The Future of Advanced Air Mobility

Ground Infrastructure Experts Wrestle With Vertiport Challenges

In October, Ferrovial announced plans to build a network of 25 vertiports across the UK in partnership with eVTOL aircraft developer Vertical Aerospace. This comes on the heels of the airports, highways, and railway group’s February 2021 announcement earlier about its plans to develop a network of 20 vertiports in Spain, where the company is based. Meanwhile, in Florida, it is working with Lilium to develop another network of vertiports to support the German company’s plans to launch commercial eVTOL flights across the most populous parts of the country from 2025.

The market for building and running the ground infrastructure that will be critical to the success of the emerging advanced air mobility (AAM) market is potentially vast, and Ferrovial is already facing competition from rival groups such as Skyports. The UK-based group, which is already involved in commercial drone operations and has a partnership with eVTOL developer Volocopter, is working on plans for vertiports in locations including Singapore, Los Angeles, and London, as well as in Japan, South Korea and Malaysia.

These are just a few of the many similar projects that have been announced. Yet, despite the plethora of projects, all exist only on designers’ screens.

“Forget the hype, concept plans, and fancy designs, the reality is that there is no existing industry in vertiport infrastructure anywhere in the world as there aren’t any aircraft commercially certified to use them,” Clem Newton-Brown, CEO of Skyportz, an Australian-based developer of vertiport infrastructure, told FutureFlight. “Until we have the aircraft approved, there is no point in building anything as we don’t yet know what the requirements will be.”

This perspective was shared by Rex Alexander, president and executive director of Five-Alpha, a global consultancy dedicated to providing specialized education, training, insight, and services relating to vertical lift infrastructure. “There are a lot of individuals and groups trying to move very fast in this space, but until there are design, building, and fire code standards in place, it is a high-risk venture,” he commented.

But the lack of clarity impeding progress in finalizing ground infrastructure plans for commercial eVTOL air taxi services that will supposedly launch as soon as 2024 may now be clearing. The U.S. still lacks design guidance for vertiports along the lines of Advisory Circular 150 for airports, with the FAA indicating it will release one in roughly three years. In the meantime, however, the FAA is working on what it refers to as an "Engineering Brief" to address safety-critical elements for vertiport development. This is in lieu of a vertiport design advisory circular being published, which, according to Alexander, is still a couple of years out. 

“The timeline as it stands right now is to release a draft of the brief for public comment in February 2022, followed by an industry day in March 2022, with the publication of the brief targeted for June 2022,” he said. 

This timeline means that if you plan to be in the vertiport business, it’s probably a good time to be making progress with the design phase. And this starts with working out where the first of these facilities should be positioned.

Location, Location, Location

According to Addison Ferrell, head of Americas at Skyports, what makes a viable site location depends on the eVTOL use case (commuter, airport shuttle, points-of-interest, etc.). “Sure, it would be great to have a network node at the airport, as this is where there’s massive demand,” he explained. “However, we’re also going to want a node in the central business district, along with one in other population centers around a metro area—so you end up with a variety of types of locations.”

With all this in mind, Ferrell said that the ideal vertiport site is an open field with no airspace restrictions in a dense urban area near other modes of transport that has a lot of power capacity for charging. “In other words, it doesn’t exist,” he acknowledged.

Instead, what we’re looking at is a lot of tradeoffs. “The factors that drive location selection are airspace restriction and the size of the plot of land,” added Ferrell. “Essentially, what you end up looking at are existing airports, heliports, or rooftops.”

According to Five-Alpha's Alexander, before selecting a site, investors should educate themselves on what will make a viable location. “I see initial success coming from the repurposing of existing small airports located in and around urban areas,” he said.

Newton-Brown, who was formerly a member of parliament in the Australian state of Victoria, agreed. “We’re focused on the low-hanging fruit for now—existing airports, industrial land, city fringe, and regional destinations,” he said.

While using city rooftops will come eventually, Newton-Brown sees this as being the last use case to get approved due to the logistics and safety issues of operating in dense urban environments. “We need to crawl before we walk, and we need to bring the community along for the journey,” he added. “It is only once they see eVTOLs operating safely in more benign environments that we can expect people to be comfortable with landing on rooftops.”

Challenges to rooftop vertiports include not only fire codes, but also getting passengers from the ground level to the roof—something most buildings were not designed to handle. “Then there’s the little-known fact that if you modify an existing building by more than 50 percent of its original design, which is cumulative over the life of a building, you’re required to bring the entire building up to current code,” explained Alexander.

Staying on the ground also offers a cost advantage. For example, a basic VFR day/night ground-based landing site with one vertiport and no parking could be built for under $250,000 (not including land and legal fees). That same site on a rooftop would likely run to as much as $2 million.

“This is another benefit of using existing airfields and helipads, which would require only a very modest investment,” said Newton-Brown. “Similarly, designing a vertiport at ground level into an industrial park would also be very inexpensive compared to the myriad of problems involved in trying to get a landing site on top of a central city building.”

Considering the cost advantages of building ground-based vertiports, it’s interesting to note that most of the announced plans involve building vertiports in large, affluent, high-cost cities. However, Alexander cautioned that this might be putting the cart ahead of the horse: “I personally see success being achieved in smaller cities and towns faster, especially when the town educates itself on what they need to enact in policy to embrace this new type of technology,” he said. “Furthermore, bigger cities often equate to much more red tape and more players that you need to get aligned, which takes time.”

