Infrastructure & Training Market Intelligence

AAM Infrastructure: Preparing For Vertical Take Off

AAM Infrastructure: Preparing For Vertical Take Off

When Groupe ADP and Skyports unveiled their advanced air mobility (AAM) test vertiport in Paris, France on November 11, 2022, the event marked two arguably important milestones in the AAM world.

Firstly, not only did the take-off and landing facility become Europe’s first fully integrated vertiport terminal, but more strikingly so, it was the first time people physically saw what an actual vertiport – complete with a passenger terminal – looks like. “The vertiport contains the key infrastructure and operating systems that we hope to deploy in permanent vertiports,” Damian Kysely, Head of Infrastructure, EMEA, Skyports, points out. “This includes a fully functional terminal building, airside environment, landing area, taxiways, an aircraft area for charging, and a hangar. It also includes sensing technology, and technology to help with passenger processing, scheduling, and resource management.”

The unveiling, which included a five-minute demonstration flight of German aircraft manufacturer Volocopter’s 2X electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, took place at Pontoise-Cormeilles, an airfield owned and operated by Groupe ADP, 16 miles northwest of Paris. The facility will be used as a testbed to trial both the entire customer experience at a vertiport such as biometric check-in processes and boarding, and to test eVTOL take-off and landing processes such as aborted take-offs and rejected landings. “This new passenger building prototype completes the infrastructure work realized earlier this year in terms of the airside, and comes with a dedicated eVTOL take-off and landing area,” explains Joyce Abou Moussa, Strategy and Development Lead, AAM, Groupe ADP. “This will allow us to further accelerate the testing campaigns in 2023, while focusing on the infrastructure planning and passenger experience aspects.”

The terminal is also tangible proof of progress within the AAM industry, which has made marked headway in recent months. In addition to Groupe ADP and Skyports’ new testbed, VPorts, a Quebec-based AAM infrastructure company, announced plans in November to create an eVTOL flight route between Quebec, Canada and New York, setting the stage for eVTOLs to fly passengers or cargo between Syracuse Hancock International Airport in New York and VPorts’ planned vertiport in Mirabel, Quebec. Over in Australia, the country’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority released a draft advisory circular on vertiport design, providing guidelines such as site selection, physical characteristics and visual aids for designers and developers. US-based aerospace company Archer Aviation also announced plans to launch a new AAM flight route in partnership with United Airlines in 2025, providing passengers with the ability to one day board an eVTOL from a vertiport at Newark Liberty International Airport and fly to Downtown Manhattan.

But what exactly are vertiports?

A portmanteau of “vertical” and “airport,” vertiports are platforms that will be used by aerial vehicles such as eVTOLs for a vertical take-off and landing. Many of them will come with facilities to charge eVTOLs and, just like Groupe ADP and Skyports’ vertiport, will come with a terminal to allow for passengers to check-in. For example, AAM infrastructure company UrbanV signed an agreement with Rome-based electric mobility company Enel X Way in November to integrate sustainable charging solutions within UrbanV’s future vertiports. Many vertiports will also offer the option to refuel hybrid VTOL aircraft.

There is a pressing need for vertiports to be built and ready in time, notes Dr Fethi Chebil, Chief Executive Officer and Founder of VPorts. While investors and the public have been largely focused on eVTOL companies, especially ones that have gone public within the past two years, many might overlook the fact that the success of the AAM industry is also contingent upon the infrastructure that will facilitate their operations. Chebil says:

“The challenge now is to get vertiports and infrastructure ready in time. Because soon, people are going to say: ‘okay, we have the machines ready to fly. But where can we go?’ ”

Challenges to overcome

Many AAM companies are hoping to get their eVTOLs certificated as early as 2024. But even after the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certificates the first few aircraft, there will be other regulatory hurdles to clear before the industry can fully take off, notes Abou Moussa, with one main challenge being airspace integration. “We are talking about an infrastructure and airspace network that will be integrated in cities where eVTOLs will be taking off and landing within low-altitude airspace. Today, this airspace is neither structured nor regulated to integrate any form of flying vehicle transporting passengers or cargo,” she says. “We are currently working with the French Civil Aviation Authorities to set up this network as well as any operational guidelines and processes to allow for safe and secure operations within an urban environment in 2024 in the Paris Region.”

Though eVTOLs and vertiports aim to increase convenience and decrease traveling time for those residing in packed cities, the population and building density of some areas may present a challenge, Kysely says. “Retrofitting aviation infrastructure into older cities such as London will be quite difficult,” he explains. “There’s simply not enough space, or it comes at a premium within city centres where there is a large concentration of people. But at the same time, this is exactly where we want to be, because this is where demand is.”

