Following the recent announcement by Urban-Air Port about its new infrastructure programme, with partners Altitude Angel and Safeguard Vertiports, we spoke to company founder and CEO Ricky Sandhu about the industry reaction to the news.
He also gave his thoughts on landing infrastructure for eVTOL air taxis and drones, and told us about Urban-Air Port’s plans to set up what could be the world’s first event for the industry post-Covid-19.
Q: What has the reaction been like since making your announcement about this infrastructure programme, Ricky?
Ricky Sandhu: “It’s been pretty amazing actually. Since our first announcement at the end of January [winner of Future Flight Challenge], that still kept on going until a few weeks ago. We’ve got so much to do and we’re quite keen to take the public with us on this journey.
“We’re investing a lot in the PR side of things because we know it’s been lacking, particularly from the infrastructure side, but I also think from the eVTOL side. What we’re really good at is demystifying big, complex things. I’ve been doing it my whole career and when I worked at Fosters, I remember a massive project in Stockholm called Slussen and it was road, rail, metro, marine and subterranean. There were huge bridges and infrastructure and it was quite a lot to do at one time.
“I remember as we were doing it, the project team said it’s amazing how you demystified things; taking something very complex, breaking it down to its constituent parts and presenting it an understandable way for instance starting with the handrail detail, with integrated lighting of a new steel bridge [the touchpoint for users] that ultimately is just a small part of a huge new critical piece of infrastructure – the humanities of big innovative infrastructure is what we uniquely understand
“So our work at Urban-Air Port with the media announcements is to break it down, make it simple, legible and assuring. This particular one was packed full of punch and there’s so much more to come. Our plan is to take people with us, and also show leadership from our side.”
Q: With everyone you have been speaking to, from those who are new to the industry to those with decades of experience, do you think the penny is starting to drop and people are starting to realise this new way of travelling is going to be big?
RS: “I think so and it’s awesome that Bloomberg picked us up. We’re also on Bloomberg Tech on Twitter, so that’s pretty cool. You can’t board a train without a train station, board a plane without an airport or catch a bus without a bus stop.
“So you need this infrastructure and I think it’s an opportunity to do something different, to now just have siloed functionality for each infrastructure but to actually bring lots of mobility systems together. It’s all about mobility in the end for us.
The fact we have got Kwasi Kwarteng [UK Secretary of State for the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy] as part of our news story is awesome and support from the Department for Transport as well shows we’re real, serious, credible and leading the world. The UK is really pushing us.”
Q: As well as the UK, is the plan for Urban-Air Port to push out similar infrastructure programmes to other countries e.g. working with the US state Department of Transportations or governments in Asia-Pacific?
RS: “Exactly. Our next announcement will talk about us expanding overseasand we have our close connections with Hyundai Motor Group in USA & South Korea. We’ve also been quite fortunate and privileged to join the Pacific Basin Economic Council in Asia, so we’ve got pretty good coverage into those markets alreday. And there’s lots of other places in between, which we hope we can share in the coming weeks and months.
“This particular announcement was a key one because it’s about the systems, safety requirements and regulations that the UK is leading on, and we can scale it up across the UK, but then also export and help other countries build those systems too.
“Safeguard Vertiports was conceived because of our work, so we’re creating real jobs and really innovative new UK companies. And by working together, which we’ll have to do, we can credibly, sensibly and responsibly grow all of the Air ArchitectureTM you need in order to support the ground infrastructure for the aerial vehicles.
“So feel we’re really doing a lot of the hard yards for the eVTOL manufacturers. Whilst they are getting all the SPAC deals and attention right now, we’re behind the scenes working double time to make their visions become reality but paving the way for these incredibly sophisticated and beautiful vehicles to land & take-off from agnostic, hard working supporting infrastructure But in order for this to happen, we’ve got to do a lot with our city partners and the regulators. There’s a lot going on.
“The air assets can only work if the ground systems work too, so the energy systems, EV charging systems and passenger experience. All of those things are very much related, so we’re coming at it from the top and the bottom.”
Q: It must be exciting to finally be in a position to plan demonstrations of your Air Architecture later this year, which will really help with public acceptance.
RS: “Yes, and it’s part of that demystification process. A lot of the technology development happens in stealth mode behind closed doors, but at the same time, a lot of what is being proposed is something that people need to adopt and utilise straight away.
“And this will only happen if there are live and properly organised demonstrations and events like Air One. For the first time in the world, there will be a fully operational Urban-Air Port in a dense, downtown setting. It’s fine to fly drones in airfields in remote locations and that’s needed to advance the industry, but Air One will be somewhere where you normally go shopping, where you walk past on the way to the train station, so it becomes part of real life.
“Adam Slepian [Global Head of Partnerships at the Urban Air Mobility Division of Hyundai], said this might be the first major event for the industry post Covid-19. It’s awesome and such a great way to show what we’ve been working on. We’ll be taking all the necessary precautions with Coventry City Council and the UK Government and remain laser focused on our goal of bringing this sector to the people – to the ground, as it were, and we truly welcome everyone to share in this experience.”
Q: How are developments coming along in Coventry? Are you still on track to host live demos by the end of this year?
RS: “Yes, we are on programme. The team is working very hard. We’ve pushed ourselves hard because any piece of infrastructure normally takes years to realise. We’ve given ourselves 11 months to design, develop, manufacture, install, test, validate and operate. We’ve got an amazing team which is growing each day and have taken a lot of quite big but sensible steps. Our next announcement will tell you more about what is happening.”
Q: Many regard infrastructure as a bottleneck of the industry, do you think it has been overlooked?
RS: “It certainly hasn’t been overlooked by us. But for the rest of the world, yes I do think it has to some degree. We’ve been and will continue to be laser focused on infrastructure because without it, there will be no sector.
“It’s crucially important not only for passenger air taxis and eVTOLs, but also for eVTOLs for cargo logistics and smaller drones because you need orchestration and organisation when you’ve got multiple vehicles
“They all need charging and maintaining. They need to be loaded and unloaded and there’s lot of very complicated protocols on different types of cargo. There’s many things one has to go through that needs to be done in a very controlled environment.
“Our experience, not only in cities but aviation and aerospace, is the core of Urban-Air Port, a unique understanding that lays the foundation for effectively min airports in cities – ‘Urban-Air Port’, the name itself embodies this reality. . We are starting to show the world one of our models, but we’ll be revealing others which are smaller and some which are bigger.
“What we are developing is a scalable system, which means if there’s a level of tailoring, we can do it within our system for what your needs are, what use-cases you have and what vehicles you’ll be using. I think that’s really important and for the first time, infrastructure can be designed, developed, fabricated, tested, validated and handed over within 11 months for operational readiness and transition and deployment.
“That’s something you can’t do with a train station or an airport, so it means we have a model that can be deployed rapidly in multiple locations at multiple sizes and for multiple use cases. And all of a sudden, that will then lead to fully fledged Air Architecture™ that is scaled across the country. And then we can export that globally.
“But it’s not easy. There’s actually a lot of challenges and we have to go in lockstep with the industry, so that as the industry starts to grow and there’s more vehicle movements, our infrastructure can scale to serve all of those movements in future; whether they’re small or much larger drones.
“That’s why to show for the first time, a real eVTOL in perfect harmony with its infrastructure, is going to be really exciting for everybody to see. You can’t have one – without the other and Urban-Air Port provides the necessary functionality that will be required to serve this sector.”