It’s already been a busy start to 2021 for the eVTOL aircraft market, with some big industry announcements making headlines across the world — most notably the news of both Archer and Joby Aviation going public through investment with SPACs.
But while it’s exciting to see the progress of companies developing the next generation of aircraft, it’s also important that when the first commercial services launch — which could be as early as 2024 — the infrastructure is in place for them to land, depart and charge between flights.
To get additional insight into this vital part of the ecosystem, eVTOL Insights talked to Darrell Swanson of Swanson Aviation Consultancy. He was on the Community Air Mobility Initiative (CAMI) panel during the Vertical Flight Society’s recent workshop on eVTOL infrastructure, which took place from March 2nd to 4th.
Q: What are your views on the current state of eVTOL landing infrastructure at the moment?
Darrell Swanson: “I think that as much as we’re starting to see these SPAC deals happening for vehicles, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see something coming up for infrastructure because it’s such a big play.
“However, right now, there is no guidance available from the FAA on vertiport infrastructure. The FAA have said it probably wouldn’t have a full set of documents and a new advisory circular on vertiport infrastructure for another two or three years, so anything that’s built is actually built at risk, in that regulation could come in and you build something, but then you’d have to change it.
“I’m confident that you can use existing regulations for heliports for vertiports, but does that then limit what you can do? For example safeguarding for heliports is very restrictive with respect to the approach and departure paths and the angles that are created. Using these regulations will limit the locations for vertiports in urban environments due to the vertical nature of the built environment.
“I think the idea of renovating existing helipads or developing infrastructure at existing suitable airports is a good place to start. But a renovated helipad will only give you so much capacity, because usually it’s just one landing pad which limits the frequency of your operations. It’ll work in the beginning, but we’ll need to get to larger commercial scale vertiports to support a wider ecosystem.
“I think that’s probably where it’s interesting in that if infrastructure investment SPACs concentrate on an area or region to develop a system of vertiports, that could actually attract operators to that market.
“For example, if somebody in London did a SPAC and raised a lot of money, got the local authority on board and develop a series of vertiports both in the city and outside of it, then all of a sudden you have a economically viable system. That’s where I think SPACs are going to play a big role in infrastructure.”
Q: Why do you think eVTOL landing infrastructure has been overlooked to an extent?
DS: “In the case of the UK, we haven’t got the planning legislation in place to allow local authorities to assess a vertiport planning application. The risk is that a local authority assesses it as a heliport, says no, and then the applicant decides to appeal because they’re not applying the right measuring stick to it.
“But I actually think the reason is that there’s a bit of a waiting game going on in the property industry. Property owners are becoming more aware and there will be people who will put options on rooftops or on locations. But it’s been a long waiting game for them, and as more and more information comes out the price of those rooftops are going up.
“So it’s really about knowing who the property owners are at the right locations that meet the criteria for a neighbourhood friendly vertiport. And that’s why trying to find the right location is probably going to be the most difficult bit. Anything can be built for the right money and with the right engineering, but finding the right location is challenging.”
Q: What do you think are the first hurdles we need to tackle first, so we can start to see landing infrastructure in place?
DS: “We need to have more consultation with local authorities and governments at a national planning level. This is the work that I’m doing with CAMI and CIVATAglobal, by supporting them both and trying to bring together local authorities and the industry.
“And there’s another group in the UK called Flight Crowd, which is more focused on engaging with the public. It’s about trying to get that social engagement going, which will create the dialogue to influence government decision makers to say ‘OK, this is coming and we need to create a policy for it’.
“So that’s part of the work I’m doing with ADS UK. We have an Advanced Air Mobility Working Group where we’re trying to lobby the UK Government to address planning rules so that we can get the planning applications in. Right now, a local authority wouldn’t know what to do with a planning application for a vertiport and the whole process would probably take two to three years.”
Q: Have you started any introductory dialogue with local authorities about eVTOL aircraft landing infrastructure?
DS: “I’ve been working as an advisor with CAMI for more than a year and it has held workshops with local authorities. It’s very much about engaging with them and they seem to be very active in the USA which is brilliant. I’d love to see something similar replicated in the UK, so I’m talking to CAMI to see if we can facilitate something. I’ve also engaged with the Independent Commission on Civil Aviation Noise as they’ll be a big player, but it really is about getting those multiple levels of engagement in the government and wider public.”
Q: Lilium recently announced it is working with Ferrovial to develop a network of vertiports in Florida, but what could companies be doing to work together and help address the infrastructure issue?
