Q&A: Atkins’ AAM Lead James Richmond adds more detail about feasibility study for eVTOL aircraft in South West of England

At the end of Jan­u­ary, Atkins — the British design, engi­neer­ing and project man­age­ment firm — announced it was to con­duct a fea­si­bil­i­ty study to explore the idea of eVTOL air taxi ser­vices in the South West of Eng­land.

Expect­ed to last 18 months — the project secured £2.5 mil­lion fund­ing from the UK Gov­ern­men­t’s Future Flight Chal­lenge and will com­prise an assess­ment of the demand for air taxi ser­vices in the region.

The project will also con­sid­er scal­a­bil­i­ty and appli­ca­tion in oth­er cities and con­sor­tium part­ners include eVTOL air­craft devel­op­er Ver­ti­cal Aero­space, Sky­ports, Alti­tude Angel, NATS, Cran­field Uni­ver­si­ty and Con­nect­ed Places Cat­a­pult.

To get more insight and detail into the vision for this project, eVTOL Insights spoke to James Rich­mond, who is Atkins’ Advanced Air Mobil­i­ty Lead. He told us about the poten­tial chal­lenges that lie ahead, and what will be the pro­jec­t’s main pri­or­i­ties this year.

Q: Was there a par­tic­u­lar rea­son why the South West of Eng­land was cho­sen?

James Rich­mond: “The South-West has a strong aero­space her­itage and has trans­port inno­va­tion at the heart of its indus­tri­al strat­e­gy. Doing things dif­fer­ent­ly is the region’s DNA and in addi­tion to lead­ing the way on yet anoth­er excit­ing new tech­nol­o­gy, we can build on the region’s glob­al rep­u­ta­tion as a world­wide aero­space hub and sup­port ambi­tious low car­bon objec­tives. 

“The suc­cess of advanced air mobil­i­ty (AAM) relies on col­lab­o­ra­tion across stake­hold­ers and sec­tors. The region has some great exam­ples of this and in par­tic­u­lar, sup­port from region­al gov­ern­ment and air­ports is key.  

“Prac­ti­cal­ly speak­ing, the region also has some rep­re­sen­ta­tive use cas­es to test in a live envi­ron­ment as the project matures.”

Q: What will you be doing for the rest of this year? And what hur­dles do you think need to be tack­led first? 

JR: “Some of the key activ­i­ties we’ll be look­ing at are:

  • Use case devel­op­ment and mod­el­ling
  • Pub­lic engage­ment activ­i­ties to explore per­cep­tions and mar­ket demand
  • Inte­gra­tion of region­al Air Traf­fic Man­age­ment with AAM man­age­ment – tech­ni­cal and process­es. Major hur­dles here, includ­ing the pro­vi­sion of sit­u­a­tion aware­ness to AAM oper­a­tors and urban air­space man­age­ment approach­es 
  • Assess­ment of require­ments and solu­tions for seam­less com­mu­ni­ca­tions in urban low-lev­el air­space
  • Elec­tron­ic con­spicu­ity – devel­op­ment of inter­op­er­a­ble, secure and assured data back­bone
  • Under­stand­ing require­ments for ground infra­struc­ture to sup­port urban air mobil­i­ty and prepa­ra­tion for urban plan­ning appli­ca­tions, includ­ing inte­gra­tion with exist­ing trans­port sys­tems such as Bris­tol Air­port
  • eVTOL air vehi­cle inte­gra­tion – focused on elec­tron­ic sys­tems inter­op­er­abil­i­ty, oper­a­tional man­age­ment and safe nav­i­ga­tion using cloud-based sys­tems

“An ear­ly key activ­i­ty will be to start engage­ment with the reg­u­la­tors to devel­op safe­ty cas­es for the sys­tem and the demon­stra­tions that will come in lat­er phas­es of the project.”

Q: As well as eVTOL air­craft, what oth­er tech­nolo­gies will you be look­ing at test­ing in this study?

JR: “Some of the oth­er key tech­nolo­gies we’ll be look­ing to inte­grate as part of the whole ecosys­tem are: 

  • Dis­trib­uted Ledger Tech­nol­o­gy for elec­tron­ic con­spicu­ity
  • Resilient, seam­less com­mu­ni­ca­tions pro­to­typ­ing
  • Secure web apps for eVTOL man­age­ment and air­space sit­u­a­tion aware­ness
  • Elec­tron­ic pas­sen­ger ID man­age­ment with bio­met­rics
  • Uni­fied air traf­fic man­age­ment sys­tems

Q: It’s great to see a host of com­pa­nies includ­ing Sky­ports and Ver­ti­cal Aero­space join­ing Atkins in this con­sor­tium. How impor­tant will their roles be in par­tic­u­lar, and where do you think they can have the great­est val­ue in this project?

