As the eVTOL industry takes shape, there is a frenetic pace of activity to plan and build the infrastructure that will support the approaching first flights of urban air mobility (UAM) and other new vehicle classes. Group Editor Marty Kauchak surveys the fast pace of building initial infrastructure for the global eVTOL ecosystem.
“We have to be very, very thoughtful when thinking about vertiports. With vertiports come a lot of requirements – clearance zones, safety zones around them.” - Sam Morrissey, Executive Director, Urban Movement Labs.
Before new, or even repurposed, brick and mortar infrastructure solutions are made available to support eVTOL operations, the enterprise has to gain approval from government, civic groups and other entities to permit safe, scheduled operations at vertiports and other operating sites.
One high profile player in the run-up to establishing eVTOL infrastructure is Urban Movement Labs, which brings together expertise and experience from different sectors to create a transportation system that is equitable, sustainable, and accessible. “Public sector partners help define urgent transportation problems and opportunities in Los Angeles,” Sam Morrissey, the organization’s Executive Director, initially pointed out, and said, in turn, they are helping advance the build of an eVTOL infrastructure in a collaborative, deliberate way.
Admittedly free of the shackles of turning a quick profit and other potentially negative imperatives during this sector’s quickening pace of expansion, Clint Harper, an Urban Air Mobility Fellow at the organization, explained his colleagues are also bringing community interests into the process. “That includes what are the community’s concerns that could inform some of these decisions. This has not been done before to the level we’re trying to take it to in aviation” – and with good reasons.
Executive Director Morrissey added part of Urban Movement Labs’ engagement approach is recognizing there are many other challenges that cities like Los Angeles are trying to address. “In Los Angeles we are having a massive homeless crisis and home affordability issue. The numbers I have seen indicate we have to build hundreds of thousands of new housing units in the state of California and in the city of Los Angeles it’s probably in the ten thousands. They talk about adding those units and densifying those units in places like downtown. We have to be very thoughtful if we want to build upward and denser, we have to be very careful about locating the vertiports in places that don’t restrict our ability to build upwards and denser. There’s a lot of collaboration to allow the city to obtain the goals they are trying to achieve and where do vertiports fit in – this is not a simple question.”
The development of eVTOL infrastructure is one policy goal of the organization’s overarching focus – enabling parties to build a Los Angeles where new transportation technologies are tested, proven, and brought to life. Harper further noted this specific infrastructure will be integrated – with legacy aviation and other transportation modes, and other systems – “things we don’t want to disrupt.” To point, the community expert noted Urban Mobility Labs’ collaboration with government and other stakeholders is meant, in part, to provide feedback to this industry and help provide solutions to some of the existing issues in this arena.
Morrissey pointed out the major challenge as eVTOL infrastructure matures is the lack of understanding of what this transportation mode is, and even what a UAM, or advanced UAM, ecosystem, will look like and who it serves. “There are very different perceptions throughout the public. In fact, if you asked me in January [last year] what I thought about this, I would have said, I am very skeptical. And that’s the work we’re doing, starting with that education piece.”
As another case in point, the organization’s senior staff member pointed to the recent flurry of negative media coverage about evolving self-drive cars and the US National Safety Transportation Board’s comments on incidents involving these vehicles. “People are skeptical about new technology. But the key difference here is these vehicles [eVTOLs] are in the process of being certified and once they are certified, they will be able to operate in commercial airports. Once you get people to understand that aspect, it really starts to unlock the deeper issues – concerns about noise from existing helicopters and others.”
And those deeper issues are indeed weighty and challenging policy matters, especially as they pertain to infrastructure and its overarching ecosystem. Much like opening a new restaurant or other business, “location, location, location,” will be a mantra of locating new vertiports. Indeed, Morrissey said location will be essential, as in the case of Los Angeles, and elsewhere, as decision-makers will not want the sites staffed by people “who live 60 miles out of town and add vehicular traffic to our highways” – for starters.
And there are other challenges and obstacles to eVTOL infrastructure development, further validating Urban Movement Labs’ collaborative efforts with numerous, local emerging partners. Beyond repurposing existing urban facilities for vertiports, Morrissey raised the environment issue. “Here in California, we have the California Environmental Quality Act, which will require certification at these facilities,” he explained and added, “Los Angeles has a very rich history of organized community groups using the environmental process to stop projects. This engagement will also help to ensure we try to build and develop these vertiports in ways that will minimize public opposition.” Indeed, as a result of his organization’s expansive, collaborative and education efforts with the city of Los Angeles and other key stakeholders, an early (five years downstream) return on investment may see “operations between existing commercial facilities, Van Nuys Airport [VNY] and Los Angeles International Airport [LAX], and then possibly one or two vertiports in an urban setting being engaged in more demonstration activities – that’s my guess.”
Harper further emphasized the infrastructure discussion has to be “about balance, which is key here.” While his organization does not want to approach these related decisions as requiring all new infrastructure, “balance is the solution,” in particular with legacy infrastructure, at underutilized and other airfields, offering much to this industry, as do conceptually, the roofs of underutilized parking garages in or close to a city’s core.
