The drone industry in the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region has been experiencing tremendous growth over the past few years. With advancements in technology and increasing demand for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), the industry is poised for even greater expansion in the future. To shed some light on the future of drones in the APAC region, we had the opportunity to interview Mr. Mark ter Hove, Senior Manager of Advanced Air Mobility – Market Development at Inmarsat Velaris.
In this interview, Mark will provide insights into the current state of the drone industry in APAC and share his thoughts on the challenges and opportunities facing the industry as it continues to evolve. He will also discuss the role that Inmarsat Velaris is playing in advancing the use of drones in the region and beyond.
1. Can you tell us about your role as Senior Manager of Advanced Air Mobility Market Development at Inmarsat and what it entails?
Nearly two years into my current role, I am focused on shaping and driving Advanced Air Mobility and Urban Air Mobility environments. At the forefront of this is ensuring that Inmarsat’s Velaris satcom service exceeds our customers’ expectations. A key part of my role is understanding the needs of this new and burgeoning market by bringing together and working closely with innovators, regulators, and the industry to develop new technologies – which will benefit communities globally and fully capture the potential of this industrial revolution.
I also pay close attention to customer and market opportunities globally, to reinforce Inmarsat as the leading provider of connectivity for the fast-growing field of UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line of Sight) operations.
2. What is Inmarsat Velaris service?
Velaris is our connectivity service designed and developed specifically for the UAV sector. It was created to play a critical role in unlocking the potential of this industry. The Inmarsat Velaris service takes the highly reliable satellite communications technology used for over 30 years in commercial aviation and matches it up with new services and expertise within Inmarsat, delivered with new miniaturised terminal technology suitable for the vast majority of UAVs – from small drones to larger eVTOL aircraft.
Velaris is a Command and Control (C2) service that utilizes our ELERA global satellite network, making it a reliable and scalable solution for businesses across the globe. From simple tracking and identification for small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to full aero safety services for those operating in controlled airspace, Velaris enables UAVs to be securely trackable and controllable Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS). With Velaris, businesses in the UAV industry can now safely manage their airspace and confidently expand their flight range. By providing a highly reliable datalink, Velaris ensures that airspace can be safely managed, enabling these new vehicles to safely fly further than ever before.
3. In your opinion, what do you think are the biggest opportunities and challenges facing the drone industry in the APAC region?
The APAC region drives a huge amount of innovation, coupled with international expertise in aviation. Most of the major aircraft manufacturers and major supply chain partners are based in Singapore. Additionally, there are several technical educational institutions, all of which are contributing to the development of highly innovative start-ups. Another advantage of Singapore is that it upholds the same aviation standards used in other regions of the world, such as those used by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), which means whatever is developed here is highly compatible for worldwide adoption.
An example of this is our latest partnership with Singapore-based Heron Airbridge. A specialist in Uncrewed Aircraft System Traffic Management (UTM), Heron AirBridge is the latest company to join our Velaris Partner Network, following a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed at Drones Asia in March.
In collaboration with regional regulators, we are committed to enabling the safe integration of uncrewed aircraft into Singapore’s commercial airspace. To achieve this, we are integrating Inmarsat Velaris with Heron’s AirBridge, a flexible and comprehensive UTM system. By leveraging the Velaris Partner Network, Inmarsat and Heron will work with stakeholders across the aviation community to develop regulatory frameworks and innovative technologies that will enhance the number of UAVs in Singapore’s airspace. Our goal is to establish a successful integration blueprint that can be implemented worldwide, paving the way for the safe and effective integration of UAVs into commercial airspace.
This partnership is a major step towards increasing UAV integration into Singapore’s crowded airspace and will ensure operators of airspace and UAVs have the tools they need to drive regulatory acceptance in the region and beyond.
4. Which industries, in your opinion, will benefit the most from the adoption of drone technologies?
Many sectors will be impacted positively by new uncrewed technologies in the coming years. To achieve this, we need consistent, global regulatory progress. Emergency services, disaster relief, urban air transport, commercial and industrial cargo deliveries, environmental inspection, and monitoring are just a few examples. Thanks to Inmarsat’s global datalink network built for mobility, these activities will be able to take place out of the line of sight of the operator.
The adoption of UAVs will enhance safety – completing tasks that are often hazardous for humans – thus reducing risk, as well as improving cost efficiencies, raising productivity, and boosting sustainability efforts.
UAVs have proved to be highly beneficial in emergency services, especially during the pandemic. These unmanned aircraft have played a crucial role in delivering personal protective equipment (PPE) and other essential supplies to remote areas. They have also assisted fire services by conducting real-time assessments of building damage from a safe distance beyond the visual line of sight. As we move forward, UAVs will continue to revolutionize blue-light service responses and enhance surveillance capabilities.
UAVs have proven to be incredibly versatile, with applications that extend far beyond just aerial inspections. These unmanned aircraft can generate critical climate data, monitor borders, and revolutionize the agriculture industry by detecting plant stress early and enabling more effective crop irrigation. Additionally, UAVs support safe passage for maritime vessels and have the potential to automate maintenance across a wide range of industries, making them a valuable asset for businesses looking to streamline operations and improve efficiency.
5. Can you tell us about any recent projects or partnerships that Inmarsat has been involved in that are helping to advance the use of drones?
