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.”