What’s next, flying cars?

A deal between a Quebec aerospace firm and its Israeli partner could turn flying cars from futuristic concept reality.

A trade mission to introduce Quebec companies and researchers in aerospace, artificial intelligence and other fields to Israel’s innovative technology market led to a quick win for Cert Center Canada, an independent flight test, design approval and airworthiness certification firm in Saint-Bruno, Que. Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard led the May 2017 trade mission, which was organized in collaboration with the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service (TCS) in Tel Aviv. The deal promises benefits for Canadians and could lead to Canada becoming a centre of expertise in commercial vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft.

“This is a huge opportunity for us,” says Dr. John Maris, founder and president of Cert Center Canada, known as 3C. The company signed a partnership agreement during the 2017 trade mission with Israel’s Urban Aeronautics Ltd. (UrbanAero) to help develop its Fancraft VTOL aircraft, with applications from “air taxis” in cities to medical evacuation in remote areas.

Dr. John Maris
Dr. John Maris
(Photo: Jacques Frenette)

“We speak the same language,” says Maris, a former Canadian Armed Forces pilot and test pilot who is also president of Marinvent Corporation, a sister company to 3C that handles intellectual property as well as research and development. “UrbanAero’s impressive team of experienced engineers have developed a revolutionary family of aircraft with groundbreaking capabilities, but they have done so with a deep understanding of what it takes to meet the rigorous safety standards necessary for commercial aviation. That’s where we come in.”

Maris, who has been involved in innovations from leading the team that engineered the workstations that control the robotic arm deployed on the International Space Station to developing processes for flight-test certification, says the partnership is aimed at 3C doing airworthiness testing on the Fancraft. The goal is to get it certified for civilian use by Transport Canada, which under bilateral agreements would lead to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and European Aviation Safety Agency certification.

Maris says UrbanAero “has a product that is absolutely unique” and its powered lift vehicle is flying today, but it requires the sort of manufacturing certification, airworthiness and operational certification that 3C does.

Dr. Rafi Yoeli, president and CEO of UrbanAero, says his company is “extremely pleased to be partnering with Maris and to benefit from John's extraordinary experience” in the aerospace industry. “It's not often that you come across someone with a background as a test pilot, program manager, academic researcher and aerospace entrepreneur who is also an extremely experienced regulatory agency design approval representative…We couldn't be in better hands."

The five-day trade mission program for the business, technology and research delegation of more than 100 Canadian participants included visits to industry, venture capitalists, incubators, universities and innovation leaders in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa, says Jessica Nachlas, a trade commissioner in Tel Aviv who covers the aerospace, defense, space, transportation and information and communications technologies (ICT) sectors.

The delegation’s visit to UrbanAero brought an “instant connection” with 3C. Two days later the companies were signing a memorandum of understanding and issuing a press release. “We got right to the meat,” Maris says, especially as both companies have a strong track record in “avant-guard vehicles.”

Nachlas says 3C is “a great example of an amazing Canadian company that has much expertise in aerospace innovation and regulation.” The TCS helped organize the program for the Quebec Ministry of Economy, Science and Innovation’s trade mission. Nachlas also arranged separate programs such as visits to research labs and panel discussions for the ICT and aerospace delegates.

The Israeli market is relatively small, she notes, with a population of just 8.6 million, so more than 80 percent of companies export. “The commercial potential lies mainly with leveraging Israel’s strength as a global innovation hub and research-and-development centre, as well as opportunities for collaboration with Israeli companies in third countries,” Nachlas says.

Some 350 multinational firms have a presence in Israel, which has a global, high-performing, innovation ecosystem, and is a thriving venture capital hub and a priority innovation destination, Nachlas says. “Canadian companies can benefit by partnering with Israeli companies for business as well as innovation collaboration in sectors such as aerospace, ICT, life sciences, cleantech and agri-tech.”

When it comes to the technology for flying cars, solving the multiple technical challenges “is only the beginning,” says Maris, who is also a professor of human factors, which involves the interaction between machines and their human operators.

