Imagine designing an airport before planes were invented. That’s what Ricky Sandhu and Urban-Air Port attempted in the English city of Coventry in May, setting up one of the world’s first vertiports for so-called air taxis. The building, complete with a waiting lounge and café, was built and taken down again years before such vehicles will be ready to pick up passengers.
For a month in a central Coventry car park, thousands of visitors wandered Air One, Urban-Air Port’s 1,700-square-meter modular popup building. In many ways it resembled any other transport hub—apart from the take-off platform which rose out of the center of its roof. While some services were up and running— including the café—the only aircraft taking off were delivery drones, though Hyundai’s Supernal eVTOL (electric vertical takeoff and landing) vehicle was on display.
The aim wasn’t to prove that air taxis are the future of urban transport. That’s the job of companies such as Joby, Lilium and Supernal, all of which have functional test aircraft and are progressing through regulatorary certification. Instead, Urban-Air Port was demonstrating a key bit of infrastructure and also working out how to squeeze in retail space and make boarding and disembarking as hassle-free as possible. And that includes how long passengers would have to queue to get a latte. “We thought the café was going to be way too big,” Sandhu says. “But it was exactly the right size.”
Contrary to dreams of flying cars, eVTOLs won’t initially—or likely ever—land in the street in front of your house. That would disrupt traffic, be dangerous and noisy. For one, most eVTOL designs are simply too large—the Lilium Jet has a 14-meter wingspan, 2 meters wider than a standard single-lane road. Instead, to hail an “air taxi,” passengers will need to make their way to a local vertiport, which could sit atop train stations, office blocks, or even float in water.
Figuring out exactly what these buildings will require isn’t simple. Urban-Air worked with Coventry University on a virtual reality model to test the space before spending 11 weeks assembling Air One. Companies making eVTOLs, including German air-taxi startup Volocopter, have also released their own visions for what a vertiport might include, usually featuring glossy computer renders of shiny white lounges atop skyscrapers. Such designs might look futuristic, but they will likely be a logistical nightmare, with queuing, boarding, and recharging all much harder on the 70th floor than on terra firma.
Paul Hermans, an airport planner at engineering and design consultancy Arup, worked with both Urban-Air Port and Volocopter to develop vertiport designs. His starting point for a building for vehicles that aren’t yet in the air and a market that doesn’t yet exist is simple: Start with regulation. Any port for aviation will be as heavily regulated as an airport or helipad, so looking at the rules around both can help inform a vertiport’s requirements; plus, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has released draft regulations for vertiports, so sticking to that document is a good starting place.
On the technical side, any vertiport has a few key physical requirements: a stable electric grid for fast recharging, a hangar for maintenance and a system to move vehicles into it, and enough room around the takeoff and landing pad for the aircraft to maneuver. While Urban-Air Port’s design has a moving platform to lift vehicles to the roof of the building, Hermans explains that vertiports will require less clearance than helicopters, which land a lot less vertically than most of us imagine—eVTOLs, by comparison, do, as the name suggests, actually take off vertically. “That allows you, in your vertiport design, to start to integrate them into much denser urban environments where helicopters might not be able to operate,” says Hermans.
While computer renders of vertiports often place them atop buildings, that would require passengers to have access to a lift to the top, and many building managers will not be keen on letting random members of the public inside. Tower rooftops also often house building equipment such as lift mechanisms and air conditioning ducting, leaving a relatively small footprint to place a vertiport. Sure, it might be fine for a single vehicle, but a financially viable vertiport is likely to require space for multiple vehicles.
Though some wealthy private companies may offer their staff rides in air taxis as a perk, Hermans predicts public vertiports are more likely to be sited atop lower buildings, such as car parks—and this is why Sandhu spent three weeks in a Coventry car park next to a train station. “The challenge is getting aircraft into compact, dense locations,” he says—and, crucially, as close as possible to other transport infrastructure.
There’s another reason lower vertiports have merit: They take less time to board. Urban-Air placed its OneAir port in a car park next to a train station to make it faster and easier to access. Had it been on top of a building, passengers would add extra time to their journey. On the other hand, the more centrally located vertiports are, and the lower to the ground they are, the higher the risk of crashes and noise.
That’s the physical side of vertiports. On the passenger side, it’s unclear whether security will be similar to airports or train stations—and reducing time-consuming queues and checks matters for a market that is betting on quick trips. “If you’re spending 10 minutes going through security for a flight that only lasts five minutes, that doesn’t really stack up all that well,” Hermans says.
Of course, airports aren’t just about travel—like it or not they’re about shopping too. To work out how to best make use of the space available, Urban-Air Port worked with duty free experts from Qatar Airways on the design of the retail areas. “The key thing was having brands showcase some of their products in a very small footprint,” Sandhu says.
It may seem a bit early to be fine-tuning space for lattes and retail—after all, none of the eVTOLs are yet approved by regulators, let alone in mass production. But the industry needs to start considering infrastructure before air taxis are ready to fly. “If you make an airplane, you don’t have to worry about where it’s going to go,” says Sergio Cecutta, of transport analyst firm SMG Consulting. “We don’t want to get into a catch-22 situation where there are no vehicles, so there’s no infrastructure. We need to do it at the same time.”
And getting the timing right is no easy task, with “flying car” startups consistently missing their own deadlines. Right now, even aircraft being trialed can’t go into production without regulatory approval—which puts punchy promises of air-taxi services by 2024 firmly in the hands of the US Federal Aviation Administration and the EASA.
SMG Consulting tracks vehicle development, rating Joby and Volocopter as being “highly likely” to hit that deadline; plenty of the other two-dozen rivals on its list aren’t winning quite as much confidence. SMG also tracks infrastructure readiness, but of the five companies it follows, none are expected to have a port before 2024. In short, a lot is going to happen in 2024, or nothing at all. “In 2021, people realized eVTOLS are real,” Cecutta says. “So 2022 will be us realizing we’ve got to start building stuff.”
Plus, the benefit of eVTOLs is that they can land basically anywhere—certainly anywhere a helicopter can. So rather than racing to install vertiports, operators can use existing aviation infrastructure. Lilium vice-chairman Alex Asseily says the company is already considering how its electric aircraft could cover routes in Florida with partner NetJets. That could involve, he says by way of example, a route linking West Palm Beach Airport with an existing urban heliport. “We can land at a standard heliport. The only thing you’d need to add to it would be a charger,” he says.
All the Lilium Jet really needs is a “parking spot” and a charger in order to land, suggesting that installing full vertiports for every destination may be unnecessary in the early stages. “What we’re trying to do is not be restricted, to not be forced to invest huge amounts on day one,” Asseily says. “None of this infrastructure takes a long time to build—building a slab of concrete which an aircraft can land on with a supercharger isn’t easy, but it’s quick.”
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