Q&A: Darrell Swanson shares his thoughts on current state of landing infrastructure for eVTOL aircraft

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.”

Avatar photo

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.

eVTOL Insights is part of the Industry Insights Group. Registered in the UK. Company No: 14395769