While advanced air mobility (AAM) promises to provide cost-effective new passenger transportation options in cities across the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region, many countries are taking early steps in adopting uncrewed aircraft systems (UAS) with limited—and sometimes—nonexistent regulatory and operational frameworks. Taking the lessons learned from India, Vignesh Santhanam—who is the lead for aerospace and drones with the World Economic Forum (WEF) in that country—underscored the importance of bridging the divide between APAC communities and emerging technologies at last week’s Global Urban & Advanced Air Summit in Singapore.
“There is a novelty factor with drones and there are many obvious use cases in remote and inaccessible areas,” he said during a panel discussion. “However, when we talk about public acceptance—be it drones or AAM—the strategy should be to empower the locals and give them the tools in their hands to be able to solve problems for themselves.”
The WEF has a pair of Medicine from the Sky (MTFS) drone initiatives underway, as well as the Aviate global advanced air mobility initiative announced at the Paris Air Show in June. The first MTFS projects are in the Southern Indian state of Telangana and the second in Arunachal Pradesh in the northeast of the country. In leading these, Santhanam adopted a grassroots, safety-focused lens, including the implementation of a community-wide drone ambassador program and involving students during launches and operations. It has been a crawl-walk-run approach.,
This strategy not only fostered public acceptance of medical drone deliveries but also allowed Santhanam to measure the social and economic impacts linked to UAS as outlined in a 2022 WEF MTFS briefing paper. Among the findings was the recognition that cost may not be the primary consideration when making decisions about transporting essential, time-sensitive payloads, such as life-saving drugs or a seven-pound defibrillator. In this sense, the MTFS highlighted the need to consider drones as a long-term investment for enhancing the quality of primary healthcare in remote rural areas.
While recognizing that India views aviation as a core activity, the second angle of acceptance was how to build confidence in the regulator, he said, adding that the country’s government had not liberalized drone operations when the MTFS commenced in December 2019. To achieve buy-in, the team started with small multicopters with small or no payloads flying within the line-of-sight before moving to larger payloads, extended line-of-sight, and later, beyond-line-of-sight (BLOS) operations. Today, India is a fairly liberalized drone regime with more than 80 percent of its landmass designated as a green zone, which permits diverse drone operations, including commercial BLOS with type certification, Santhanam said.
In examining the needs of South Asia and Southeast Asia and recognizing that each country is in its own state of development with varied political and cultural dimensions, Santhanam stressed that a copy-and-paste solution for the region is not possible. What the MTFS did was build medical delivery models that could be iterated and improvised into neighboring states, such as Nepal, which share similar geographical and economic constraints.
Bridging the Drone-eVTOL Divide
From a regulatory standpoint, discussions in India are evolving around airspace management, sparking broader conversations regarding urban and regional air mobility, and more specifically new eVTOL aircraft.
“When it comes to eVTOL use cases, I would be looking at air ambulances and emergency response along with disaster drones,” Santhanam said. Regarding infrastructure, solutions are needed to address varying geographical conditions, high population density areas, and the impacts of climate change, he added.
Santhanam told AIN he believes eVTOL adoption in India would be high given the disposable incomes of the urban middle class and the willingness to pay. He also emphasized the opportunity for AAM to close the gap between urban and rural areas. In this respect, it is critical for governments in developing countries to bake in fit-for-purpose infrastructure, safety, and economic factors, ensuring fair pricing, while also assessing cost per mile. Santhanam stressed the importance of deploying efficient aircraft based on various metrics such as climb rate, cruising speed, descent, and maintenance against the backdrop of both urban and regional air mobility.
“We shouldn’t ignore the need for greater regional mobility," he said. "We need to move rural parts of the country and open up opportunities for rural youth so they may have better access to employment and investment. That can only happen if they can transcend distances seamlessly.”
When considering the potential of AAM and the transformative impact it will have on traditional aviation, Santhanam also stressed the need to ensure that ethical considerations are being addressed, especially as aerial vehicles progress towards autonomy. “As we move forward, we shouldn’t forget safety is paramount and confidence building is everything. We shouldn’t rush into total autonomy but rather make sure we have a curated journey towards it, which everyone agrees.”