EHang has partnered with Italian architecture firm Giancarlo Zema Design Group (GZDG) to create the world’s first fully eco-sustainable vertiport, which will be able to recharge its two-seater eVTOL aircraft.
Inspired by the native African Baobab tree, the concept design is a 30m high tower which comprises a steel and laminated wood structure, waiting room, cafe and a 200 sq.m. panoramic restaurant and connecting lift. The take-off and landing platform will be set on the roof terrace, with the non-slip photovoltaic panels able to generate more than 300 kW.
This vertiport will be used for EHang’s aerial tourism side of its business and GZDG have also announced it is working with EHang to develop similar vertiport designs in the Maldives, pending government planning approval.
eVTOL Insights spoke to Giuseppe Carusi, Partner and Senior Project Manager at GZDG, to get more detail about this project and ask what the company can bring to the growing eVTOL space in terms of designing sustainable landing infrastructure.
Q: Can you tell us about GZDG and how its partnership with EHang began?
Giuseppe Carusi: “Founded in 2001 by the architect Giancarlo Zema as a dynamic and flexible organisation, it covers the entire design process from concept to the executive details. We’re an eco-sustainable architecture firm specialised in smart city eco-sustainable projects, semi-submerged architectural structures, floating habitats, yacht and interior design. We have a record of projects which take shapes from nature and that is why we have names such as the Baobab for some of our designs. Many of these projects are off grid and 98 per cent recyclable.
“EHang is already flying tourists in experimental zones in China and opened a company called EHang Europe Holding GmbH in Austria. Ehang’s CEO for the European outfit [Felix Lee] liked Giancarlo Zema’s design so much that we started talking about the possibility of designing a nature friendly vertiport. They asked us if we could think of a design they could use, because one of the big problems in VTOL is logistics and there are very few companies which design vertiports in the world.
“The main characteristics of our design are soft lines that clearly recall biomorphic forms. So Giancarlo Zema came up with the Baobab design. The reason is a bit extreme, but if you look at what helicopters do in cities, they land on buildings.
For the same reason, one of EHang’s AAVs could land on a structure which is higher than normal. We thought of the Baobab design because it has a minimum footprint; you can put it in a natural park and it won’t invade the habitat, so why not a tree? Basically it’s a resort with a landing pad on top. The materials we will use include aluminium, steel and a lot of wood and glass. We try to keep it as eco-sustainable as possible.
“We are working with a UK company called SOLAPAVE, which has created solar panels that can hold up over 500kg in weight without breaking. They’re actually made for roads and are anti-slip, anti-freeze, inbuilt Wi-Fi and have LED lights so they can light up at night.
“Plus, in the future they could automatically recharge the AAV’s batteries once it lands on the pad so there is no need to hook it up to a separate charging system. We’re including this in all our vertiport designs and have a second vertiport design which will be coming out very soon, as well as new partnerships with other companies in this space.”
Q: Is the Baobab your first step into vertiport design?
GC: Yes. We’ve got another design which will be released at the end of this month and is totally different. We’re specialised in submerged, semi-submerged and floating habitats and thought: why not create a floating vertiport? Since the biggest problem right now is flying over cities and getting permission to fly, we thought putting one on a lake would actually avoid those flights. This vertiport can be built for use on land too.
“What we tend to do as a designer, is also to offer the structural engineering through our partners but we also have companies which can build it if necessary. We can offer the complete package, and are also technology providers, in the sense that our designs include a lot of smart city technology. There’s a lot of innovation in them.”
Q: What is the planned timeline for this Baobab project?
GC: “There’s actually an investor and buyer for the project. It turns out that it immediately caught interest when we began showing it around. It’s going to be built and the first one will likely be in Italy to be used with drones. But we cannot disclose any further information until next month.”
Q: Many in the industry have expressed some concerns about the design and safety aspect of the Baobab design. Is there anything you’d like to say to alleviate issues they might have?
GC: “First of all, this is a concept design and has been designed to capture interest. It’s not the final stage. When we go into engineering then we will confront all these issues which may be deriving from wind, rain or other problems. You don’t see that in the design right now.
“Once you’re going into more detail, then it needs to be engineered and bind to safety. For instance, the top part where the landing pads are, it probably won’t have only open wood structures. Instead, you can imagine some plastic panelling windshield for the drones to land so they’re protected by wind and things like that. We are also looking at a drone which has a 220kg payload and weighs a few hundred kg. It’s not that easy to blow away.
“So it’s all going to be planned and engineered based on what’s going to land on it, but it will be protected.”
Q: What impact does GZDG hope to have on the industry?
GC: “For a long time we’ve been very much into electric vehicles, mainly yacht design. We’ve designed a touristic yacht that runs on hydrogen, called the Trilobis. It is an electric four-seater concept that hydrofoils over the water at 30 knots and can dive 50 metres underwater.
“So we’re not just a design group. We’re fully involved in this weird science and like to get our hands dirty, so thought it was natural for us to get into the VTOL space. We can even design the bodies for these vehicles too.
“What we’re also trying to do at Giancarlo Zema Design Group is slowly include vertiports in all the facility, hotel and resort designs we’re working on. We feel drones will start in the tourist market first, so people will want to be offering this service and we need to build it into our designs.
“We want to be one of the first companies which is specialised in this. I know Volocopter works on vertiport design with Skyports, but that is one thing tied to the AAV Volocopter brand they offer to everybody. Our service is going to be personalised for every client and anyone can approach us for their own design which reflects their brand image independently from the AAV they choose to operate. In the end the logistics are normally built by the service providers and need to be custom designed to fit the ride.
“To some, eco-sustainability is just a word. For us it means everything; from the materials we use to the technology that goes into our designs and the habitat in which it will be installed.”
Q: Do you have any plans to work with other companies in this market?
GC: “We will partner with anybody and everybody. We want to design vertiports and all of these will be different and personalised for every company that wants one.”
Q: Are there any final points you’d like to make, Giuseppe?
GC: “We don’t want to be misunderstood. We are proud of partnering with EHang on the Baobab project, but we are also free to work with anybody else. There’s a technical co-operation for the vertiport where EHang will give us all the information we need so the drones can safely be operated. They have the command centre and software, and the Baobab was designed for a service exactly like that.
“But we’re having fun doing this and welcome other eVTOL manufacturers and UAM service and logistic providers getting in touch to work with us.”