Q&A: EHang and Giancarlo Zema Design Group to develop eco-sustainable vertiport, first one could be built in Italy

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.”

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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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