As COP26 opens Ferrovial pledges to create network of ‘vertiports’
The COP26 Climate Change Conference has got under way in Glasgow, Scotland (minus Greta Thunberg, who has delivered one of her trademark speeches, criticising the COP event; and according to the local newspaper, the Daily Record, the private jets used by participants collectively will have pumped out more CO2 flying there than 1600 Scots burn in a year.)
Those delegates might have won more support had they turned up in environmentally friendly air taxis but the fact is that sector of the business is still at a ‘nascent’ stage, in terms both of the technology and the infrastructure.
However, Ferrovial, which jointly operates Glasgow International Airport, has announced it will build 25 ‘vertiports’ around the UK, which will help kick-start the infrastructure side of the equation. It follows several other similar announcements during the past year in various parts of the world, most of which got lost in the COVID-19 mire.
This article looks at how far the VTOL business has come, and at what pitfalls still remain for it to overcome.
- Ferrovial to build 25 UK ‘vertiports’ to host air taxi operations.
- Numerous other enterprises have entered this sector and are working on prototypes, in one case with regular year-round operations slated for 2023.
- Potentially, this ‘air mobility’ market is huge – trillions of dollars.
- But there are significant operational issues still to be overcome and the cost/price equation is critical.
- The business case is built on minimising road journeys to and from airports, along with the attendant ‘pollution’, but will that be enough?
- The absence of the really big entrepreneurial hitters raises questions.
Ferrovial partnered with the companies Grimshaw and Mott MacDonald to develop vertiport design and engineering. Ferrovial Vertiports CEO Kevin Cox said the network will "boost local economies with a new model of regional connectivity".
The Spanish company operates four UK airports including London Heathrow, where it remains the main shareholder. Also Southampton, Glasgow International and Aberdeen airports in a consortium with AGS Ventures Airports, which is controlled by Macquarie European Infrastructure Fund and has collaboration agreements on this matter with Lilium (German aerospace company) and Vertical Aerospace.
Announcement made as COP26 opens in a city where Ferrovial operates an airport
It is surely no coincidence that this announcement has been made now, in anticipation of the COP26 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference that opened in Glasgow on 31-Oct-2021, by a British Prime Minister predictably with the observation that the time is “one minute to midnight”. And an announcement in which the traditional, Jet A 1-fuelled air transport industry will be very much in a withering spotlight (even if half the delegates arrived on a private jet).
The company says it will develop and operate “zero-carbon air transport infrastructure to enhance urban and regional connectivity throughout the country.” The collaboration agreements with Lilium and Vertical Aerospace “will enable a fast and pragmatic deployment plan”.
Already planning 10 of them in Florida
The initiative, Ferrovial says, is “another step in its bid to lead the mobility of the future through the development of infrastructure for safe, high-speed, zero carbon aviation". It follows the recently announced agreement to develop a network of more than 10 vertiports in Florida, US.
Vertiports are an essential element in providing infrastructure for the landing, recharging, and taking off of all-electric, vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) jet aircraft – such as those being developed by Lilium and Vertical Aerospace. They are “integrated into communities and adapted to the surrounding environment, reducing noise impact and improving energy efficiency through innovative design”.
To develop the design and engineering components of the vertiport infrastructure, Ferrovial has partnered with the international architecture practice Grimshaw and the global engineering, management and development consultancy Mott MacDonald.
Kevin Cox, CEO of Ferrovial Vertiports said, “The partnership between vertiports and eVTOLs will provide high speed, affordable, emissions-free travel to millions of people. This network will boost local economies with a new model of regional connectivity."
This is not the only example of Vertiport development that has been announced.
In Ferrovial’s own Florida example, in Jan-2021 Ferrovial and Lilium signed a framework agreement to develop a network of at least 10 vertiports. The infrastructure and services will cover strategic locations in all major cities across Florida. The partnership “seeks to provide an efficient and environmentally friendly alternative transport network connecting locations across Florida". Ferrovial and Lilium will collaborate in designing and constructing the vertiport facilities, as well as the operation and maintenance of the vertiports for passenger service.
20 million Florida residents could benefit from the service
Lake Nona in Orlando, which markets itself as “a smart and connected community where residents benefit from a vibrant culture, robust programming and innovative collaboration”, had already been selected as the location of Lilium's first US vertiport, and the launch of the company's urban and regional air mobility network in the US.
