Lift off for flying taxis?
Airport World considers whether taxi services using electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft are the shape of things to come at the world’s airports.
The UK government has awarded an industrial research grant to a consortium led by Atkins to look at the feasibility of introducing an air taxi service using electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft.
The project is specifically looking at the possibility of introducing the new air taxi service in the South West region of the UK and will include a demonstration of the new technology in a live environment.
The £2.5 million project was awarded partial funding through the government’s Future of Flight Challenge, which was created to find innovative methods of achieving greener flight, finding new ways to travel, increasing mobility, improving connectivity and reducing congestion.
The project being led by Atkins is expected to take 18 months, and will comprise an assessment of the demand for air taxi services in the South West; development of use cases for the technology; and an evaluation of the integration and impact on the wider transportation network, including the region’s airports, as well as the benefits to cities and residents.
It will establish viable markets and businesses cases for these services and seek to understand public perceptions and attitudes towards eVTOL aircraft. These activities aim to culminate in a series of full-system demonstrations in live airspace across the region.
James Richmond, Atkins’ advanced air mobility lead, said: “As we look to the future of travel, it’s now more important than ever that we begin exploring more sustainable methods of transport within our increasingly populated cities.
“Bringing together the experience and expertise from across the consortium, we’re excited to begin developing a fully integrated system concept, using the latest digital innovations.
“This is an important and tangible step towards making Advanced Air Mobility a reality, and by demonstrating that we can provide a case for air taxis, we could begin trialling these services as early as 2023.”
In addition to managing the project, Atkins will provide whole-system enterprise architecture, develop safety cases and create processes for secure passenger identification management.
Vertical Aerospace, a Bristol-based electric aircraft manufacturer will explore vehicle integration, using their eVTOL air taxi.
Skyports, an infrastructure provider for the emerging Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) industry, will be responsible for the design, development, operation and airport integration of the physical infrastructure to enable safe and efficient air taxi services.
Vic Terry, head of digital systems at Vertical Aerospace, said: “At Vertical, our ultimate aim is to make air travel green and accessible to everyone.
“This is a great opportunity to bring the consortiums’ products and services together showcasing that air taxis are not reserved for science fiction but achievable to benefit both our cities and economy in the UK and around the world.”
Other consortium members include Altitude Angel, AirXOS (part of GE Aviation) and NATS, which will be investigating advanced traffic management solutions and the integration of conventional air traffic control.
Cranfield University will lead on the communication systems required to enable flight, particularly within an urban environment. London-based IT company Neuron will focus on interconnectivity to enable safe and efficient passenger movement.
One of the British Government’s innovation agencies, Connected Places Catapult, will lead the research into public perception of air taxis, the ways this method of travel would be used, and the expected demand on AAM as a service.
The West of England Combined Authority (WECA) offers the backing of a regional authority and will help ensure plans align with the Joint Local Transport Plan, and foster cross-sector collaboration between the project and the likes of the Future Transport Zone and 5G developments.
Bristol Airport’s sustainability and corporate affairs director, Simon Earles, noted: “We have set the airport an ambitious target to be carbon net zero by 2050.
“Innovative new approaches to travel, like the air taxi service, are critical to making this a reality and also support the wider decarbonisation agenda in the South West, and we are proud to act as a test bed for this exciting project.”
While the feasibility studies and subsequent trials will be based in the South West, the project will also consider scalability and application in other cities.
Safe, silent and environmentally friendly
There can be little doubt that a journey to and from an airport can be challenging. Road or rail connections between an airport and the city it serves are coming under ever-more pressure and often that trip can take as long, if not longer, than the actual flight.
However, Duncan Walker of Skyports, is convinced that all this is about to change with the introduction of eVTOL aircraft and taxi services.
“Electric vertical take-off and landing vehicles have recently hit the mainstream in a big way. Announcements from Joby, Archer, Lilium and Volocopter about public listings on the NASDAQ stock exchange have confirmed that billions of dollars are flooding into the sector,” says Walker.
“Archer’s deal also included a pre-order of in excess of $1 billion of aircraft from United Airlines. The share price of eHang, the Chinese passenger drone manufacturer listed on the NASDAQ, is up 500% year to date.”
But what makes the eVTOL such a compelling proposition? And how can these craft be compared as an alternative to the helicopter?
“All-electric vehicles are much quieter than traditional helicopters powered by combustion engines,” says Walker.
“Depending on which type of helicopter we’re talking about, many have ‘a single point of failure’, meaning one motor, or one connection with the rotor. This makes them relatively unsafe compared to norms in the aviation industry, which is the safest of all forms of transportation.
“The configuration of an eVTOL is different. They have what’s called ‘multiple points of redundancy’, so you have multiple rotors, multiple motors, multiple batteries, and that adds further degrees of safety.”
All of the current vehicles are certified by either the European Air Safety Agency in Europe, the Federal Aviation Administration in the US or the other regulators in the manufacturers’ own countries, so the level of safety threshold for all of these vehicles is no less than a commercial airliner.
This, says Walker, is important for the industry as a whole, but also for public perception in terms of safety and efficiency.
The relative simplicity of these vehicles also gives them an advantage over their more traditional predecessors. “They have far fewer moving parts in their motors,” he explains.
“This means less down-time and cheaper maintenance. They will ultimately be capable of being flown automatously, without the need for a pilot (which is the biggest cost and the biggest cause of accidents), making them even more economical to operate.
“Increasing scales of production will drive prices lower, meaning this transport will be something that is affordable by the masses, not the elite few.”
Another plus point for the eVTOL is that it can take off and land vertically. “Although many of them have a wing for lift during forward flight, they can all land in constrained environments within city centres,” notes Walker.
“This brings a great opportunity for airports in adding a quick, safe, environmentally friendly alternative to current city-centre-to-airport transportation for people and cargo without the huge infrastructure costs associated with ground transportation.”
It was Walker and his team that were behind the proof-of-concept construction of the world’s first “vertiport” (a take-off and landing area for eVTOLs) in Singapore in 2019.
The company aims to launch commercial operations there within two years, in partnership with German-based company, Volocopter, one of the world’s leading eVTOL manufacturers.
The vehicle used here, called Volocity, can carry 200 kilograms or two people. “It’s very quiet, and when we flew around Marina Bay in Singapore, people walking along the pavement with the Volocopter behind them at 70 metres didn’t even turn around,” he says.
“You can’t hear that it’s there unless you know it’s coming, and even on landing, it’s not that much more noisy than existing city environmental noise.”