A new frontier for air travel beckons. Not only are B2C offers in space travel very nearly a thing, but so are air taxis, autonomous passenger-laden drones and vertiports.
The latter, the airports of tomorrow, will service all manner of eVTOL (electric vertical take-off and landing) vessels with passengers, refueling, maintenance, hangaring options, and more.  
Most vertiports today are typically helipads with future plans to diversify. But the truth is that they are often found on rooftops in city centres where space is limiting their capacity to one vehicle at a time.
Today, they are used by helicopters used by the emergency services (particularly ambulance/medical, but also law enforcement), search and rescue operations, for flying VIPs and executives, offshore oil rig support and tourism operators – all of which pay a high cost.
But demand is rising for bigger ports in line with a surge in the number of eVTOL vessels, whose smart, autonomous capabilities make them a cheaper, more environmentally-friendly and safer option than helicopters.
In the meantime, the aviation spare parts business will change when sensors, vertical landing gear and safety netting become as widely available as engine parts, deluxe interiors and fuselage are today.

Interest in 55 countries and counting

But do vertiports, as outlined in visions of the future, really exist yet? Or are they just helipads with a tiny upgrade – like a charging station, or added noise reduction measures?
It’s an understandable reaction when a headline announces our urban skylines are going to change forever to assume it won’t happen for several decades.
It is not the first major deal announced by the urban air mobility (UAM) sector – the Global Urban Air Mobility Market Map maintains an overview of ventures in 130 cities and regions in 55 countries across the world – but it promises to be the most significant.

Dubai confirms sector's biggest deal yet

Joby Aviation’s deal in Dubai is significant for three reasons. 
Firstly, it gives the technology an arrival date. Just two years away, it might even arrive before the end of 2025, so incredibly close compared to the timelines outlined by electric or hydrogen-powered passenger aircraft. 
Secondly, the deal is underpinned by plans to build at least four brand new vertiports – so no, not helipad upgrades. 
And finally, it gives the future of vertiports and VTOLs credibility – because the UAE, and other oil-rich states in the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia, is exactly the kind of place where the technology will face the least regulatory opposition.
These countries are already busy building the cities of the future – Joby Aviation’s taxi service will be based in the most famous of them, Dubai – which means vertiport and VTOL infrastructure can be incorporated early into the urban planning of these large-scale metropolises.
In June 2023, German urban air mobility (UAM) developer Volocopter confirmed it had carried out a series of air taxi test flights in the Saudi futuristic gigacity of Neom (see Factbox 1) – but no concrete timeline has been detailed yet, although it is confident of obtaining type certification for its VoloCity air taxi this year. 

The key to a successful air taxi service

Upon announcing its deal with Dubai’s Road and Transport Authority and British vertiport builder and facilitator Skyports, Joby Aviation identified the three ingredients crucial to successfully launching an air taxi service:
  • A definitive path to operations
  • Well-placed infrastructure supported by dedicated partners
  • An aircraft with the capacity and range to deliver meaningful journeys
The deal grants Joby Aviation, whose taxi can carry a pilot and passengers at speeds up to 320 km/h, the exclusive right to operate air taxis in Dubai for six years.
Meanwhile, Skyports will design, construct, own, and operate four vertiports, which will enable the air taxis to access key locations, including Dubai’s city centre, marina, and main airport, cutting typical local travel times by close to 80 percent.
It promises to be a busy couple of years for Skyports, which is currently developing the first commercial vertiport in Europe – at Pontoise-Cormeilles Airfield in Paris in time for use at the 2024 Olympics.

Robust activity in the US, UK and Italy

Unsurprisingly, Skyports is also active in its homeland – work is ongoing to build an air taxi hub in the north London suburb of Brent Cross.
But will regulatory clearance be easy to acquire? It’s understood the UK Civil Aviation Authority is keen to introduce new legislation permitting aerodromes to accommodate eVTOL aircraft, but might be stalling on guidelines for new vertiports.
Similar efforts are ongoing in Italy where ITA Airways, Airbus, UrbanV and Enel are partnering up to promote and develop the Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) ecosystem. The eVTOL of choice is the CityAirbus NextGen. 

