By: Dawn Zoldi
When most people talk about Urban Air Mobility (AAM), they focus on the aircraft. At last count, the Vertical Flight Society’s electric vertical take off and landing (eVTOL) directory listed more than 400 vehicles in the works. For Felipe Varon, CEO of Varon Vehicles, a company that integrates UAM system-of-systems solutions, UAM is not just about aviation. It’s a mobility revolution that will rock many different market sectors which will merely feature a new kind of aviation. Varon Vehicles exists to make UAM a reality first in Colombia, and then beyond.
Varon, an Electrical Engineer by trade, has been tinkering with motors, propellers and electronics, since 1999, when he was a student in Colombia. Ultimately, he developed these concepts into a small aircraft (think: drone) and made it the subject of his graduation thesis. He explains, “Some say I am one of the early inventors of the drone. My vision, even back then, was bigger. If these could eventually be made larger and more powerful to carry people, they would become the transportation means in our cities of the future.”
Varon now believes that the future he envisioned back then is here now. Because he’s bringing it. He explains, “Colombia suffers deeply from a lack of proper mobility infrastructure, which hampers both quality of life and socio-economic development.” Like most of Latin America, Colombia lacks proper mobility infrastructure derived from a systematic incapability of governments to provide and maintain the required expensive physical mobility infrastructure to allow cities to grow properly and regions to be well connected. This creates pockets of small, densely packed urban areas bursting at the seams. This is a void Varon wants to fill with a type of mobility infrastructure that does not require a cost per mile. “That’s how we see Urban Air Mobility (UAM) for Latin America, as a new form of mobility infrastructure.”
To this end, Varon’s team focuses on three UAM integration pillars: vertiports, airspace integration architecture and aircraft. Earlier this year, , an OEM headquartered in Dallas, Texas, to bring its eVTOL aircraft to Latin America as part of the overall UAM solution. Varon also continues building a strong coalition around a viable Traffic Management System, with companies such as TrueWeather and ANRA. However, he says, “Vertiports are where the magic will really happen. All the challenges we face are on the ground. How do we manage passengers? Where and how do we get the energy needed for the aircraft? How do we do this in an environmentally friendly way while ensuring efficient cash flow?”
Add to these challenges two more: public acceptance and the initial legal framework. To overcome them, his company works closely with several other strategic partners, including the Colombian Civil Aviation Authority (CCAA). “We have a very close collaboration with the CCAA and we’re working on both regulations and airspace design for UAM operations. The CCAA wants to be in the forefront of urban air mobility (UAM) in the world. They understand the mobility infrastructure problem and they want to be instrumental in the development of an aeronautical solution for our cities, suburbs and regions. We are making very interesting advances in the development of an airspace integration architecture that will allow us to start operations in a simple, safe and confined way.” (For previous coverage on Latin American drone regulations, with an emphasis on Colombia, see ).
On the public acceptance front, Varon Vehicles has partnered with the U.K.-based Flight Crowd to provide public educational tools, and aerospace industry information. One of their recent initiatives, the , seeks to generate industrial cohesion, understanding and orient public imagination in the same direction by crowd-sourcing new names for UAM aircraft, pilots and more.
“Where did the word ‘automobile’ come from? If someone had not thought of it, we’d still be referring to our autos as ‘horseless carriages,’” he muses. “The words we use have to focus on what it is that we are really doing, why not only it is safe but also why the roadmap for gradual implementation is safe, and what the values for society are,” he opines. “This last point is very, very important. We cannot continue to convey the message that UAM is meant to fly faster over traffic. That is true, but incomplete. We have to convey the message about the value for socio-economic development of UAM, which is far deeper than that.”
Those socio-economic opportunities span a wide range of market sectors that UAM can positively impact including tourism, medical sector, logistics, air taxi services, government, disaster relief, agricultural produce extraction and more. Beyond this, Varon explains, “Just having a new form of mobility infrastructure available that generates connections without the need to build anything in between is value-added for regional socio-economic development. We also expect positive contributions to reductions of greenhouse gases and other related emissions. The opportunities for UAM in Latin America are very big and exciting.”
Indeed. Varon also plans to bring jobs to Colombia. Drawing on his 18 years of experience working with leading edge military technology manufacturers from all over the world in the defense and governments sector, he’s working with the Colombian Air Force and the Colombian Aeronautics Industry as a potential maintenance/repair/overhaul operations service provider. He also sees potential for in-country aircraft assembly.
Varon expects this effort to have tremendous impact in Colombia and throughout Latin America. His company has a plan for the implementation of its first operational system in Cartagena, Colombia and execution is well underway. The timeline will be gradual, with initial operations expected in the next few years and this plan is being worked together with their technology partners, most from the United States. “Colombia is a reference for the Latin American region in many aspects, including technology and innovation,” he says. “It is a strategically valuable location for first implementation. We are convinced of the potential and are excited to be on the cutting edge of UAM globally.”
Dawn M.K. Zoldi (Colonel, USAF, Retired) is a licensed attorney with 28 years of combined active duty military and federal civil service to the Department of the Air Force. She is an intIernationally recognized expert on unmanned aircraft system law and policy, a columnist for several magazines,recipient of the Woman to Watch in UAS (Leadership) Award 2019, President and CEO of UAS Colorado and the CEO of P3 Tech Consulting LLC. For more information, visit her website at: https://www.p3techconsulting.com.