Aviation International News: Uncrewed Traffic Management Pioneer Kick-starts Advanced Air Mobility in Asia

Singapore-based tech start-up, Heron AirBridge, is expanding its reach in the Asia-Pacific region with an uncrewed aircraft system traffic management (UTM) platform that it expects to be a key enabler of advanced air mobility (AAM) services mainly using new eVTOL aircraft. According to CEO and co-founder Ryan Lee, the company has already begun talks in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand as it contributes to the effort of securing regulatory compliance and public acceptance of the new mode of transportation.

“Every country in Asia is in a different state of economic development; there are different considerations, including political readiness and security concerns over building a low-altitude economy,” Lee told AIN. “Higher-income nations such as Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand are motivated by the need to strengthen competitiveness and safety in key sectors while building viable domestic AAM industries. For lower-income countries, including Cambodia, Laos, and Timor Leste, a potential driver for AAM is infrastructure development. With rapid urbanization, AAM can provide a much cheaper option to build and maintain infrastructure more efficiently than traditional transportation systems, such as roads, railways, and tunnels.”

Co-founded by Lee and chief commercial officer Fabrice Ancey in 2022, Heron AirBridge is a subsidiary of the Heron Technology Group, a cybersecurity and drone technology services provider, formerly known as Nova Systems Singapore. After successfully demonstrating its UTM prototype backed by government support in 2021, the start-up was established, paving the way for last year’s commercial rollout of its flagship drone mission and Airbridge program.

Airbridge UTM Software Makes Sense of Flight Operations

As an open and modular software platform, Airbridge offers a range of tools and applications designed to cater to various systems and workflows, Lee explained. This includes fixed-route and free space trajectory-based routing and scheduling capabilities, automatic strategic deconfliction, constraint management, and real-time monitoring for complex and dynamic beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations. The company is now working with the Singapore Association of Shipsuppliers and Services and CWT Aerospace to develop infrastructure and workflows for maritime drone operations.

“In maritime UAV operations, Airbridge needs to be sufficiently robust and flexible to enable and deconflict flights to and between moving vessels, designate dynamic constraints due to inclement weather or other maritime hazards, and provide warnings and rerouting recommendations to UAV operators,” Lee said. “These technologies can be delivered as bespoke products or as SaaS in soon-to-be regulated markets, either independently or through local partners.”

In looking at the region’s potential for the AAM sector, Lee, who has 18 years of military service under his belt, stated he is optimistic about the expansion of low-altitude airspace, adding that development considerations in Asia will differ from the U.S. and Europe. For example, targeted assistance from international bodies, including the United Nations, could be a critical enabler for the integration of both piloted eVTOL vehicles and UAVs. In his view, states might also gravitate towards solutions that are more affordable, simpler, and modular in design, which could lead them to explore alternatives offered by countries like China and Malaysia.

“Countries will also seek proven use cases in various sectors like agriculture, remote deliveries, and marine,” he added. “This is an important aspect that AAM and UTM providers outside the region should consider.”

Political Momentum Gets Behind AAM In Major Asian Countries

In recent years, political leaders in Asian countries including China, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea have shown a desire to support the growth of new AAM services. This has encouraged eVTOL aircraft developers including EHang, Joby, Supernal, Plana, SkyDrive, Vertical Aerospace, Overair, Volocopter and Lilium to focus attention on forging local partnerships.

To address challenges posed by Singapore’s complex airspace, Heron AirBridge has adopted a collaborative approach, recently partnering with the Swiss non-profit group, the Global UTM Association (GUTMA), and Inmarsat’s Velaris Partner Network. As a GUTMA ambassador for Southeast Asia, the company will spearhead stakeholder engagement to build a robust framework for the development and management of low-altitude airspace.

Through its Inmarsat tie-up, Heron AirBridge will gain low SWaP-C (size, weight, power, and cost) satellite terminals, enabling a secure datalink for beyond-visual-line-of-sight drone operations. The agreement marks the planned demonstration of Velaris technology in Asia Pacific with trials slated for the fourth quarter, Lee said. The two sides will also work jointly on an operational and regulatory blueprint that can be replicated globally.

Heron AirBridge has also taken its expertise to Thailand where it has set up a UTM lab with local university, King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology Ladkrabang to provide research and development support. Similar to its work in Singapore, the company aims to collaborate with locally based stakeholders to establish a baseline UTM system that can be adapted to meet Thailand’s future AAM needs.