We wrote earlier this year about vertiports as an asset class, and a perceived potential lag in the development of these assets compared to that of the eVTOL aircraft that vertiports are designed to support (you can read that piece here).
This now seems to be changing, and there has been a real sense of momentum building in this space over the last few months – so much so that it can be difficult to keep up, which is why we set out here a few of the key developments shaping vertiports and eVTOL support infrastructure to be aware of.
- Vertiport design
In March this year, after coordinating with leading vertiport companies and eVTOL manufacturers, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (“EASA”) published the Prototype Technical Design Specifications for Vertiports (which you can read here). This is the first design guidance offered in this space, making this a significant milestone in the development of the industry.
One of the most striking innovations is the idea of the ‘obstacle free volume’ (example pictured below), which proposes a funnel-shaped designated landing space which simultaneously makes use of the vertical take-off and landing capabilities of these aircraft and recognises the reality of juggling both passenger safety and the flight paths possible in the high-density built up urban areas in which these aircraft will operate.
Source: Prototype Technical Design Specifications for Vertiports, page 74
The next stage in the process will be for EASA to develop fully articulated regulatory requirements for vertiport operations. According to EASA, these requirements will include ‘not only detailed design specifications, but also requirements for authorities to oversee vertiport operations as well as organisational and operational requirements for vertiport operators.’
This is particularly interesting from the UK perspective, which announced this month that it will use the certification standards informing the ‘Special Condition for small-category VTOL aircraft’, developed by EASA, as the basis for the certification of new models of eVTOL aircraft in the UK (you can read our thoughts on this here). If the UK CAA follows EASA’s lead on this as well, the two jurisdictions are well on their way to a coherent approach to vertiport design that will facilitate access to the markets on both sides of the channel.
2. Vertiport prototypes
April saw the opening of Urban-Air Port Ltd’s pop-up ‘Air-One’ in a car park in Coventry in the UK, marking the world’s first ‘fully functioning hub’ for eVTOL aircraft and delivery/cargo drones and demonstrating the possibilities of this new category of infrastructure. This might seem like a questionable location, but as Ricky Sandhu (founder of Urban-Air Port and its executive chairman) told the Financial Times, “This whole industry will remain a fantasy if you can’t be in locations like this […] We’ve built an airport 60 seconds from a city centre where half a million people live and work — that’s the demand.”
Keen to evidence the potential (and potential return on investment) of these facilities, the Air-One site included amenities like a café and lounge for passengers and retail stores, in addition to a logistics hub for cargo and an electric and hydrogen vehicle hangar.
Source: Urban-Air Port (https://www.urbanairport.com/uap-blog/world-first-hub-for-flying-taxis-air-one-opens-in-coventry-uk)
Having a working prototype is as important for eVTOL support infrastructure as it is for eVTOL developers, as this marks the point at which a vision starts to become reality, and facilitates buy-in by local authorities, the travelling public and investors. While Air-One might have made the biggest recent headlines, other companies like Skyports, Skyportz, Lilium and Ferrovial (to name just a few) are making strides in building the physical and regulatory networks in which these sites will operate.
3. Vertiport support
In June, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the ‘Advanced Aviation Infrastructure Modernization (AAIM) Act’ which would (once made law) make funding grants in an amount of up to $25 million available to ‘(1) assist an eligible entity to plan for the development and deployment of infrastructure necessary to facilitate AAM operations in the United States; and (2) make funding available for costs directly related to construction of public-use vertiports or associated infrastructure’. Such amounts would be available until 30 September 2023.
To achieve government buy-in on this scale is a really significant step forward for the industry. With some developers targeting 2024 as the launch date for commercial operations, this scheme will help to turbo-charge development of support infrastructure in the US over the course of these critical next two years, creating jobs and opportunities along the way. Considered alongside other schemes like the Future Flight Challenge in the UK, which supported the Air-One, this form of vertiport support from governments is demonstrably driving progress in this space.
4. Vertiport analysis
Since its launch in early 2021, SMG Consulting’s AAM Reality Index has been a helpful tool in tracking how eVTOL operators are progressing to certification of their aircraft. In June, SMG released a new guide, the AAM Infrastructure Readiness Index, which instead of focusing on operators looks at the readiness of infrastructure companies to launch vertiport infrastructure across the globe.
Infrastructure companies are allocated a rating between 0-10 – with a ‘10’ to eventually be awarded to companies with commercial networks operating across countries (which is not expected until the 2030s). The launch iteration of the index gives Ferrovial the highest ranking (5.3/10) with SMG’s Sergio Cecutta telling evtol.com that the company is out in front mainly because of its financial resources and also because the team has a wealth of experience in dealing with airport projects across the world.
While the index currently lists only five companies, SMG is working on coverage for an additional 15, which will help the industry and its financiers to better gauge and monitor readiness as the launch of commercial eVTOL operations approaches. This will also likely help motivate jurisdictions and their regulators as it becomes apparent (via the index rankings) that some are more engaged and more prepared than others to facilitate the next phase of transportation technology, as well as the opportunity and investment that will come with it.