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Manuel Heredia, during the presentation of the first commercial agreement to operate in Malaga. Marilú Báez
Passenger drones on the Costa del Sol: 'You will be able to fly from Malaga Airport to Marbella in 12 minutes for less than 100 euros'
Interview

Passenger drones on the Costa del Sol: 'You will be able to fly from Malaga Airport to Marbella in 12 minutes for less than 100 euros'

The CEO of Crisalion Mobility, Spain's leading manufacturer of the aircraft, has told SUR that Malaga province will be one of the first areas in Europe to see the air taxis in operation

Ignacio Lillo

Malaga

Tuesday, 2 July 2024, 13:23

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Manuel Heredia is an industrial engineer with a doctorate in aeronautics. After holding various positions at Airbus, the 49-year-old born in Alcaudete (Jaén), has seen out his first year as CEO of Crisalion Mobility, the Spanish company that recently presented its passenger drone model in Malaga. The company already has an agreement with Malaga-based company iJet to put ten of these aircraft into service by 2030.

Why Malaga?

Malaga has a lot of advantages. It is a city with magnificent climate all year round, with a favourable orography, since on the one hand you have the coast, so the first routes can be done over the sea, which facilitates the permits. In addition, the mountains make road transport difficult, so you can offer a plus. Initially, it will not be within everyone's reach, but there are clients who are willing, especially if you offer them the possibility of arriving at the airport and getting to Marbella, La Zagaleta or the Ascari circuit in 10 minutes instead of 40. Another very important issue is the connection of the Costa del Sol with the Middle East, a region that is soon going to lead the way in this industry. Plus, half of our partners and clients from there spend their holidays here.

What stage are you at?

The aircraft has been designed from the inside out: we started with the cockpit, and then what it takes to make it fly. We have a 15-metre wingspan, for one pilot and five passengers, with a range of 130 kilometres, flying at 180 km/h with a weight load of 400 kilos. We also have incorporated requirements for cargo transport and for emergency services: it is one of the few in which you can put a stretcher. We are finishing a scale model of the final aircraft, which we will fly in July. Next summer we will present the first 1:1 scale model at the International Air Show in Paris. And the next step will be to have a 1:1 scale aircraft in flight, which is planned for 2027. It will first be remotely piloted, and from 2028 with a pilot.

'We are finishing a scale model of the final aircraft, which we will fly this month'

When will we see these aircraft flying in Malaga?

We want to have the aircraft certified and on the market by 2030. We have six years ahead of us but in reality it is just around the corner.

What is missing to make these aircraft possible?

In the end, we have to co-exist, so we are being very active in having partnerships with people involved. In 2030 it is very important that, apart from the aircraft, there are infrastructures.

'The routes to Ronda, and the Ascari race circuit, and to Puerto Banús are interesting, but also the connection with Ceuta'

Vertipuertos? (Vertical airports designed for drones)

That's right. We have to invest in infrastructures because, otherwise, no matter how good the aircraft is, we will be limited in service. In Spain, we have leading companies such as Bluenest, Ferrovial, ACS and all the major construction companies are investing in this. We must also continue to work on air traffic control, with air traffic controllers. If you imagine 300 aircraft flying over Malaga, we have to look at other types of solutions, and in Europe there is the U-Space automated air traffic project. We have to work on all the elements of the ecosystem so that in a few years it will be seen as a natural thing in cities.

In the medium term, it is envisaged that the pilot won't be needed?

That was everyone's initial plan in this sector, because piloting is expensive. But the regulators have been very clear in Europe and the US, and they don't want to hear about putting people in drones without a pilot for at least five to ten years. The industry has to maintain the best safety ratios, and today we are not mature enough to do it without a pilot. In Europe and the US, it will take a long time to see this kind of operation. It is true that China is approaching it differently, and we have to follow closely what happens. It may happen that they start to operate without a pilot and nothing happens, then we will have to rethink it in the West, but it is unlikely. And it may also happen that they have problems and that they will be passed on. Then we will have to be clear and explain to the public the difference, so that we don't generate an unfair reaction.

'The industry must maintain safety ratios, we are not mature enough to fly without a pilot yet'

Is this form of transport going to be for everyone?

The route from Malaga Airport to Marbella, which is one of the most interesting, is about 40 minutes by car, without traffic. In a helicopter it would cost 1,600 euros, about 400 euros per passenger. The same route with our aircraft would cost less than 100 euros per person. Is that affordable for everyone? Not for everyone, but for many. The savings come from the price of the aircraft and the cost of electricity. We are talking about much simpler machines, because they are electric, and they can be used much more because they have less maintenance. At first it will be a bit elitist and then it will become more for everyone.

The agreement with iJet provides for the pre-sale of ten aircraft?

This is the first operation we have announced, and we wanted it to be in Malaga and with iJet. In the coming weeks we will make other announcements, but we wanted to give that signal because Malaga is strategic. The aircraft can carry up to five passengers, and the battery would normally be charged in the range of 20 to 80%. That charge can be done in 20 minutes, at each stop. With that, for the route from Malaga to Marbella, with a cruising speed of 180 km/h, the flight would take 12 minutes, although the landing and take-off time must also be taken into account. With each aircraft, the outward journey, loading and return can be done in one hour.

What other routes will there be?

Ronda, for the Ascari race circuit, and Puerto Banús are other routes, as well as a connection with Ceuta, which today can only be done by helicopter and is expensive. There are routes that are not viable at the moment due to economic or noise issues, which could be possible going forward.

'Is this affordable for everyone? Not for everyone, but for many'

Will the business model be on-demand or with regular schedules?

It depends on the operator, but there are customers interested in both models: a shuttle with fixed schedules, and personalised services on demand. A person arriving at the executive terminal in a private aircraft is interested in being picked up and taken home. And also as emergency services, because we have the only aircraft of this type whose cabin is designed to carry a stretcher; for transporting the sick, emergencies, medical staff, organ transport, etc. In this area there are also many people who come to retire, but it is a place that is regular in terms of communications. The start-up will be progressive, and there are applications such as that of the emergency services that we are committed to because, in addition to maturing the technology and completing certification, there comes social acceptance, transmitting to the public what we contribute, and for that we have to familiarise people with this new solution.

And to other provinces, is it possible? For example, from Malaga to Granada

Malaga to Granada is currently a bit out of our scope. We are focusing more on urban, metropolitan routes. For other, more regional routes, the question arises as to whether the best technology is batteries or other hybrid technologies.

Which other Spanish regions have the same level of possibilities as Malaga?

The Balearic Islands also have an obvious fit, for inter-island connections. Barcelona is a city that could benefit a lot. In general, wherever you see the helicopter market is developed, these are places where it naturally fits. In Madrid, for example, it will take longer to see it.

And at a European level?

We are everywhere. There is a lot of talk on the Côte d'Azur. This is going to catch on and we are going to see it everywhere, although at different speeds. Southern Europe, because of the climate, is going to be easier to implement; but there is also a lot of interest in Scandinavia because there are islands that are difficult to connect to.

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