It is therefore imperative for AAM operators to join forces with related local governments and regulators to promote the use of eVTOLs and vertiports and earn favor from the public at the outset. “We need to slowly introduce to the public what the benefits of eVTOLs are and why these aircraft are entering the community and surroundings. Using data and operations, we can illustrate how they won’t disrupt their community or cause any risks,” adds Kysely. “Vertiports should ideally be agnostic, or able to serve the needs of different eVTOLs and even helicopters. They have to be open access, as this will help the industry to grow.”

Public acceptance of eVTOLs is vital, Abou Moussa notes, adding that she hopes Groupe ADP and Skyports’ new testbed will be able to clearly demonstrate to the public the significance of AAM and the benefits the industry will bring to society.

Though Groupe ADP and Skyports’ vertiport and passenger terminal were unveiled this month, both companies had in fact been conducting tests for well over a year and inviting relevant individuals to their testing campaigns. Doing so, Abou Moussa adds, allowed the public to see for themselves what an eVTOL is and how a vertiport will function, and provided a platform for both companies to explain the facility’s uses and future commercial eVTOL services to key stakeholders. “Throughout this year, we’ve had more than 1,000 invitees from government institutions, civil aviation authorities, non-governmental organizations advocating for noise impact assessments, academics, the surrounding communities and their mayors, as well as French and international press,” she says. Proactively informing the necessary parties about the testbed has helped Groupe ADP and its partners to garner favor and also led to largely positive feedback in the media so far, Abou Moussa notes.

Location matters

AAM infrastructure companies must strive to address three main areas to increase their chances of success before the first eVTOL commercial flights take place, explains Chebil. “Firstly, the business model must make sense economically. Second is the technical aspects, such as airspace configuration and air traffic management integration, and third is social acceptance,” he says. Chebil notes that a vertiport’s location will be instrumental in gaining social acceptance, as will be attaining approval from regulators. “Regulation will provide some assurance to the public in terms of the vehicle itself, but I believe the biggest challenge will be putting the infrastructure in the right place.”

Abou Moussa, who has a background in urban planning and urban innovation, which is the practice of finding new ways and means to meet the social, economic, environmental and governance challenges that cities face, agrees and points out that integrating vertiports within dense urban areas will also present complexities from an urban planning perspective. “Even if reaching mass deployment is a much longer-term ambition, taking into account the various regulatory, technical and business viability challenges, cities must plan for the scaling-up of AAM services and explore ways of integrating new infrastructure that is both useful and meaningful for all citizens, including the ones who will not be using eVTOLs as a means of transportation,” she stresses.

AAM-related operations have to cause as little disruption to the public as possible, Kysely emphasizes. “We envision first flying over rivers or parks instead of residential areas. Luckily, most if not all eVTOLs are significantly quieter than a helicopter, but they still generate some noise, perhaps equivalent to a car passing by,” he says. This will require careful and considerate urban planning from all corners of the AAM industry to ensure success and avoid any potential backlash. “People have to see a purpose in our business.”

Hope in the air

As the AAM industry works towards realizing its hopes and dreams in 2024, there is an understandable level of excitement in the air over the potential use cases for eVTOLs and the opportunities they will unlock. “I’m looking forward to seeing how AAM will impact hard-to-reach areas such as Northern Quebec or East Africa,” says Chebil, adding that in addition to transporting passengers, eVTOLs can also be used to make it to inaccessible areas. “As part of our strategic plan, we aim to deploy a network of vertiports to connect communities that aren’t as well connected today.”

Abou Moussa is eager to see Groupe ADP and Skyports’ new fully integrated vertiport put to the test in the upcoming year, which she hopes will help address the questions and challenges involving operations and airspace integration. “I believe that Paris will be the first region in the world to launch a fully comprehensive eVTOL service in time for the Paris Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2024,” she says.

Kysely is also looking forward to working on the new vertiport and having different eVTOL operators trial the facility. “We hope to continue regular testing, especially among multiple original equipment manufacturers in the same environment, which will be critical – for example, seeing companies such as Volocopter, Joby and Vertical Aerospace using our airfield for testing. That’s one milestone I’m looking forward to,” he says. Kysely also hopes to expand the company’s vertiport network in the United Kingdom. “So I really look forward to the first A to B route or the first A to B to C route,” he says, referring to eVTOL flight routes involving multiple stops. “We hope to see this by 2025.”

But there is one thing that Kysely is anticipating the most – his first trip in an eVTOL. “I’ve seen a lot of eVTOLs fly, but I’ve never actually been in one,” he laughs. “That’s what I’m most excited about.”