For Skyportz in Australia, the most viable use cases, at least from an operating and financial perspective, are the longer-range flights connecting regional and rural areas. “These routes will provide the biggest time savings and will be the easiest to get operational without the constraints of the limited space you get in big cities,” noted Newton-Brown.

Show Me the Money

Whether it be an existing airport or on top of a high-rise, once your vertiport has a location, the next question is who will pay for it—let alone operate and use it?  “Obviously, I have a bias towards [the] private [sector], but I think a public entity could definitely decide to fund this,” said Ferrell.

This is especially true when the vertiport uses an existing airport, he added, as many cities and counties already own the land and have in-house aviation planning capabilities. However, when talking about a central business district, he questions who on the public side would do this.

“It’s a tough sell to constituents that they are going to invest into a vertiport, which is a risky investment and one that will never have the same throughput as mass transit like a light or heavy rail,” Ferrell said. “Plus, you have private capital that is wanting to invest.”

As to ownership and operation, some vertiports will likely be owned by individuals and firms looking to invest in infrastructure, others by Part 135 certificate holders and/or aircraft manufacturers. While some owners may operate the vertiport in-house, Alexander sees space for many to be contracted out. “There’s definitely potential for some sites to be owned and operated by the same person, while others may contract someone like a Signature Aviation FBO to operate the facility,” Ferrell added. 

Regardless of who owns or operates the vertiport, perhaps the more important question is who can use it. This will largely depend on whether the vertiport is classified as proprietary (i.e., only brand X can use it and not any other air taxi operators). Although this seems to be the case for Ferrovial’s planned UK network for Vertical Aerospace, Skyports is on the other end of the spectrum. According to Ferrell, the company is adamant about developing vehicle-agnostic vertiports, not only so different OEMs' vehicles can land, but also so vertiports can accommodate quickly evolving vehicles. “We think common-use vertiports ultimately encourage investment and bring down overall costs because they ensure the greatest utilization,” he said.

Ultimately, use will be dictated by the owner. For example, in the case of private-use facilities, as currently defined by the FAA, the owner has the right to dictate who can and can’t use the facility. “If you only want to limit operations to a specific provider or a specific type of aircraft at a private-use facility, under federal law you can,” said Alexander. 

However, if it is a public-use facility, then you must allow all entities who are appropriately certificated flying appropriately outfitted aircraft to operate at the site. Thus, if you are public-use and use Airport Improvement Planning funding, by law, you cannot be exclusive or proprietary in any way. 

“I see local municipalities wanting to serve all operators, so that if brand X were to fail in three years, the facility would be able to continue servicing brands Y and Z without the need for expensive modifications or retrofitting,” added Alexander.

Not in My Backyard

Even if we get to the point where the site is selected and the aircraft certified, there’s still one last hurdle to building a vertiport. And it’s a big one: community acceptance. “Not everyone thinks AAM is cool right now, and there is a lot of work we need to do to get that community license,” said Newton-Brown.

At the top of the list is noise. “If eVTOLs can demonstrate a much lower decibel rating than helicopters with a frequency that is not intrusive or annoying to the general public, then I see a way forward,” noted Alexander. “Otherwise, we’re looking at a major roadblock, especially in dense urban areas.”

There’s also the very real concern over safety—and, as of today, safety data about eVTOLs and vertiports is virtually non-existent. “Demonstrating that these aircraft are as safe as airline travel will be the primary way to convince communities to allow a vertiport to be located in their backyard,” said Alexander.

Without these issues resolved, communities will remain nervous about any whisper of a neighborhood vertiport going in. “People don’t like drones flying overhead now, so why would they like massive drones carrying people flying overhead,” asked Newton-Brown.

For Newton-Brown, the all-important community license will only come when aircraft are flying as replacements for helicopters and people start asking why they can’t have a landing site in their suburb. “This has to be a slow and steady progress to gain community acceptance,” he said. “We have to stop with the futuristic renderings of Jetson-style cities and start operating eVTOLs on helicopter routes to show people that these aircraft are different—environmentally friendly, quiet, and safe.”

Finding the Perfect Vertiport Site

  • Unobstructed airspace: at a minimum, it needs to have two approach/departure paths separated by about 135 degrees, which will allow flight operations to be conducted without a tailwind. 
  • Physical footprint and land use square footage: operational areas must be kept clear of obstructions to allow for safe operations and maneuverability of aircraft, and flight operations cannot pose undue harm to the surrounding public. This requires more space than most people realize.
  • Land-use (i.e., zoning limitations): if the site is not zoned for the use case, it probably will not pass muster with the planning commission. 
  • Wind and turbulence: local wind patterns play a significant role in where infrastructure is placed and how the approach/departure airspace is aligned. 

A Word About Electricity

How much power will your vertiport need?  According to Alexander, that depends.

For example, if you’re only putting in one landing site without any parking, you will more than likely want at least one charging station, which equates to 500-600 Kilowatts of power—not a huge challenge under normal circumstances.

“However, if you plan to operate a large facility with two landing areas with 10 parking positions, your power requirement will increase to 5-6 megawatts,” said Alexander. “That is a big deal.”

But it doesn’t stop there. “You may have to add a substation, even a bigger deal,” he concluded. “This, in turn, has you looking at two years to permit, two years to build, and most components are on back order by 18-24 months. An even greater roadblock is accounting for the known public acceptance challenges when it comes to installing substations in a community."