If that were true, the possible scaling issue facing Urban Air Mobility would be solved. Then we would just be waiting for EVTOL (electric vertical takeoff and lift) aircraft certifications to float down from the heavens above.
Fortunately, EVTOL manufacturers Joby, Lilium, Archer, Beta, Wisk, and others are rapidly approaching full FAA certification for their aircraft. Volocopter is seeking certification from the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) since they are focused on running their operations mainly in EU countries.
Once EVTOLs are certified and flying, they will need to land somewhere. That will be either the limited current aviation ground infrastructure, i.e., airports and heliports, or purpose-built vertiports.
Vertiports are similar to heliports but with the addition of equipment to recharge EVTOLs. They are also more human-centric and have amenities to accommodate an increased volume of passengers. They will most likely be built in areas of high economic activity and act as important hubs for freight and passengers.
FAA and EASA have already provided guidance on the specifications vertiports must meet. However, these guidelines and regulations are in the early stages of development, so we expect changes to happen as the industry evolves.
In general, vertiports are straightforward construction projects. According to eVTOL manufacturer Lilium, no matter the volume of flights it will operate, a vertiport should have at least three main elements: a take-off area, parking stands for aircraft, and a terminal. The take-off area requires compliance with regulations and authorities. The other elements, such as the number of parking stands and the size of the terminal, depend highly on user demand.
Something that is not so straightforward and needs careful consideration is where vertiports are built, what size to build, and how communities will fund this infrastructure. Data will be an essential resource.
Data will enable urban planners and designers to determine different aspects, such as where to locate each vertiport, what size of the vertiport is required in each location, and the number of EVTOLs that should be accommodated. If smaller communities are to be considered, the data will probably show the need for very small and budget-friendly vertiports.
According to a study called UAM – Infrastructure and Global Markets, the need for new infrastructure is estimated in the range of US$34.5 billion. Another estimation made by Osinto Ltd. assumes that “a viable vertiport network might reasonably need to consist of a minimum of 10 locations and that these might cost an average of say $10m each all told (based on Lilium’s projected price range of $1-15m), we’re talking about investments in the region of $100m plus for a small network that might, for example, cover California’s Bay Area, London and the South East of England or a slice of Central Europe. For larger networks with mainly urban deployments, we might easily look at investments in the hundreds of millions of dollars for a viable sub-regional network.”
These are significant amounts of money, and sourcing capital may be daunting for some cities and communities. Optimistically, SKYHEX believes most cities can afford to build a vertiport, and the best way to do it is to start small and scale up. They can also explore another urban planning concept, such as building temporary infrastructure and then transitioning to permanent.
Building the required infrastructure for UAM can be compared to cities developing bus services. To reduce cost, smart cities never build complex bus terminals for every bus stop needed when a simple sign and bench would work for most locations. Signs and benches are inexpensive and easy to manufacture, transport and maintain. Depending on how often they are used, they can be easily removed or replaced by a more permanent or elaborate bus stop in the future. SKYHEX advocates that modular container-based vertiports can be the sign and bench for UAM.
For general aviation, the hub-and-spoke model is defined as having a central airport (the hub) that flights are routed through, and spokes which are the routes that planes take out of the hub airport. Most major airlines have multiple hubs. They claim that hubs allow them to offer more flights for passengers. This model could be an excellent fit for UAM. Temporary vertiports can be used as 2nd tier points and possibly third-tier points for the spokes connected to hubs. Third-tier points could effectively extend the spokes to urban fringe and rural areas.
Moreover, temporary vertiports can be crucial in driving user demand for larger, permanent vertiports. By providing a temporary, modular solution that can be quickly deployed and dismantled, temporary vertiports can help to meet the changing needs of users and help to increase awareness of the benefits of vertiport infrastructure.
Temporary vertiports can be an urban planning tool to assist communities working with infrastructure developers to obtain funding for a more elaborated and permanent infrastructure.