The location offers a central site with the opportunity to connect more than 20 million Florida residents within the 300km range of the ‘LiliumJet’, serving several major cities, including Orlando and Tampa.
Looking back over the year, CAPA also noted that in Apr-2021 Korea Airports Corporation (KAC) had selected the winners of a contest held from Dec-2020 to Feb-2021 for design ideas for 'Vertiport' facilities. The contest was held as part of KAC's participation in South Korea's urban air mobility (UAM) project for the development and commercialisation of flying taxis by 2025.
KAC awarded the grand prize to the SUSEO E-VERTIPORT entry, which featured a futuristic, environmentally friendly Vertiport design with two take-off and landing pads and six aprons located near Suseo Station in Seoul.
And more recently (Oct-2021), Skyports (“a mobility company developing and operating landing infrastructure for the electric air taxi revolution, as well as operating cargo drone deliveries”) and SEA Milan Airports announced that they had signed a partnership agreement to investigate the development and operation of a network of vertiports across Italy.
Starting with Milan, where SEA manages Milan Malpensa and Milan Linate airports, the partnership will enable Skyports and SEA Group to explore the deployment of "vehicle-agnostic, scalable and cost-effective" vertiports across the city and the surrounding region.
At the same time, Aeroporti di Roma, Aeroporto di Venezia, Aéroports de la Côte d'Azur (France) and Aeroporto Guglielmo Marconi di Bologna announced the formation of 'Urban Blue', a project for the development of urban air mobility infrastructure.
The initial network of vertiports will include operations in Rome, Nice and Venice (planned by 2024), with more expansion planned at the international level. The new company will also be open to new industrial, technological and financial partners for the progressive expansion of UAM operations.
Going back to 2019, Groupe ADP’s deputy CEO reported that the group had presented its 'vertiport' model, providing a mobile platform for vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) vehicles. The group intended to begin testing in 18 months on one of its aerodromes in the Paris region.
These are a just a handful of many examples of vertiport development planning. It is clear that the concept is here to stay and that the impetus is being ratcheted up by the COP26 event, judging from the number of announcements that have been made in the past few days.
So what exactly is a vertiport, what sort of vehicles will it serve and where will they be located?
The vehicle type will be VTOL (vertical take-off and landing aircraft) which have been developed out of military applications such as the ‘jump jet’, which go back to the 1960s. Many civilian versions, effectively flying taxis, are at various stages of development, although previous CAPA reports suggested that not a great deal of progress was being made on the technical issues.
Air mobility market to be worth USD1.5 trillion
Nevertheless, Hyundai forecasts that the air mobility market will be worth nearly USD1.5 trillion over the next 20 years.
But to get urban aerial mobility off the ground, VTOLs have to be proven to be safe and reliable and air traffic management (ATM) must be adapted to accommodate them.
The public will need to accept this new mode of transport (there has been scepticism even about drones delivering parcels to your front door), and it goes without saying that it will have to be an affordable way of travelling.
A micro-scale airport, the equivalent of a pop-up shop
The final jigsaw in the puzzle is that the infrastructure for landing, recharging and taking off with fare-paying passengers needs to be in place – namely the vertiport; a micro-scale airport that can be deployed in urban locales and major transport hubs as the aviation equivalent of a pop-up shop.
The world’s first air taxi vertiport prototype was unveiled in Oct-2019 at Singapore’s Float at Marina Bay (a floating stadium) during the ‘Intelligent Transport Systems World Congress’. The ‘VoloPort’ is the spawn of an alliance between the air taxi manufacturer Volocopter and the UK-based vertiport developer, owner and operator Skyports (which has just completed a deal with SEA Airports in Italy, as mentioned previously).
A Volocopter air taxi at a ‘Volo-hub’
Singapore was chosen because it is considered by Skyports to be a proven ‘early adopter’ of new technology.
But so is the United States, and especially California, where the jet pack-powered ‘rocket man’ flew in to open the 1968 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. (If he tried to do it today, and he wasn’t electrically or hydrogen powered, he would be considered persona non grata and ejected from the stadium as quickly as he’d flown in.)
Uber says it will have air taxis in Los Angeles by 2023
So it is perhaps no surprise that Skyports is working with a number of ‘megacities’ like Los Angeles around the world and seeking to establish first mover status. Uber has publicly declared that it aims to be operational with air taxis in the City of the Angels by 2023.