“Enormous Task,” Pragmatic Approach
A second vital point on a careful, measured effort to build eVTOL enterprise infrastructure was offered by Clem Newton-Brown OAM, CEO and Founder of Skyportz. The Melbourne, Australia-based executive initially said his company is taking a much more realistic approach to facilitating advanced air mobility, by focusing on the achievable first and then working toward the “futuristic city rooftop skyports that have captured all the attention.” He added, “First, we envisage existing aviation infrastructure being where things will start. Then we will be building facilities in industrial areas at ground level. Once the industry matures and people have become used to the aircraft we believe we will then be pursuing skyports in more sensitive locations.”
Mirroring the Urban Movement Labs experience in Los Angeles, the industry executive declared, nowhere in the world has any jurisdiction set out the planning and regulatory rules for vertiports. “Each jurisdiction in each state or province in each country will need to make changes to allow aircraft to land where they cannot currently. It is an enormous task which involves political and community support to be developed first,” he said and continued, “My eclectic career background as a former deputy mayor, lawyer, planner and tourism operator puts me in a unique position to pull this off. In 1992 I started the first water taxi on the Yarra River in Melbourne as a 25-year-old, and I now want to bring the first air taxis to life 30 years on.”
Validating the sheer size and scope of the rapidly evolving eVTOL enterprise, from vehicle OEMs to airport authorities, and again noting the imperative to work in partnerships, Newton-Brown said Skyportz is helping to build the political and community support, while at the same time signing up proper partners. “There is room for everyone in this industry and we are partnered with a whole range of experts – 70 aviation consultants, Arup engineering, Parking Australia, Microflite [helicopter flights and related services], Safe Helidecks, Nexa Capital, Electra.Aero, and Hatch RobertsDay [a planning, design and placemaking practice].”
Newton-Brown said Skyportz aims “to put all the pieces of the puzzle on the table and show how they will be assembled into a commercially viable ecosystem. We don’t have lots of local OEM air taxi companies in Australia so we need to show the world that Australia is a market ready to accept a whole range of air taxi concepts. If Skyportz can prepare Australia to be further advanced in regulatory capacity as well as site selection, then OEMs will choose Australia as one of their first launch markets,” and concluded, our strategy is already working and we have just signed up to be the exclusive launch partner for Electra.Aero.”
Megawatts in Small Places
New technologies are supporting the eVTOL community’s infrastructure. These capabilities are being brought to bear through dedicated R&D for a “clean sheet” design, and in other instances, by migrating capabilities from adjacent sectors. Regardless of source, the materiel entering this aviation space must further conform with new and emerging government and industry standards, protocols, regulations and other overarching guidelines.
One of myriad, rapidly evolving use cases of new technologies entering the eVTOL enterprise was announced in October when ABB’s Electrification business (E-mobility Division) and Lilium revealed plans for ABB to provide the charging infrastructure for Lilium’s high-speed regional air network, scheduled for commercial launch in 2024. Lilium plans launch networks in Florida, Germany, and Brazil. As part of the agreement, ABB will develop, test and supply the Megawatt fast-charging infrastructure necessary for the quick-turnaround times needed for electric aviation. The ABB charging points are reported to be designed to be capable of fully charging batteries in approximately 30 minutes, and charging up to 80% in 15 minutes, enabling the 20-25 flights per aircraft per day planned across Lilium’s global vertiport network.
Johan Peeters, VP Business Development at ABB EV Charging Infrastructure, noted this development “is an exciting space for ABB, where we believe that we can shape the growth of eVTOL around the world,” and added, “Our collaboration with Lilium is an exciting first step, where we are driving MCS [Megawatt Charging System] as the globally recognized charging standard for future eVTOL projects. For Lilium, we will be using the MCS – which is a new standard initially developed for heavy vehicle trucks – which are a perfect match for eVTOL.”
As another datum point on this infrastructure thrust, ABB’s “solutions will be agnostic. We are establishing MCS as the charging standard for eVTOL, which should become the globally agnostic standard,” the corporate executive emphasized. Peeters added, “From a battery perspective, technology has now reached the point that the energy density allows for eVTOL. Obviously, batteries will continue to evolve and improve over time to provide greater density, broadly following the trends that we see in e-mobility. Lilium is a great example of the ‘art of the possible’ and we expect that range will continue to develop as the technology evolves.”
Revealing a bit more of ABB’s “secret sauce,” the executive pointed out, on the charging side, there are no real limitations to how much power his company can give to the plane. The new MCS allows up to 3.7 megawatts, so the division can support charging levels up to 3.7 MW. “The real question here is – can the plane and the battery take that power? This will really depend on how fast the battery technology evolves: batteries are improving all the time and when they get bigger, then the power will be higher.” And another indication there are many separate infrastructure developments which must be synchronized, Peeters emphasized, “Given that in the future the majority of eVTOL solutions will be situated on the roof of city center buildings, and we need to charge several eVTOLs at the same time, we need multiple MCS chargers including medium-voltage grid transformers on a small surface. This will present an infrastructure challenge with respect to available space and weight limitations. As a result, we are designing our eVTOL charging infrastructure to be smaller and lighter compared to ground-based system whilst supplying the same amount of power.”
Many Moving Parts
To manage expectations, the eVTOL community’s infrastructure is, in most cases, evolving deliberately and synchronized, with many concurrently moving foundation pieces. While laws and standards are being developed, disparate stakeholders are being brought together to shape the community’s roadmap, through and beyond initial operation of burgeoning numbers of envisioned eVTOL fleets. At the same time, the technology underpinnings of the enterprise’s foundation are maturing at a pace to allow first flights of operators’ fleets to begin in the next several years.