European aviation giant Airbus has signed a deal with authorities in Saudi Arabia that will update and expand the fleet of traditional helicopters in the Kingdom, while also preparing it for the operation of future urban air mobility (UAM) craft and services like air taxis.
Airbus signed the agreement with The Helicopter Company (THC), a state-owned and operated entity that holds the exclusive rights to providing chopper flights in the country. While the memorandum of understanding will expand the number of Airbus helicopters THC already owns, it also lays the foundation for work to ready Saudi Arabia for vehicles, infrastructure, navigational systems, and other requisites for eventual UAM activities like air taxis.
The accord comes at a time when Airbus has shifted its development of hybrid and electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) vehicles into higher gear. With airlines and other operators of aircraft around the globe pledging carbon reduction or elimination targets over the next 20 years, the European aviation group is under pressure to rapidly develop new, emissions-free alternatives to replace traditional, fuel burning planes.
As part of that work, the company recently introduced a new version of its CityAirbus eVTOL, which will be used primarily in air taxi and medium-haul service. If their mutual work on UAM preparations is fruitful, future transactions could feasibly lead THC to purchase CityAirbus craft for its future UAM networks.
“This is a significant move toward the introduction and efficient operations of cleaner helicopters and advanced technologies in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” said THC CEO Arnaud Martinez. “We are pleased to be a part of this unique opportunity to contribute to the reduction of CO2 emissions in the urban transportation market together with Airbus.”
The first part of the accord calls for THC to purchase and operation of Airbus helicopters designed to run using sustainable aviation fuels as a step towards cutting carbon output. The second will cover the various aspects of Airbus readying Saudi Arabia for UAM craft and services.
Within both areas of activity, specific use cases will take priority, including new tech flight in emergency medical services, eco-tourism, and or private and business operation.
“We are looking forward to working closely with THC to further develop our strong commitment to the decarbonization of our customers’ missions,” said Bruno Even, CEO of Airbus Helicopters. “This agreement with one of our major partners is an important step towards pioneering sustainable air transportation services around the world.”
Last September, Airbus revealed its revamped CityAirbus NexGen eVTOL fixed-wing aircraft. The company plans to start testing on the four-passenger air taxi prototype – whose eight propellers will drive it to top speeds of 120 km/h across a maximum flight range of 50 km – in 2023, with certification targeted in 2025.
This week’s deal also gets Airbus into Saudi Arabia’s UAM development plans, after the Kingdom struck a partnership in December with Volocopter to operate eVTOL networks in its futuristic, $500-billion Neon smart city.