Air taxi, please! Can urban air mobility get off the ground?
Why sit miserably behind the wheel in an urban gridlock when you could be soaring above the traffic in a flying taxi? Nearly silent and emission-free, these electric vertical-take-off-and-landing (EVTOL) aircraft could eventually become a familiar sight in UK cities. In theory, they can help to join the dots between air, rail and road transport.
But, while the concept of so-called urban air mobility (UAM) may sound enticing, turning that into reality is far from straightforward. For one thing, the specialist infrastructure required would be mind-boggling: high-voltage electricity networks and safe charging points are merely the basics. Safe segregation from the flight paths of mainstream civil air traffic and autonomous delivery drones would have to be factored in too.
Despite these complexities, a brave new world of electrified UAM appears to be gradually taking shape. McKinsey’s Center for Future Mobility has found that of the 25 largest mainstream aerospace manufacturers and suppliers, 72% and 64% respectively are engaged in future air mobility technologies. Over the past five years, 16,000 VTOL orders, worth around £85bn, have been placed. What’s more, a recent report by Sita, an airline-owned provider of aviation IT services, has predicted that flying taxis will be ubiquitous at international airports by 2032. It suggests that they will be providing auxiliary services and extra revenue streams for airports and airlines. Sita’s head of strategy and innovation, Ilkka Kivelä, points out that “airports and airlines are scrambling to provide the seamless travel experience that passengers expect, often with slashed workforces and squeezed budgets”.
Smaller airports for shorter journeys
Agile infrastructure solutions will therefore be key. In April 2022, UK firm Urban-Air Port demonstrated Air One, a prototype vertiport in Coventry. The installation featured all the elements of an airport – check-in, security, retail and food areas, along with operational infrastructure for air traffic control, charging and maintenance – all within a tiny footprint.
“Our approach has been to provide something compact, which can be purchased and assembled easily,” says Urban-Air Port’s CEO, Andrea Wu. She adds that specialist airports for electric aircraft are “not an alternative, and I don’t think many people in this industry would describe them as such. Electric planes and UAM are a complementary service. It’s all about the intermodal connectivity of one’s journey.”
Urban-Air Port is working towards delivering one of its vertiports in North America by the end of the year. Wu confirms that this will be “inaugurated as a proof of concept but then be utilised as a proper testing facility”.
Location is everything
A key factor in driving demand for EVTOL operations, suggests a recent report by Deloitte, is “optimal placement of ground infrastructure, considering prime locations such as business areas, airports and areas with limited transportation options”.
Apropos of that, the testing of critical EVTOL technology and passenger processing infrastructure is under way at Pontoise Aerodrome, some 25 miles north-west of Paris. The initiative involves France’s civil aviation authority, airport operator Groupe ADP, German EVTOL manufacturer Volocopter and Sita, which is providing biometric infrastructure designed to smooth the check-in, security and boarding processes.
Another key partner in the project is UK firm Skyports, which designs, builds and operates take-off and landing infrastructure. Its founder and CEO, Duncan Walker, observes that “innovation requires collaboration from a multitude of experts, including operators, vehicle manufacturers and technology developers. Each will have an important role in achieving the objective of commercial UAM services. With the completion of the terminal, we’ll start the comprehensive testing of procedures and technologies in a realistic aviation environment.”
Pontoise will be a blueprint for a vertiport network across Paris when it hosts the 2024 Summer Olympics. A fleet of VoloCity EVTOLs will carry passengers between Paris and Versailles, Charles de Gaulle and Le Bourget airports, and the Seine riverbank at the Quai d’Austerlitz.
Elsewhere, Airbus and Munich Airport International (MAI) inked a deal last June to market turnkey solutions to cities and regions interested in implementing UAM ecosystems. The deal combines the aircraft manufacturer’s CityAirbus NextGen eVTOL with the airport’s infrastructure expertise, because it’s “crucial for airports to be actively involved in paving the way for this new form of transport”, says Ivonne Kuger, MAI’s executive VP corporate development.
Japan Airlines recently revealed plans to procure 50 Vertical Aerospace VA-X4 EVTOLs from leasing company Avolon. This “represents an important step towards the implementation of air taxis at Osaka Kansai EXPO in 2025”, says the airline’s managing executive officer, Tomohiro Nishihata. The agreement, he adds, “lays out the pathway towards achieving the air mobility revolution in Japan”.
A new offering from mainstream carriers
Beyond these specialised showcases, major airlines see electric plane infrastructure as an enabler to extend their regional reach. In September 2022, United Airlines announced a $15m (£12.5m) investment in Eve Air Mobility, an EVTOL producer backed by the Brazilian aerospace manufacturer Embraer, and made a conditional purchase agreement for 200 planes, with deliveries slated for 2026.
Delta Air Line, meanwhile, has invested $60m in air-taxi startup Joby Aviation. It’s part of a deal to offer home-to-airport services using Joby’s all-electric 200mph aircraft, starting in Los Angeles and New York. The aim, says Allison Ausband, Delta’s executive VP and chief customer experience officer, is to “make the experience of travel more seamless, enjoyable and wait-free”.
Making it work long-term
Another approach is to embed electric UAM into the infrastructure of planned urban developments. Neom, a city in north-western Saudi Arabia being built from the ground up as a living laboratory for innovative tech firms, recently invested $175m in Volocopter. The aim is to operate electric air taxi services in Neom to connect with three other planned developments in the area: The Line, Oxagon and Trojena.
“This is the first time that EVTOLs, with their unique characteristics, are being factored into the design of a region that is being built from scratch,” says Volocopter’s CEO, Dirk Hoke. “This offers a whole new approach to how UAM can increase the quality of life in cities.”
The momentum behind electric planes and airports, then, is significant. But it’s worth remembering that it takes a lot more than that to get an idea off the ground.