According to an article by Osinto Ltd., this is similar to how offshore wind farm developers prove the feasibility and profitability of their technology and business model by undertaking small wind farm projects to then obtain the funding for larger projects. Vertiport developers, with the support of the communities, can take advantage of temporary vertiports to prove their feasibility and profitability before scaling up to a more significant and long-term project.
Once proven, this modal also allows initial temporary assets to be divested to pension funds, infrastructure funds, and other financial institutions. The initial capital can be recycled into permanent projects. Temporary container-based vertiports provide much flexibility, yet there are still more benefits.
Urban planners never have to second-guess locations. Instead, they can focus on building temporary vertiports first to scale the network quickly. Among the many benefits of installing temporary vertiports, developers can use the modular components to construct a permanent vertiport after further location evaluation and data collection. If data suggests the location is not ideal, the vertiport can be moved to another location. This will result in a reduction of the time, cost, and risk associated with building vertiports.
Non-Specialized Construction – In the transportation industry, infrastructure is under scrutiny from regulators to guarantee that safety requirements are met. To achieve it, contractors must obtain the relevant certifications and permissions before undertaking any project. Moreover, contractors must have highly specialized equipment, materials, and labor. This usually takes time and money, thus extending the time necessary for a project’s completion.
With temporary vertiports, things could be very different. Temporary vertiports can be installed quickly by most general contractors. Still, certain permissions and certifications may be required, there will be less material to source, and no highly specialized equipment and labor will be necessary. This will result in a significant reduction of time to completion and associated costs.
Reduced Costs – Design costs can be significantly reduced by taking an iterative approach. By starting with a simple design and layout for a temporary vertiport, less time is spent to get the vertiport up and running, meaning less money is spent on design and labor hours.
Also, the shorter time to start operations will bring profits faster, thus making it easier to raise the money needed for further development and expansion.
Reduced Risk – The possibility of starting small and then developing and expanding in different building phases reduces the risk associated with a lack of demand in the location or oversizing the vertiport.
It is possible to build to minimum operating requirements and then execute additional construction phases until reaching the ideal permanent vertiport for the specific location based on the data collected along the way.
Also, in the worst-case scenario, if a location proves to not be ideal for the vertiport, all the modular components can be moved and reused in a new, potentially better location. This way, the risk of losing the entire initial investment is reduced.
Versatility & Reusability – The flexibility offered by the modular components allows the same system to be reused not only in a different location but also to build permanent vertiports. This versatility to adapt to any location and reuse components in any building phase reduces cost.
Sustainability – Temporary vertiports require a small land footprint. Green areas can be built up around them, further reducing the carbon footprint. Also, repurposed shipping containers can be used as the main structure, and components manufactured from recycled materials can be used to complete the vertiport construction.
Remote Operation – As a potential starting point for expanding urban vertiport networks, temporary vertiports can serve small remote areas. Temporary vertiports will most likely serve as a feeder to larger vertiports. They can be built for remote management where the airspace and operation can be controlled by personnel in a larger vertiport’s control room.
Bring Focus To Developing Vertiports For Underserved Communities – The idea of serving small remote areas may be challenging to establish if vertiports are to be built traditionally. In the end, it will not be financially attractive, and it would involve a lot of risk for the project developers and operators.
The fact that modular vertiports allow for more straightforward and less costly construction, as well as enabling remote operation, can bring a special focus on those underserved communities. For some developers and operators, it will mean they can become more competitive as they expand their networks. These benefits communities that may be excluded from participating in the UAM movement.
Clearly, there is great potential for communities to use temporary vertiports to initiate UAM operations and then scale and progress to permanent vertiport infrastructure. Now, the main question is how to achieve this. SKYHEX offers an exciting solution, building temporary vertiports using repurposing shipping containers.
Shipping containers offer a modular and cost-effective option for building temporary vertiports. Not only are they ubiquitous worldwide, but they are also strong, durable, and can be quickly transported to the site where they are needed. In addition, shipping containers can be easily modified to accommodate the specific requirements of a vertiport. As the concept of temporary vertiports gains traction, shipping containers will likely play an increasingly important role in their construction.
A Contribution From The SKYHEX Writing Team: Kinnard Carter & Carlos Collantes