We’re currently working on several exciting developments. As mentioned, we’ve just announced a new partnership with Singapore-based Heron AirBridge to enable uncrewed aircraft in Singaporean airspace. The Heron AirBridge UTM system is a versatile and comprehensive solution that offers a full range of UTM services, designed to be deployed across different UTM architectures. Inmarsat’s highly reliable Velaris connectivity can provide the backbone command and control datalink that is needed for critical communications with these uncrewed vehicles.
To enable Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) operations, Inmarsat will provide Heron with its low size, weight, power and cost (SWaP-C) Velaris satellite terminals specifically designed for UAVs. Testing of Inmarsat’s Velaris technology in the Asia-Pacific region will commence later this year, making this collaboration the first implementation of Velaris technology in the region. By utilizing Inmarsat’s Velaris satellite terminals, Heron can offer a secure datalink necessary for safe and reliable BVLOS operations.
6. How is Inmarsat working to ensure that drone technology is used safely and responsibly, and what initiatives have you launched in this area?
As mentioned, Velaris provides a global highly reliable datalink that our industry needs to ensure that airspace can be safely managed – that will enable these new vehicles to safely fly alongside existing aircraft. This is critical as our airspace, especially in congested regions like APAC and Europe, gets increasingly busier in the coming years.
The Velaris Partner Network, alongside technological innovations, also offers a community where players across the UAV and Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) sector can come together to share, learn, and benefit from each other’s innovations. Velaris itself is playing a major role in establishing the regulatory frameworks necessary to create safer airspace for all types of aircraft and includes partners such as Flight Crowd, who are specifically focused on the public perception of drones.
7. What is your secret to success in the aviation space?
Inmarsat prides itself on knowing the market – with more than 30 years of experience – and is trusted by the aviation community, safety and regulatory authorities, leading OEMs, and the world’s most respected brands to deliver highly dependable services. It’s this promise of certainty that our customers expect, and that we deliver on, which is the secret to our success.
At Inmarsat, our focus is always on meeting the connectivity requirements of our customers not only for the present but also for the decades ahead, which is why we strive to design, develop, and deploy innovative solutions that will endure until the 2040s and beyond. We strive to anticipate connectivity requirements before the demand is even realised, and our fully funded technology roadmap ensures we’re building solutions before customers know they need them. Inmarsat Velaris is built on this very promise of certainty –when you use Inmarsat’s Velaris technology, you can be certain that you will have the connectivity you need, when and where you need it – to support critical UAV operations.
8. What do you think needs to be done to ensure that the growth of the drone industry in the APAC region is sustainable, both economically and environmentally?
A critical path to success for the drone industry will be how we engage the public and to date, public perception of the sector is mixed. Although many are concerned about safety, cybersecurity, and the environmental impact UAVs may have, public opinion is beginning to change as the number of use cases showing how UAVs can be used in critical scenarios is increasing, such as vaccine delivery to remote areas, rescue missions to save lives, and drone use in risky surveillance or remote inspection situations. There’s no shying away from the fact that the introduction of drones into societies, both in urban and non-urban environments, will see a major change in how people live their lives.
As with any technological revolution, it is important that we explain and educate how the drone industry is a change for good for everyone. Once the public embrace drone technology, and see it supported by regulators and government, its economic success will flow naturally. Industry events such as Geo Connect Asia also play an important role in building awareness and knowledge sharing, particularly in such a nascent space, and will continue to be a key driver of the burgeoning UAV market and the wider geospatial industry.
In regard to the environment, what fills me with hope is that sustainability is at the forefront of todays and future generations’ minds. I believe our natural world is in safe hands with generations that not only care passionately about the environment but will also use drone technology to benefit the world they live in.
Furthermore, UAVs are powered by electricity, making it possible for retailers to provide more eco-friendly delivery services. In the future, new technologies like urban air taxis will be able to transport people in an even greener and more efficient way. All these opportunities will enable UAVs to play a significant role in building a more sustainable future for everyone.
9. How do you see the regulatory landscape for drones evolving in the APAC region, and what impact do you think this will have on the industry?
I envisage the regulatory landscape in APAC developing across two tracks. One is where the region will always uphold and champion gold standards for operational practices, based on traditional aviation. The other is through a tangible mindset of ‘we will make this work’ – tying back to the region’s identity of driving forward innovation in the industry and being at the forefront of change.
Together, this combination will ensure that the regulators in APAC will not only play a leading global role in defining the regulations but also most likely be the first to introduce and deploy drone technology on a scale that will outpace regions elsewhere.
10. What role do you see drones playing in the future of smart cities in the APAC region, and how is Inmarsat working to support this?
The role of drones in the future of smart cities in APAC will be one where it will seamlessly integrate into the new world of IoT (Internet of Things). I have noticed that most drone operators have an entrepreneurial and creative mindset first and foremost. They view the concept of smart cities holistically and not piecemeal. This means that drone operators will use their technology as an element or extension of a much wider ecosystem of technology that ultimately will define what smart cities are.
Already, I have seen how our partners in Asia completely own the concept of ‘smart data’ and how it needs to flow and be distributed between applications that we use on a day-to-day basis – from our households, how we get to work, move across our cities, do our business to how we entertain ourselves.
As bold as my vision is for what smart cities will look like in this region, I know my expectations will be exceeded. We’re living through an exciting technological revolution and this, combined with the generations of tomorrow is what drives everyone at Inmarsat to provide the tools necessary to realise the benefits of drone technology for communities in APAC and beyond.