Infrastructure in Urban Air Mobility

The past 2 years has seen enormous growth in the Urban Air Mobility (UAM) industry. An influx of venture capital, amongst other things, has dragged the industry from the shadows into the limelight. Mainstream media has garnered lots of attention from the wider public and the industry consensus timescales for launching commercial air taxi services between 2023 and 2025 has been fuelling a heated debate; useful scrutiny for the industry.

The VTOL (Vertical Take-off and Landing) vehicle market comprises more than 100 manufacturers and Morgan Stanley predicts that the value of the wider aerial mobility market, including passenger and cargo transportation, will hit $1.5tn by 2040. Some question the possibility of the UAM industry ever taking-off at scale (pun intended) due to the complexities of regulatory environment, insufficient battery capacity or public acceptance of aircraft noise. However, it is always useful in this context to remind ourselves of Amara’s law: We overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.

“The computer may one day come down to the level of the common people and help with our income-tax and book-keeping calculations. But this is speculation and there is no sign of it so far”. British newspaper in 1949

It is no longer just the vehicle manufacturers that are pushing the industry forward. Their progress has triggered demand and need for support services from a range of stakeholders that will enable safe and efficient transport networks for end-users.

Infrastructure is a key enabler for the existence of any physical or digital network. Without roads there would be no cars; without fibre optic, there would be no internet. For UAM it is no different.

Early alignment between infrastructure and technology in the UAM industry is essential for a rapid scale up of this emerging industry. They are not natural bedfellows, technology is more used to exponential trends than infrastructure development which is typically slow and financed by the risk-averse.

There are, however, some unique characteristics relating to UAM infrastructure, which will define its development roadmap:

  • There is no direct precedent for such infrastructure, often referred to as Skyports or Vertiports, serving high volumes of VTOL vehicles in cities. We could learn from helicopter networks as they are arguably a predecessor to vertiports, however heliports are designed to accommodate heavy machines powered by turbine engines, generally at low volumes. Distributed electric propulsion and composite materials remove these constraints on infrastructure, allowing cost-effective and scalable solutions.
  • Each vertiport acts as a node within a network, meaning the utility of the network to end-users increases over time as the number of nodes in a network increases. The addition of new vertiports to a city will result in substantial growth of available routes to passengers.
  • Ground based infrastructure in cities is at capacity and either impossible, or extremely expensive to extend. UAM infrastructure can work around these constraints using the tops of existing buildings. The planning regime and regulatory framework need to adapt quickly to accommodate these emerging requirements. It is important to begin designing, demonstrating and testing UAM infrastructure in order to develop useful standards, enabling scalability, lower costs and a transparent regulatory environment.

“The next block is the ground infrastructure. When you ask people what the biggest challenge to air mobility is, most of them say it is the vehicle or the ATM, but actually, it is the ground infrastructure that is the secret bottleneck of this solution.” Andreas Thellmann, Airbus

Now eVTOL manufacturers are making their way through the certification process and it is anticipated they will be able to operate their vehicles commercially around 2023. Planning and enabling infrastructure, both on the ground and air, needs to go up the agenda. Challenges need to be tackled by regulators and city administrators to unlock the value of the market and the associated benefits to urban and sub-regional environments. Vehicle manufacturers and infrastructure providers need to work closely together to define the infrastructure requirements and begin following the critical path to enabling safe and efficient eVTOL operations.