DS: “That’s part of what I’m trying to do with the Advanced Air Mobility Infrastructure Reference Manual. With nine other British companies we submitted an application for Smart UK funding and what we are going to put together is essentially a best practice manual in designing vertiports or infrastructure at existing airports for electric aircraft.
“The intent was for nine to 10 British companies to work together and lead the efforts, but then we also have the British Aviation Group behind us (a non-profit trade group of more than 200 companies in the aviation and airport sector).
“The idea was that we, as an industry, are trying to draw everybody’s attention to it, so that we can get a consensus on what should be done and what is best practice. We would then use the Department of International Trade to promote this document around the world to promote these British consultancies and companies to say we have the right answer for infrastructure.
“Hopefully we’ll find out if we’ve been successful in our funding application in March but even if we don’t, this group of companies is committed to producing the document and we need it to pull everybody’s thinking together. That’s exactly what happened with IATA’s [International Air Transport Association] Airports Development Reference manual; it became a go-to document that planners, engineers and industry referenced and in the original version, chapters were written by those working in the industry. That’s what we’re trying to recreate.”
Q: “Could we get to a point where some companies might have to push back on their actual launch dates given that we might not have the infrastructure there for their aircraft?
DS: “I think there’s enough infrastructure out there at the moment. And those cities with the infrastructure and policies in place to support it will get the vehicles first, so you’re almost getting down to a point where it’s going to be a competition amongst global cities as to which ones are going to get the infrastructure, vehicles and services first.
“Joby Aviation will probably want to start in California, Dallas and Melbourne, obviously off the back of the work Uber Elevate did before they were acquired. But eventually, it will come down to whoever has the infrastructure in place will attract the vehicles.
“The interesting thing is where you have OEMs which are planning to operate their own vehicles and invest in their own infrastructure. That’s challenging. But if you’re getting SPACs and valuations of $2 billion, it takes $1billion to certify your vehicle, another $750 million to certify your fabrication process so that still leaves a bit of money to go out and get an operator’s certificate and start building infrastructure.”
Q: “Are you able to give any updates about the SkyBus project, which you’re involved in with GKN Aerospace?
“We’ve had our first meeting with the UK CAA and the regulatory sandbox and it was a very positive experience in dealing with Frederic [Laugere, Innovations Services Lead at UK CAA], and the team there. The sandbox is very open and they want to engage with us in terms of how do we make the operation of that vehicle a reality.
“Obviously, they want us to set out how we want to operate it and then they’ll take a look at the concept of operations and its consistency with the regulation. I’m seeing regulators engaging a lot more proactively with infrastructure and OEMs than what they were doing two or three years ago, so I think the penny is dropping. They’ve got a lot of catching up to do, but organisations like the CAA are doing a fantastic job of it.”
“At this time we are developing the Use Cases and ConOps documents which will inform the wider teams efforts. GKN will look to develop the vehicle requirements matrix and I will work with Pascall+Watson on the infrastructure requirements which will be followed by an economic analysis by the CPC. With respect to the Use Case, we have a unique one called ‘Mind the Gap’ where we are looking to identify gaps in the public transport system to identify potential routes for Skybus.
Q: We’ve spoken to a few people in the industry who are are a bit skeptical about an eVTOL aircraft carrying as many as 50 passengers, as it doesn’t make much sense in terms of weight. What will your work entail?
“For this project, I’m doing Use Cases, Con Ops, Infrastructure Requirements and then helping out with a business case, but GKN is doing all the airframe structures, batteries etc. It is going to be a large vehicle with a huge maximum take-off weight associated with it.
“But the whole purpose of the Future Flight Challenge SkyBus Project is to test the entire system of systems approach. This approach makes the use cases all that much more important to solve. We’ve looked at ferry replacement use cases or feeding cities use cases with the original concept being a Park and Ride from the edge of the M25 motorway into London.
“That might make sense in certain cases, but the one we’re looking at is something I’m calling ‘Mind the Gap’. This is looking for gaps in the public transportation system where it just takes too long to get from one part of the city to the other, because the network is based on a radial system — so you have to go in to come back out.
“There’s some really interesting use cases there that we’re discovering. The aircraft is a big beast, but it potentially could work. I think issues of noise and social acceptance are going to be very challenging so I don’t think we’ll see lots of vertiports for the SkyBus, but there might be a couple of key locations where it makes sense. That’s what the whole exercise is all about.”