there was not a name for them yet. Four years ago, I founded Varon Vehicles with the aim of implementing these aircraft to solve city problems. And since then we have been working very hard and gaining ever more traction to build the whole industry and ecosystem where these vehicles will operate in.
Which part of the Urban Air Mobility Ecosystem is covered by Varon Vehicles?
Varon Vehicles is aiming to develop a new type of mobility infrastructure. We call them infrastructure networks, as they connect our vertiports in an urban area with permanent virtual lanes. Within these lanes our VTOL vehicles will operate, without interfering with other aircraft and without putting a burden on traditional Air Traffic Control. By building this system, we can provide services to a wide range of customers and different use cases. Our infrastructure networks can be implemented in any city in a low-cost manner and with no need for per-mile physical construction, since roads or rails are not needed.
How do you think Varon Vehicles is different compared to other UAM companies?
I believe we differ from our view of perspective. Most UAM companies are seeing in UAM better mobility from an aeronautics perspective. I am an engineer – I have been involved with aerial vehicles and unmanned systems, strategic and tactical, and many other aeronautical technologies for more than 18 years, and I understand what that means. However, we are not seeing better mobility from the aeronautics perspective, we're seeing better mobility from the urban perspective, and that different view in our perspective changes many things. We are also not viewing Urban Air Mobility as a service for VIPs or corporate customers only – these markets have been already served with helicopters for decades and have not been successful to solve mobility related problems. However, VTOL aircraft will be less complex than helicopters and can operate with lower operating costs. Therefore, we can leave the perspective of aeronautics and apply the perspective of urban mobility, where we can reach much more people. That is the biggest difference we have in our company, and that is what drives everything when we talk about our infrastructure.
Can you elaborate more on the infrastructure – what is your vision regarding the physical (vertiports) and digital infrastructure (mobility networks)?
Well, we think Urban Air Mobility is a new type of mobility infrastructure in its entirety. We call our systems infrastructure networks, which are a network of our vertiports connected to each other via low altitude virtual lanes over the city airspace. We see this as a new type of mobility infrastructure, as a mix of vertiports and virtual lanes. We will not need to build anything physical to generate connectivity. All we need to do is to set up a new virtual lane – no need for physical construction of rail systems or asphalt streets. As you can see this is not about the vehicles or aviation. We want to and we have to see things from a much broader perspective and that is the urban perspective. We have four operational pillars on which we base our concept: 1) Transportation 2) Real Estate 3) Energy and 4) Data. We have advanced a lot on the energy source for our systems. Where will the energy at the vertiports come from to charge and operate the eVTOL vehicles? How can we ensure that this energy is green energy, otherwise we will not operate environmental-friendly and would have failed our purpose? By having these persistent low altitude systems over cities and suburbs, what sorts of very valuable and currently non-existent data can we capture and process for environmental and climate studies, city behavior, live mapping and big data?
Why do you want to implement your UAM concept in Latin America at first?
We are a US company, incorporated in the United States and we're very involved with the UAM ecosystem in the United States, involved with stakeholders like NASA, FAA, with entities like MIT and a large number of aerospace corporations, because that’s where our technologies come from. We chose to implement in Latin America because the impact will be much more visible in a simpler manner. We are very convinced that, number one, we need to realize that the problems we are solving are urban problems. And here's where things are getting interesting in Latin America, because of the lack of proper mobility infrastructure in the developing world, precisely. Urban Air Mobility can become very, very successful, if it can provide connectivity within cities and suburbs where there is no proper ground infrastructure. Besides moving people, we see a huge potential for freight transportation. Latin America suffers from poor infrastructure which prevents or hinders city growth. Mostly, the cost to provide the much-needed infrastructure is the blocking point for governments. Cities in Latin America are relatively small in size but among the worst in the world when it comes to mobility problems. Thus, Urban Air Mobility has a tremendous potential in these countries, as we only need few vertiports and much simpler operational parameters – it can be a disruptive technology.
On top, we are very confident about the huge potential of tourism applications in Latin America. For example, Colombia is tremendously attractive for touristic sightseeing use cases – e.g. national park visits that cannot be operated by helicopters due to noise and fossil fuel. A potential eVTOL would be much cleaner and more silent, the aircraft could operate in much lower altitudes and access places helicopters cannot.
So you see UAM as a way to solve mobility infrastructure issues in Latin America?
Yes, it really has the potential to be disruptive when it comes to mobility infrastructure and we will be able to provide a solution for city growth problems in Latin America. However, there is more to that: pollution. Many cities in Latin America, for example Bogota and Medellin, have experienced recent quarantines and lockdowns even before COVID-19 appeared due to bad air quality. By replacing old trucks and buses with clean eVTOL we can positively impact pollution and environmental problems.
How do you see the UAM implementation potential in Europe then?
We actually got invited to implement our concept in a European country. We visited this country, investigated and analyzed the possibilities very deeply, but decided Latin America was a much better opportunity, and have been designing Urban Air Mobility for these countries. You cannot just copy our concept in Latin America and expect it to work in the USA or in Europe. There are urban differences, cultural differences, economic differences – which means you need to design, build and tailor the Urban Air Mobility ecosystem to each specific region. And we are doing this specifically for Latin America.
What's your plan going forward?
We have outlined a specific implementation plan already. We are currently working with all ecosystem participants hand-in-hand to make UAM a reality. We are working with governments, Latin American industrial partners and with Civil Aviation Authorities (CAA’s) to develop and implement our own airspace integration architecture based around safety and simplicity.
Do you have other partnerships or companies you are currently working with to create the ecosystem?
Yes, we have a number of partnerships and collaboration – dozens of companies and entities mostly from the United States. Most of our required technologies, from vehicle technologies to software to vertiport ground systems to energy systems, will come from the USA. Some from Europe, as well. We act as an orchestrator, define parameters and coordinate integration, to build an operating system. We know what the Latin American market needs and are studying implementation. So, we are constantly adjusting our parameters while designing and building our infrastructure networks. In Colombia, we are in contact with the cities of Bogota, Cartagena, Cali and Medellin to launch our airspace integration solutions there. And just like commercial airlines today, we intend to operate many different brands of eVTOL vehicles, depending on the use case specifics.
Thank you very much for your insights. One last question for today: How do you expect the development and implementation of UAM to happen in Latin America compared to Europe, Asia or North America? Will there be a difference?
I am a firm believer that precisely because of the tremendous mobility problem that we have in Latin America - or let me talk about Colombia specifically - because of the tremendous mobility problem that we have in Colombia, and because of the type of people and the drive that we have to find solutions to our problems, and because of Colombians’ technological and entrepreneurial drive, I'm a firm believer that Colombia will become a world leader in Urban Air Mobility. In Latin America, UAM can be implemented faster, way simpler, more economically, and at the same time with far more impact to people’s quality of life, which will make it far more visible than in the developed world. That's our firm belief.