Unlocking the sky with eVTOL taxi services
Tomorrow’s airports will need to be cleaner, quieter, and less reliant on ground-based infrastructure. Clare Williams Fannin spoke to Duncan Walker of Skyports to find out how the use of electric air-taxis can help them achieve these objectives.
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.
Duncan Walker of Skyports, which designs, builds and operates networks of vertiports (the infrastructure to service electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft), believes this is all about to change.
“Electric vertical take-off and landing vehicles, or eVTOLs, have recently hit the mainstream in a big way,” he says.
“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.
“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.”
So clearly new air mobility technologies are already big business, and it was the shift in the way the urban air environment was developing that first drew Walker to the sector three years ago.
“I was doing some research into mobility and how it’s changing around the world, and I realised that there was a significant move towards electrification in aviation generally,” he notes.
“This has been driven by a number of things. The introduction of more lightweight materials means the lifting is easier, and greater battery energy density means more power to get things into the air.
“This, coupled with a number of regulatory changes that have been on the cards for some time and are still evolving, has meant that something that has been talked about since the 1940s is now becoming a reality.”
Walker says that he quickly realised that this was a market with huge potential. “There were about 200 different vehicle manufacturers out there, including big names in the market Airbus, Embraer, Boeing and Hyundai. These vehicles will need safe, secure and well-located landing infrastructure,” he enthuses.
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,” he says. They’re also safer.
“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,” Walker explains. “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 Authority 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 – typically 20 compared to 2,000 in an internal combustion engine,” he comments.
“This means less down-time and cheaper maintenance. They will ultimately be capable of being flown autonomously 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,” he notes.
“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.”
But the eVTOL is not, according to Walker, going to replace the car. He insists: “We think of them as an augmentation of an overstretched network and a way of connecting with other forms of transportation. Not every building will have a vertiport, rather like you don’t need a metro station on the corner of every street.”
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 e-VTOL 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,” Walker enthuses.
“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.”
Much of Skyports’ current effort is with existing airports, working with them on how they best integrate into the vertiport network. In collaboration with Groupe ADP, one of Skyports early investors, the company is building a test facility at Cergy-Pontoise airport, a GA airport to the north of Paris.
This site will be used for operational testing ahead of commercial launch in time for the 2024 Paris Olympics. Skyports is also working with the Civil Aviation Authority, London Heathrow, London City Airport and a number of vehicle manufacturers on the CONOPS for London.
Before looking to add a vertiport to their facilities, there are of course a number of key considerations for airports.
Should the vertiport operate landside or airside, what are the security implications, how will the service dovetail with the other elements of the passenger journey, and how will airspace be integrated, amongst others.
Whilst the majority of these vehicles will initially be piloted, the long-term ambition for the industry is autonomy, which brings added complexity around manned and unmanned aircraft interaction.
“It’s a complex challenge, but the prize for airports is big,” concludes Walker.
“Enhanced connectivity to city centres, rapid adoption of electrification and the associated environmental benefits, improved customer experience and the potential to drive significant additional revenue streams have caught the attention of a number of substantial national and international airport owners and operators. There’s much to be gained.”