A^3 project executive Uma Subramanian discusses helicopter ride-hailing,
rethinking city design and the importance of taking risks.

Uma Subramanian is a project executive at A3, Airbus’ Silicon Valley outpost. Since joining in 2015, she has been working on Project Voom, exploring how helicopters can help solve the growing problem of urban congestion.

Voom – can you give us the elevator pitch?

Commuting is one of life’s great hassles, especially in densely populated urban environments. We believe people would be better off if commuting were not such a chore. Instead of commuting on the ground, why not take advantage of uncongested airspace? We’ve been looking at how to make helicopter travel more accessible and affordable. The service we’re developing brings down the material costs of helicopter travel, and allows commuters to hail a helicopter on-demand.

And is the demand there?

We did a 30-day trial in 2016 in São Paolo, which totally exceeded our wildest expectations. In total, we completed more than 600 journeys and flew nearly 1,100 passengers. We’re now about to launch an ongoing service in the city. Our goal is to build a reliable and sustainable business; once we prove that the economic model works, then we will roll the service out to other markets. Exciting times are ahead!

What is it that excites you about Voom?

Urban air mobility as a complement to ground transport could significantly improve people’s lives. It could also fundamentally change the way we think about city design. For example, if you are no longer constrained by needing ground infrastructure, you could also grow cities vertically instead of constantly spreading outwards. On a personal level, this project also combines my two biggest passions: aerospace and business.

What came first – the love of aerospace or business?

As a kid, I was fascinated by space exploration. I went to Space Camp and met Apollo 16 astronaut Charlie Duke – I even managed to land the Space Shuttle Discovery in a simulator! This led me to study aerospace engineering at university. My first job was working on the aft fuselage of the F/A-18 fighter jet. After that, I worked on Project Constellation, NASA’s Moon/Mars programme, which today is Project Orion. But I began to realise that space exploration was not viable unless it became more of a national economic priority. With that objective in mind, I went to get an MBA at Harvard in 2006. However, this was when mobile devices were exploding onto the scene, and well before ‘New Space’ became an investable arena – it just wasn’t enough of a priority.

And that’s when the passion for business was born?

Right. Though Harvard Business School tempered my enthusiasm for space, the experience was eye-opening. I discovered that I love business, especially bringing sustainable ideas to life. I then spent a couple of years at a consultancy, exploring an array of industries, before working on mergers and acquisitions at Rolls-Royce. However, I soon decided that I wanted operating experience, and became European General Manager for an online platform for home services. That was probably the best training I could have had for my job at A3. I was involved in everything, from consumer marketing to customer service to operations. If something didn’t work, I had to know why. Every early-stage business will break in a multitude of ways; success lies in figuring out how to triage the breakage.

Do you think it’s valuable to have a variety of professional experiences?

I believe growth comes from experimentation. I view my life as a series of experiments, enabled by a business skill set that allows me to operate in highly uncertain environments. This has given me the opportunity to do my current job, which a more linear career path may not have done.

Where do you think your desire to take risks comes from?

After business school, I unexpectedly ended up spending a week in cardiac intensive care for a congenital issue. I had a pacemaker fitted and have since returned to a very active life. However, experiences like that can hugely impact your world view. I have concluded that my work is my contribution to the world – I want to do something that has a real and significant impact. It’s this drive that inspires me to embrace new challenges. Is that partly why you decided to return to aerospace? Aerospace is my first love. But in more recent years, I’ve also come to love business, especially early-stage business. I love scoping a problem and coming up with a solution. I love the thrill of getting something started and seeing it go. And I want to build something that will endure.

Geoff Poulton