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Saudi trials unmanned air taxis for Hajj pilgrims

People, Person, Adult Front End
Saudi officials at the eVTOL aircraft trial in Mecca

Saudi Arabia has completed the first unmanned air taxi trial in Mecca as part of its plan to move pilgrims faster between key locations during the Hajj pilgrimage.

Saudi-owned Front End conducted the air taxi trial using Chinese drone maker EHang’s EH216-S, a pilotless electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) vehicle.

Held in a low-risk area within protected airspace, the trial will assist authorities in establishing the regulatory framework for deploying eVTOL aircraft, thereby reducing congestion for pilgrims.

Calling the trial a “historic milestone for Saudi Arabia”, Abdulaziz Al-Duailej, president of the General Authority of Civil Aviation (Gaca) said the kingdom is committed to the highest safety standards and seamless integration into existing air traffic systems.

The annual Hajj pilgrimage presents unique logistical challenges.

It is hope that air taxi use will aid in streamlining transportation by efficiently moving pilgrims faster between key locations, ensuring a smoother and safer Hajj experience.

Religious tourism accounted for 45 percent of 14.6 million visitors during the first six months of 2023.

Huazhi Hu, founder of EHang, added that the company will work with Gaca and Front End to establish a benchmark for regular advanced air mobility (AAM) operations in the kingdom.

In January Saudi Arabia published a plan to launch advanced air transport, such as flying taxis, within the next 10 years.

“We’re not just building a new mode of transportation, we’re creating the backbone for the next era of economic and social development in Saudi Arabia,” said Sulaiman bin Saleh Al-Muhaimidi, Gaca’s vice-president of aviation safety and environmental sustainability.

The kingdom is also reaching out to international partners in AAM, with agreements in place with South Korea, Singapore and China.

The Saudi AAM action plan envisions the sector being developed in three phases.

The first phase, to be completed over two to three years, will include the creation of a regulation and certification framework and flight tests. Phase two will involve the start of commercial operations within five to 10 years.

Beyond that, phase three will look to increase AAM supply, decrease prices and improve connectivity and automation.

Saleh bin Nasser Al-Jasser, the minister of transport and chairman of Gaca, said the sector has the potential to create “unprecedented opportunities for the Saudi people.” 

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