JR: “Whilst all part­ners in the con­sor­tium bring an under­pin­ning piece of the sys­tem, Ver­ti­cal Aero­space and Sky­ports in par­tic­u­lar bring the sys­tem to life.

“As well as pro­vid­ing the inte­gra­tion of the air­craft and the phys­i­cal infra­struc­ture, they allow a way for the pub­lic and oth­er stake­hold­ers to engage. It can cap­ture the imag­i­na­tion of peo­ple, com­mu­ni­cate the pas­sen­ger jour­ney and allow us to there­fore assess per­cep­tions and demand.” 

Q: Pub­lic accep­tance is recog­nised as one of the key chal­lenges for eVTOL air­craft. What will this fea­si­bil­i­ty study be doing to address that?

JR: “Urban air mobil­i­ty is seen by many as a key com­po­nent of future air trav­el. But for the sys­tem to be suc­cess­ful, the pub­lic need to first under­stand, accept and give their licence to pro­vide the demand for it to oper­ate. Research­ing pub­lic per­cep­tions into eVTOL air­craft is a big part of our project so we can allay any con­cerns and ensure the pub­lic see the ben­e­fits of the tech­nol­o­gy.

“Ver­ti­cal Aero­space will be lead­ing a research pack­age to eval­u­ate pub­lic per­cep­tions, atti­tudes to eVTOL flights and atti­tudes to envi­ron­men­tal impacts such as noise and visu­al aspects. We aim to iden­ti­fy bar­ri­ers to accep­tance, raise the pro­file of this emerg­ing trans­port sys­tem and do so in a way that push­es the bound­aries of what’s been done before.” 

Q: How do you think urban air mobil­i­ty might work when inte­grat­ing with cur­rent air­port facil­i­ties in the region?

“Many of the pas­sen­ger-based use cas­es for urban air mobil­i­ty may rely on at least one node of the jour­ney being an exist­ing air­port. It’s there­fore key to get the sup­port of an inter­na­tion­al air­port in the region to under­stand what that may look like and what changes may have to be made to accom­mo­date future air taxi ser­vices. These could include changes to air traf­fic man­age­ment, phys­i­cal infra­struc­ture, pas­sen­ger jour­ney and air­side oper­a­tions.”

Q: What has ini­tial feed­back of the study been like from busi­ness­es and local author­i­ties in the region i.e. Bris­tol Air­port, WECA?

“The suc­cess of advanced air mobil­i­ty relies on col­lab­o­ra­tion across stake­hold­ers and sec­tors. From ear­ly in the project’s incep­tion, we’ve had strong sup­port and align­ment from the region­al local author­i­ty and inter­na­tion­al air­ports. They’ll be key in shap­ing the project, align­ing it with region­al strat­e­gy and ensur­ing that our find­ings incor­po­rate input from busi­ness­es and local author­i­ties in the region.”

Q: Why Atkins?

“Many of the points touched on have demon­strat­ed how col­lab­o­ra­tion and shar­ing across sec­tors and stake­hold­ers will be key in cre­at­ing a viable and sus­tain­able sys­tem and this is what we can bring. 

“This new trans­port ecosys­tem requires the con­ver­gence of the aero­space, infra­struc­ture, com­mu­ni­ca­tion and intel­li­gent mobil­i­ty worlds. Cross­ing bound­aries between reg­u­la­to­ry envi­ron­ments, design con­straints and design dri­vers will require each indi­vid­ual ele­ment to be designed with an under­stand­ing of the oth­ers. A deep under­stand­ing of all these envi­ron­ments is nei­ther eas­i­ly nor quick­ly gained but is fun­da­men­tal to cre­at­ing a suc­cess­ful solu­tion.

“Atkins has the depth and breadth of engi­neer­ing capa­bil­i­ties across all the key sec­tors that are crit­i­cal to urban air mobil­i­ty suc­cess. From vehi­cle man­u­fac­tur­ers, infra­struc­ture and ser­vice providers to entire cities, we are able to advise and sup­port clients in con­sid­er­ing the wider UAM sys­tem. This helps us suc­cess­ful­ly deliv­er an inte­grat­ed solu­tion.

“Whether it’s help­ing cer­ti­fy an aircraft’s flight con­trol sys­tem, design­ing the next ver­ti­port or inte­grat­ing eVTOL air taxi ser­vices into the exist­ing trans­porta­tion net­work, we have the cross-indus­try knowl­edge to con­sid­er how these com­po­nents will work with­in their wider ecosys­tem.  

“It’s a future we can’t wait to help shape.”

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Jason Pritchard

Jason Pritchard is the Editor of eVTOL Insights. He holds a BA from Leicester's De Montfort University and has worked in Journalism and Public Relations for more than a decade. Outside of work, Jason enjoys playing and watching football and golf. He also has a keen interest in Ancient Egypt.

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