Singapore seems increasingly likely to see the world’s first eVTOL aircraft taxi operations, with companies working to establish services now indicating that these will start no later than 2023, and perhaps sooner. EHang is being no less bullish about when it expects to begin commercial operations with its EH216 vehicle in Chinese cities and says they could start next year. However, 2024 is now viewed as the more likely launch date for U.S. rivals Joby and Archer in locations such as Los Angeles and Miami.
Ground infrastructure specialist Skyports is working closely with eVTOL developer Volocopter and local authorities in Singapore to establish the first permanent vertiport in the Southeast Asian city-state. In October 2019, the two companies set up a proof-of-concept vertiport, branded VoloPort, in Singapore’s Marina Bay area as the base for flight demonstrations of Volocopter 2X prototype aircraft.
The partners have been working with the Economic Development Board of Singapore and the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore on plans to launch services. “We are now working in greater detail with the regulatory authorities and it will certainly happen by 2023, or even sooner,” Skyports managing director Duncan Walker told FutureFlight. “Singapore is a beachhead for other Asian [air taxi network] rollouts.”
On the assumption that operations will begin on a small scale, the company’s plan calls for the initial construction of one vertiport in Singapore. This may support flights to existing suitable landing sites across the island nation as well as to nearby locations, such as Johor in Malaysia and Batam in Indonesia. Progressively, as demand for air taxi services grows, Skyports expects to build a network of vertiports across Singapore, which has a population of 5.7 million.
Singapore is a major global shipping port and Walker said this has the potential to support a strong market for eVTOL aircraft or drones to make deliveries between ships and the shore, carrying urgent items such as cargo manifests, as well as medicines and cash to pay crew. Skyports is already established as a drone delivery operator, providing support to both the National Health Service and the Royal Mail in the UK, where it is headquartered. It has just announced a partnership with Kenya Airways that is expected to result in the launch of drone flights later this year for deliveries, logistics support, and infrastructure inspection across the East African country.
Skyports is also setting its sights on another early-adopter market on the other side of the world. Both Germany’s Lilium and California-based Archer have already announced plans to start service in Florida, and the UK-based vertiport developer also wants a piece of the action, especially in the densely populated Atlantic coast corridor of South Florida, extending from Miami northwards to West Palm Beach.
“We expect to see a very different build-up of vertiports there and different types of [larger and longer-range] vehicles, providing services between cities,” Walker said. “This [higher volume of traffic] will reduce the price point.”
In his view, Florida has a lot going for it as a location to prove the business case for both short-range urban air mobility and longer inter-city connections. “It’s flat, has good weather, and has lots of people living not very far apart, as well as being historically a very pro-aviation state with positive political engagement with local officials,” he added. “My gut feeling is that the U.S. and Asian markets will slightly precede Europe [in adopting eVTOL aircraft], but Europe will be fast followers.”
In April, Japanese trading group Kanematsu Corporation signed a memorandum of understanding with Skyports to do joint development work on infrastructure to support eVTOL aircraft services in Japan. The partners are already working together on drone delivery plans in the country, where last year Japan Airlines and Volocopter launched a partnership to provide passenger and cargo flights.
While Walker has high hopes for the market to scale up significantly, he doesn’t see the potential for service providers to retain sole control and use of supporting ground infrastructure. Just as with public airports today, he sees multiple operators sharing vertiports, although there may be some “flagship locations” in places where individual companies have a strong presence.
The Skyports business model treats vertiports as miniature versions of airports, with aircraft operators charged landing fees, and also for recharging and storing their vehicles overnight. As part of the offering, the facilities will include a terminal building where passengers can be accommodated.
So far, most prospective eVTOL air taxi operators have not revealed much about how the ground infrastructure to support these will be provided. One exception is Germany’s Lilium, which has announced a partnership with Spanish infrastructure and airports management group Ferrovial to develop vertiports across Florida, making no mention of whether it will allow rival service providers to use these. “Ultimately, operators will likely have to accept shared use,” Walker predicted.
With this in mind, Skyports is designing vertiports to be able to support any type of eVTOL aircraft with critical services such as recharging for their electric batteries. Walker told FutureFlight that his company is seeking to avoid what he called “the A380 problem,” referring to Airbus’s high-capacity, two-deck airliner, which encountered operational challenges at some airports because it was too large to be accommodated efficiently in existing ramp space.
Singapore and Florida apart, Skyports is also involved in two important research and development programs aimed at laying the groundwork for the expansion of the advanced air mobility market in Europe.
In January, it was among 30 companies and organizations selected by local agencies in Paris to conduct a series of experiments, mainly based around an eVTOL aircraft test area set up at the Pointoise-Cormeilles-en-Vexin airport. Volocopter is providing its two-city VoloCity aircraft, as well as competitors Vertical Aerospace and EHang. Another key partner is airport group ADP, which is a shareholder in Skyports.
Meanwhile, in the UK, Skyports is providing infrastructure expertise for a project to explore the feasibility of launching eVTOL air taxi services in the city of Bristol. This project, which has secured £2.5 million in funding from the UK government’s FutureFlight challenge program, is being led by civil engineering group Atkins and also involves Vertical Aerospace, which is based in Bristol.
However, it faces competition in its home country from Urban Air Port, which earlier this year was selected to partner with Hyundai to develop an eVTOL operations hub called Air-One in the city of Coventry. The company claims that its vertiports will be 60 percent smaller than traditional heliports and that it will be able to install them in just a few days to support operational flexibility. Design drawings show an elevated pod structure with a landing pad on top of a terminal building for passengers and support services.
While there seem to be innumerable companies vying to be leaders in the advanced air mobility sector, the competitive landscape for ground infrastructure would appear to be less cluttered. However, with early eVTOL air taxi services supposedly now less than three years away from launch, it seems highly likely that other contenders will show their hands, some potentially proposing alternative business models to the Skyports model.