A fantastic panel lineup joined us for the ‘From Boxes to Vertiports: The competition for taking off and landing real estate in aerial cities and landing has just begun’ at Aerial Cities 2023.
Richard Boden, Director of Business Unit at Murzilli Consulting moderated this panel and was joined by Clem Newton-Brown, CEO and Founder at Skyportz, Juliana Kiraly, Senior Head of Business Development (Europe) at Eve Air Mobility, Brad Miller, Managing Director at Ferrovial Airports and Christopher Selig, Chief Commercial Officer and Co-Founder at Unisphere.
Throughout this session, the panellists discussed the business case for eVTOLS and vertiports, outlining how the Urban Air Mobility industry can make these services accessible in terms of cost, as well as addressing what demand really means. The panellists also outlined how security for eVTOLs should be treated differently from other aviation services.
We asked Brad about the barriers of the Urban Air Mobility Industry, and what is the main blockage that needs to be addressed to proceed and progress within the industry.
When speaking to governments and authority bodies, Brad outlined that their main concerns after the safety aspects are questions surrounding the exclusivity and accessibility of eVTOLS.
Brad explained: “One of their biggest concerns is, is this going to be for the exclusive use of the top 0.1% or the top 1% of earners in society? We have to say no because we’re looking at it from an infrastructure perspective, and that means volume going through the facilities to justify our investment.”
Talking from a manufacturing and operator perspective, Juliana believes that the industry needs to adopt a phased approach to bring in different stakeholders to share the risks. Juliana commented: “We need to work together and look at each one of the lines of costs, the operational costs and see how we can tackle the risks together.”
Juliana explained that the rollout in terms of the cost of eVTOL and air taxis will not be akin to Uber X, and the line of communication with the community needs to be carefully thought through to give the right message about intentions, outlining the plan to bring the costs down and how we see the growth of the industry.
When it comes to scaling and integrating eVTOL services into cities, Christopher mentioned several considerations which must be taken into account.
“It’s a multidimensional construct, so we are always bringing in the operational part, the weather part, but of course the demand part. You also need to think not about whether it is a place where people want to move from A to B, but also how it is connected to other means of transport?”
Considering the operational factors of locations of vertiports, such as weather, Unisphere conducted a global report on icing conditions for air taxi services. The report covered 30 cities around the world, which are either active in the field of Urban Air mobility, or have been voted as being a location of interest.
eVTOLs are more sensitive to icing conditions due to the lower altitude in which they fly, where warmer air can contain more moisture, making severe icing more probable. Unisphere deemed it necessary to study the effects of icing in different locations to understand the overall availability in different regions across the world.
Echoing Christopher’s comments, Clem outlined that the lack of regulatory framework makes it difficult to find land for vertiports.
“You can’t just choose a site and say this would be a good spot for a vertiport, based on our demand modelling, because there is no criteria or regulatory framework for vertiports.”
Clem explained that now is the perfect opportunity for city shapers and decision makers to come up with a new land use case for a vertiport, as it should be easier to get approval for than a heliport, which is infamous for noise pollution and the limited locations that allow heliports.
The next step to scaling, according to Clem, is being able to communicate the difference between the vertiport and a helipad or airport, but bureaucratic support is necessary.
Richard asked the panel what they believe is needed from an infrastructure perspective to build vertiports. Brad explained that actually, it is not so difficult, it’s a case of forming the airfield and building the passenger services.
On the other hand, Juliana explains that we must approach different types and sizes of vertiports differently, in terms of how they accommodate the number of eVTOLS and overnight charging and maintenance capabilities.
Juliana commented “It’s not easy to find this huge space just in the middle of the city. We need to take into account the range of the vehicle, where they are going to pass through the night for simple maintenance and also for long battery charging.”
When it comes to establishing where the demand is for eVTOL services, Christopher told us that it's a case of understanding whether the demand is really in Europe at the moment, or in cities outside of Europe which already have air services established.
Why? As Christopher explained, there are already good transport systems in place across Europe, meaning vertiports and eVTOLS would need to compete with existing transport, which could be a challenge.
What Christopher believes would be interesting within Europe is to look at intra-city connections. Whilst there are good systems within the cities, journeys between cities can often take up to 5 hours on public transport for what would be a 2-hour car drive.
Christopher commented “I think we need more mature eVTOL. So eVTOL with a range of 50,60 kilometres might not serve that issue, but if we talk 100,200 kilometres, that might be opening up a new business case.”
One of the biggest challenges around vertiports is the question of security. Richard raised the important scenario that users do not want to go through airport-style security checks that will take longer than the eVTOL flight itself.
Clem outlined that whilst security is of course a priority, we need to work on the mindset of aviation and security, outlining that eVTOL services should be treated like getting on a helicopter or small charter plane which requires a minimal level of security in line with the lower risk level.
Taking a more regulatory view to how eVTOL services should approach security, Brad outlined that the likes of EASA and the Department for Transport in the UK have already done the work on risk assessments and “the measures are commensurate to the risk that they see”.
Looking at vertiports or UAM operations through a security lens, Brad identified that we are not in fact doing anything different for eVTOLS, but in fact, following what is already set in place.
Having aviation-style security at every vertiport will erode the business case and benefit from using eVTOL services in the first place. Brad elaborated: “I’m really grateful to all of our regulator colleagues and peers for adopting the special conditions and giving themselves permission to take decades worth of experience and data and operation knowledge that are baked into the regulations today and give themselves permission to use those as the foundation and then bridge to what we need in the future.”
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