Uber Elevate’s local rival: VTOL Aviation project

A small, relatively unknown company in Navi Mumbai may soon give an Indian response to Uber’s aerial ride-sharing service, Uber Elevate

by Lalatendu Mishra

Under its flying taxi project, Uber may well have tied up with five global aerospace giants, Embraer, Pipistrel Aircraft, Karem, Boeing subsidiary Aurora Flight Science and Bell to produce the flying taxi before the launch scheduled in 2023, but here a small company from Navi Mumbai. But Navi Mumbai's VTOL Aviation Pvt. Ltd., in collaboration with technocrats at Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, is working quietly to develop air taxis that may be a game-changer for India in the global aviation market.

The company, started by logistics entrepreneur Kalyan Chowdhury, in his mid-40s, is indigenously developing battery-operated air taxis that may be commercialised and deployed into service by 2025.

The plan is to develop two- and four-seater, battery-operated small planes that can take off and land anywhere. These will have both civilian and defence applications, and can be operated by pilots or be fully-automatic unmanned aerial vehicles to ferry passengers and cargo.

The air taxis, based on vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) technology are being developed in stages at IIT Kanpur. Drone testing, the first stage, with a payload capacity of up to 25 kg has been carried out successfully by the IIT Kanpur team. Development of autopilot by a team of experts is under way in Hyderabad.

VTOL Aviation plans to invest ₹200 crore (collected from internal sources and bank loans) in the initial phase with manufacturing facility at Navi Mumbai. A company official said ₹15 crore has already been invested.

The new advanced products will be the first ever Indian products in the Indian aviation sector, people associated with the project said. “We are building the air taxi in three configurations. They will be fully electric and have hybrid propulsion systems. This technology enables aircraft to take off and land almost anywhere: land, water, snow, helipads and rooftops,” said Professor Ajoy Kumar Ghosh, Head of Aerospace Engineering and Flight Lab, IIT Kanpur, who is heading the project.

“We are convinced that the products can be delivered and are making sincere efforts towards it. Initially, 30 IIT students are working on this project and as it progresses, more will join,” Professor Ghosh said.

He said a drone with payload capacity of up to 100 kg can be possible by 2020 while the air taxi will be a reality by 2025 because it would take two years for testing and certification, without which it cannot be airborne.

Scaled down prototypes have been tested and the designs for VTOL Air Taxis and VTOL UAVs, have been reviewed by people such as Dr. Vijay Kumar Saraswat, former Secretary of Defence R&D and also a member of NITI Aayog, Professor T.K. Ghoshal from Jadavpur University and senior scientists from various research laboratories.

“The primary emphasis has been on safety features including robust battery management system. The vision, under which VTOL Aviation India was incorporated, was to leverage advanced breakthrough innovations and developments in the field of aviation,” said Mr. Chowdhury, founder and MD, VTOL Aviation Pvt Ltd.

“The objective behind setting up this company was to reshape the future of flight with the ultimate breakthrough in the aviation sector,” he said.

The speed range of model-1 of the VTOL UAV & VTOL air taxi would be in the range of 100-250 km an hour. Model-2 would have an even higher speed range and endurance, Mr. Chowdhury said.

VTOL Aviation’s products are expected to find application in sectors such as civil defence, paramedics, emergency services, surveillance,aviation training, tourism, logistics and business chartering besides air taxi service.