We take a closer look at plans for the world’s first vertiport for electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft in Singapore and how its opening might revolutionise taxi services at Changi Airport.
It feels like momentum is gathering pace in Asia-Pacific, Europe and North America for a new type of airport taxi – one that is capable of avoiding traffic jams on the ground by simply flying over them!
We are, of course, referring to recent global announcements in the UK, US and Singapore about the development or planned development of electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, for transporting passengers on short journeys across cities and regions.
And, in the case of Singapore, it is already a reality as trials of a Volocity eVTOL vehicle – manufactured by German-based Volocopter – have already been carried out in Marina Bay.
“It’s very quiet, and when we flew around Marina Bay in Singapore, people walking along the pavement with the Volocopter behind them at 70 metres didn’t even turn around,” says Skyports founder and CEO, Duncan Walker.
“You can’t hear that it’s there unless you know it’s coming, and even on landing, it’s not that much more noisy than existing city environmental noise.”
The fact that Walker and his Skyports team are pioneering the new technology should come as no surprise as they were behind the proof-of-concept construction of the world’s first vertiport (a take-off and landing area for eVTOLs) in Singapore in 2019.
Indeed, the company aims to launch commercial operations there within two years, in partnership with Volocopter, one of the world’s leading e-VTOL manufacturers. The vehicle used here, called Volocity, can carry 200 kilogrammes or two people.
Much of Skyports’ current effort is with existing airports, working with them on how they best integrate into the vertiport network.
In collaboration with Groupe ADP, one of Skyports early investors, the company is building a test facility at Cergy-Pontoise, a general aviation airport to the north of Paris.
This site will be used for operational testing ahead of commercial launch in time for the 2024 Paris Olympics. Skyports is also working with the Civil Aviation Authority, London Heathrow, London City Airport and a number of vehicle manufacturers on the concept of operatons for London.
Why would airports, and particularly Singapore Changi be interested in the project? Airports are likely to be the biggest customer for this technology, according to Skyports, which notes that a large percentage of the investors in the company are airports.
It believes that the concept will be particularly attractive to airports where ground connections into the city are an issue.
What kind of air taxi service will it provide? It is designed to be an additional form of transport to alleviate struggling ground-based infrastructure, although Walker is quite clear that eVTOL vehicles are not going to replace the car, well not quite yet, anyway.
“We think of them as an augmentation of an overstretched network and a way of connecting with other forms of transportation,” he muses. “Not every building will have a vertiport, rather like you don’t need a metro station on the corner of every street.”
Where will eVTOL taxis land? Volocopters have an advantage over traditional helicopters as they are much quieter, allowing them to more easily get into and land in busy city centres, says Walker.
Could they be located on an airport and therefore generate extra income for them? “Absolutely – that’s rather the idea of them,” says Walker.
“Although many eVTOLs have a wing for lift during forward flight, they can all land in constrained environments within city centres. This brings a great opportunity for airports in adding a quick, safe, environmentally friendly alternative to current city-centre-to-airport transportation for people and cargo without the huge infrastructure costs associated with ground transportation.”
Before looking to add a vertiport to their facilities, there are of course a number of key considerations for airports.
Should the vertiport operate landside or airside? What are the security implications? How will the service dovetail with the other elements of the passenger journey? And how will airspace be integrated?
Whilst the majority of these vehicles will initially be piloted, the long-term ambition for the industry is autonomy, which brings added complexity around manned and unmanned aircraft interaction.
“It’s a complex challenge, but the prize for airports is big,” enthuses Walker. “Enhanced connectivity to city centres, rapid adoption of electrification and the associated environmental benefits, improved customer experience and the potential to drive significant additional revenue streams have caught the attention of a number of substantial national and international airport owners and operators. There’s much to be gained.”
There is no denying eVTOLs have recently hit the mainstream in a big way with the UK government awarding an industrial research grant to a consortium led by Atkins to look at the feasibility of eVTOL aircraft; and AECOM and Ferrovial announcing that they are working on the design of a network of vertiports in Florida, USA.
While announcements from Joby, Archer and Lilium about public listings on the NASDAQ stock exchange have confirmed that billions of dollars are flooding into the sector.
“Archer’s deal also included a pre-order of in excess of $1 billion of aircraft from United Airlines,” notes Walker. “The share price of eHang, the Chinese passenger drone manufacturer listed on the NASDAQ, is up 500% year-to-date.”
But what makes the eVTOL such a compelling proposition? And how can these craft be compared as an alternative to the helicopter?
“All-electric vehicles are much quieter than traditional helicopters powered by combustion engines,” says Walker.
“Depending on which type of helicopter we’re talking about, many have ‘a single point of failure’, meaning one motor, or one connection with the rotor. This makes them relatively unsafe compared to norms in the aviation industry, which is the safest of all forms
“The configuration of an eVTOL is different. They have what’s called ‘multiple points of redundancy’, so you have multiple rotors, multiple motors, multiple batteries, and that adds further degrees of safety.”
All of the current vehicles are certified by either the European Air Safety Agency in Europe, the Federal Aviation Administration in the US or the other regulators in the manufacturers’ own countries, so the level of safety threshold for all of these vehicles is no less than a commercial airliner.
This, says Walker, is important for the industry as a whole, but also for public perception in terms of safety and efficiency.
The relative simplicity of these vehicles also gives them an advantage over their more traditional predecessors. “They have far fewer moving parts in their motors,” he explains.
“This means less down-time and cheaper maintenance. They will ultimately be capable of being flown automatously, without the need for a pilot (which is the biggest cost and the biggest cause of accidents), making them even more economical to operate.
“Increasing scales of production will drive prices lower, meaning this transport will be something that is affordable by the masses, not the elite few.”