This mode of transport and its infrastructure are not going to replace the traditional airport infrastructure – at least, not within the parameters of most people’s imagination.
Joining the dots between urban business centres and air travel hubs to reduce surface congestion
Its modus operandi instead will be for vertiports to ‘join the dots’ between urban business centres and the major air travel hubs, thus reducing surface traffic congestion between airports and downtown.
Surface congestion and pollution is now one of the main factors in objections to airport development, as became apparent in London when Heathrow Airport’s expansion plan (a third runway) was halted in the courts (subsequently overturned).
In the photograph above the Volocopter is parked on a landing strip in midtown Manhattan, somewhere around 40th Street and between Fifth Avenue and Avenue of the Americas. A perfect location.
It is, of course, a concept that has existed for many years for helicopters, and just about every Manhattan skyscraper has an actual or potential helicopter landing pad.
A step up from helicopters, but by how much?
Indeed, Uber already has a (rush-hour only) eight-minute helicopter flight between the Lower Manhattan Heliport (which serves the financial district) and J. F. Kennedy airport. VTOLs might be cleaner, but it isn’t obvious what other advantages they will offer.
Another target for Skyports is an initiative with Groupe ADP, RATP Groupe and Volocopter to provide a showcase urban aerial network for the 2024 Paris Olympics, which is anticipated as being a good catalyst to kick-start the air taxi market in Europe.
Identifying design concepts for vertiports is not dissimilar to the process for regular airports.
Regulatory and safety factors are critical to the design, such as how far apart the VTOLs have to be, how far the landing area is from the gate, and how to recharge safely.
Economical installation is the target
While there will be some large ‘showcase’ sites, the focus of Skyports is on a set of design standards for its vertiports to make them economical to install at scale.
This prompts the question as to why companies that specialise in temporary and semi-permanent terminal structures for airports have not yet publicly entered the fray and, if they choose to do so, what their interpretation of the need will be.
Another company in this market is Urban-Air Port Ltd. (a subsidiary of a group of UK-based urban deep-tech companies focusing on future mobility), working with the air taxi manufacturer Hyundai Air Mobility (a division of Hyundai Motor Group).
In Jul-2020 the two entities forged a partnership to explore purpose-built, multifunctional and scalable UAM (Urban Air Mobility) infrastructure, with Hyundai investing USD1.5 billion over five years to create an air vehicle, plus the supporting mobility ecosystem, for aerial taxi services.
Urban-Air Port will provide the physical landing and take-off, charging, maintenance and passenger processing technology, as well as the digital infrastructure to transport people and logistics via VTOLs as a ‘one-stop solution’.
The company’s solutions are claimed to be “modular, rapidly deployable, transportable and scalable” and are claimed to have attracted expressions of interest from a number of cities across the world, including several UK airports that are interested in integrating air taxis with their core infrastructure.
A prototype will be installed for the 2022 Commonwealth Games
The first deployment is in Coventry (UK), where Hyundai Air Mobility and Urban-Air Port have positioned a full-scale prototype vertiport for live electric VTOL demonstrations as part of the UK City of Culture 2021 and for the 2022 Commonwealth Games events in nearby Birmingham.
The company claims that by integrating charging and battery-swapping capability for air taxis into their design, other forms of zero-emission vehicles can be charged, making the vertiport a hub for all kinds of electric mobility, not just VTOLs, but also drones, electric bikes and also electric cars.
Meanwhile, the architect and designer Pascall+Watson envisages the introduction of ‘pop-up airfields’ for out-of-city VTOL locations, whereby existing but underutilised infrastructure such as roof space, car parks, heliports or disused airfields could be repurposed to take the strain off surface transport in and out of cities.
The big three entrepreneurs more interested in the wider environment
The technology is still at a conceptual stage for most of these companies, with only prototypes being used. The big question mark hanging over this sector is the absence of the ‘big three’ entrepreneurs from direct involvement.
Britain’s Sir Richard Branson has at least spoken of starting up air taxi services in the UK, at London and Manchester, while in the US Elon Musk has praised the Lilium company and suggested that he wished he’d founded it. But that’s all.
Amazon’s Jeff Bezos apparently once took a spin in one of Lift Aircraft’s ‘Hexa’ flying vehicles but seems more preoccupied now with space travel.
If any of these three individuals, each of them carrying ‘green’ credentials, were more committed to VTOL operations and/or infrastructure, the nascent industry would surely have progressed further and faster by now.