Seven different types of vertiport

So what will the vertiports of the future look like? According to the Global Urban Air Mobility Market Map, there are seven different concepts of design:
  • The essential – the ‘vertiport in a box’ design. Modular and affordable, it’s a turn-key solution for smaller property sites
  • The simple – again a small and modular structure, it can be added quickly to existing airport infrastructure. The Skyports vertiport in Paris is likely to be such a design. Some 90 percent of current heliports/vertiports have a single-aircraft capacity 
  • The elevated – typically an elegant design for a roof-top urban hub that requires complex engineering work and involved certification challenges
  • The enclosed – a design that surrounds the takeoff and landing area, thus minimising noise and weather disturbance. Room for future expansion is limited, though
  • The integrated – built in close proximity to an airport, the passenger experience becomes a seamless one, as they swap traditional air travel for an air taxi to the city centre
  • The urban hub – a large scale vertiport with multiple landing and take off positions
  • The UAM/AAM regional hub – a battery-electric inter-regional vertiport.

Perfect fit for urban environments

The vertical take-off and landing capability of an eVTOL aircraft gives vertiports a flexibility that is a perfect fit for urban environments. They can therefore be located in a wide variety of settings – many of which might already be used by helicopters and rotocopters.
For example, it might be a ground-level area with sufficient space, like many of today’s helistops, or a roof-top or other elevated location, where there is already a helipad/heliport. 
In all cases, careful consideration needs to be given to safety and compliance with the city’s regulations. For example, strict airspace restrictions will often be in force in heavily populated residential areas.
Converting a helistop or heliport into a vertiport doesn’t come without challenges though:
  • Redesign – consideration must be given to the special needs of eVTOL vehicles in the areas of charging, safety, infrastructure and spacing between landing pads to prevent interference 
  • Regulatory – new vehicles need clearance from the relevant authorities. Safety, flight paths, noise pollution and air traffic control integration will all be factored in
  • Community acceptance – while many are unlikely to use eVTOL taxis due to their cost, they need to see the benefits for the community (faster emergency response, for example), or there could be opposition – noise-cancellation technologies are advised to not give residents a constant reminder.

More than a blip on the radar

Although impact will remain limited to the general aerospace aftermarket, MROs and airlines should be aware of the emerging presence of vertiports and eVTOL aircraft. 
As more integrated vertiports are built next to existing airports, there will be a gradual increase in the integration of customer services. Eventually, operators may be able to fly passengers from the center of one major city to another, addressing the long-standing issue of local journeys taking longer than international ones.
In the future, airline fleets will likely include some eVTOL aircraft, and they will prefer suppliers that can meet all their needs, avoiding the need to visit multiple suppliers.
The fleet of a typical airline in the future will include eVTOL aircraft, and they will favour USM suppliers that can cater to all their needs, instead of having to visit multiple suppliers.
Furthermore, vertiports will be more dynamic than airports because their focus will be more domestic than international, removing many of the restrictions that slow down air traffic.
Its visitors won’t be bound by schedules. Rather, they will want to be back in the air as soon as possible, so there will be increased pressure on spare parts suppliers to be well-stocked and quick with their service.

TAKEAWAY

In the years to come, February 2024 might very well be viewed as the month in which the vision of vertiports servicing flying taxis ceased being a scene straight out of Back to the Future II and started to become part of our reality. It’s potentially the biggest shake-up for commercial aviation since the emergence of the 747 in 1970 – and the USM industry had better make sure it’s ready.

Test flights in Neom

  • The test flights, which were carried out of the course of one week, followed 18 months of collaboration between NEOM and Volocopter
  • In 2021, the pair founded a joint venture to implement and scale an electric UAM ecosystem and position NEOM as a collaborative, global living lab for the future of transport.
  • The involvement of the country’s General Authority of Civil Aviation ensured the flights were conducted with full regulatory compliance in adherence to strict safety measures.
  • Volocopter is confident of producing 50 VoloCity air taxis a year.
  • The aircraft will be powered by 100 percent renewable energy generated by solar and wind energy sources.