The far greater problem is maturing the systems, procedures and regulatory environment that would have to be in place for hundreds of VTOL aircraft to “criss-cross the city hither and thither,” he says. “We don’t have any of these mechanisms today…I view this problem as orders-of-magnitude more difficult than overcoming the engineering obstacles.”

The collaboration between 3C and UrbanAero has further implications for Canada, which could develop manufacturing capabilities, personnel and tools related to VTOL technology, Maris says. “This is a new product for which there will be a big demand.”

The technology would have “huge benefits for Canada,” Maris says, combining the advantages of an aircraft, helicopter, hovercraft and even a canoe. Such a “flying car” could get into tricky spots like flood zones and spaces with dense trees or exposed wires that would severely limit helicopter operations. Potential applications include medical evacuation, search-and rescue, policing operations, power-line inspection, sovereignty surveillance, maritime patrol and others. The vehicles could provide highly valuable service in the Arctic and for the mining and resource sectors.

Yoeli says his company and 3C share a common understanding that while innovative aircraft designs may offer exceptional capabilities, they must meet or exceed safety and certification criteria that apply to conventional aircraft. "The key to successful, revolutionary innovation in aerospace is to be able to make the technological leap without abandoning the accumulated wisdom of 100 years of aerospace development,” he says. “There are no shortcuts. You can reach for the stars, but you need to keep your feet firmly planted on the ground.”

The Fancraft is being developed “to existing FAA standards that are very intricate, very detailed and very professional,” Yoeli stresses, covering the design and construction of such aircraft and their operation. The key to making small VTOL aircraft viable is ensuring they are profitable, meaning that the income generated from their use is greater than the cost to run them.

“We’re lucky to have the leading person in Canada working with us on this,” he says. “We’re looking forward to a great partnership.”

Maris says that for 3C abroad, “everything we do is in partnerships,” which fills gaps in larger companies’ mandates and dilutes risk. Partners are important despite the fact that 3C has a talented labour pool, myriad patents and “we’ve won every major aerospace award in the spaces that we compete in,” he says. “Size matters; if you don’t have it it’s hard to break into new markets and large capital projects.”

He notes that one hazard of being small is the need to multitask; the TCS assists by supporting and endorsing the company in foreign markets. “That matters very, very much. Trade commissioners help by flying our flag.”

Yoeli notes that companies and researchers in Israel and Canada have “really good chemistry,” and there are good ties between the two countries. With major firms in the sector like Bell Helicopter there, “Canada is a good place to be,” and he’s thankful for the advocacy of the TCS in encouraging his company’s collaboration with 3C. “It wouldn’t have happened otherwise.”

Maris says 3C is a “huge advocate” of the TCS. “Forays into unknown markets would be impossible for us without their support, which they give enthusiastically and knowledgeably.”

For example, he says that Nachlas “did just a brilliant job” of escorting 3C on the Israeli mission with Premier Couillard. “Everything was arranged for us,” including introductions that led to meetings that 3C had with UrbanAero and Elbit Systems Ltd., an Israel-based international defense electronics firm. “We now have formal relationships with both companies.”

Maris, who is also past chair of the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada (AIAC)—the main industry advocacy group in Canada—says he also found the TCS “invaluable” in the AIAC missions he led to airshows around the world. “Without the trade commissioners’ participation, we wouldn’t have a presence in several of our key emerging markets,” he says.

The TCS is “a great source of intelligence, networking and tips,” he says, noting that his company gets “personal results” from the service. “We are in regular contact with several individual trade commissioners, who consistently provide us with useful leads and connections.”

Jean-Pierre Hamel, the senior trade commissioner for the TCS in Tel Aviv, adds that the 3C-UrbanAero partnership “shines a light on Canada-Israel collaboration,” and should lead to further possibilities for firms in Canada, including for work-share allocations to supply and produce components and systems together with Israeli partners.

“We look forward to hearing from other Canadian companies, and those that have innovative technology, so we can assist them with partnerships in Israel to expand their global footprint,” Hamel says.

From Tel Aviv, Israel, this story is one example of how trade commissioners located in more than 160 cities around the world help Canadian companies succeed.

Read more about the Humans of the Trade Commissioner Service.

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