The idea of electric air taxis has long seemed a surreal concept, something you might be more likely to encounter in a sci-fi film than on the very doorstep of your local city’s existing transport networks.
Whilst the concept still sounds futuristic even now, those within the sector are aware of just how within reach this new mode of transport is. Over the last few years, The Engineer has reported on innovations from the likes of Joby, Lilium and Vertical Aerospace, all of which are well-placed for a head start on the emerging eVTOL (electric vertical take-off and landing) aircraft market.
When speaking with Vertical Aerospace back in 2021, the company’s then-CTO Mike Gascoyne told us that building the aircraft was just one element of what’s needed to make green urban air mobility viable. The other side of the coin is building up the infrastructure required for such a novel mode of transportation.
Vertical, alongside other companies in the eVTOL space, is now looking to address an issue which is perhaps the biggest barrier to urban air mobility. Currently, Vertical is working with infrastructure giant Ferrovial to develop a network of ‘vertiports’ across the UK, from which Vertical’s own eVTOL, the VX4, can fly in and out of.
Andrew Macmillan, Vertical’s director of infrastructure, explained that the process involves many questions around how you design and operate the vertiports, and around both their similarity and differences to a traditional airport or helipad.
“How do you make it sustainable, because a big part of the pitch for these aircrafts is of course that there will be zero emissions in operation,” he said. “How does it plug into broader transport?”
The partnership with Ferrovial is making ‘steady progress’ on resolving these issues, Macmillan said, exploring potential routes from key city hubs such as Heathrow to Cambridge, Belfast to Glasgow and Cardiff to Plymouth - as well as thinking about areas where the transport network has a gap or is more inconvenient, such as across the Pennines.
Ferrovial is working on a similar partnership in the US, with eVTOL developer Lilium, to create a network of at least ten zero-carbon vertiports across Florida. Lilium has also partnered with ABB E-mobility to provide fast charging infrastructure for the 7-seater Lilium Jet, with the ABB charging points designed to fully charge batteries in 30 minutes, and up to 80 per cent in 15. This aims to enable 20-25 flights per aircraft per day across Lilium’s vertiport network.
Elsewhere in the UK, one company with a unique vision solely focused on infrastructure is Urban-Air Port. The start-up is owned by London-based design and tech company Six Miles Across London Limited (small.), both of which were founded by architect Ricky Sandhu.
Having worked on numerous infrastructure projects as equity partner at architectural design practice Foster + Partners, before working for Airbus’ emerging Urban Air Mobility division, Sandhu’s experience led him to create small.
Focused on building a more sustainable future for the built environment and urban transport, Sandhu founded the group bringing together a diverse team of architects, engineers, aerospace designers, environmentalists and more, with stakeholders spanning the fields of robotics and AI to energy, automotive and manufacturing.
From this, Urban-Air Port was born, its mission being to develop fully autonomous zero-emission ground infrastructure for sustainable transport such as air taxis and autonomous delivery drones.
“We’re in this pioneering, unique position where we’re the only company in the world who is only focused on providing the entire infrastructure stack,” Sandhu told The Engineer. “Our vision is to see hundreds, if not thousands, of Urban-Air Ports all around our cities around the world.
“We’ve got a lot of interest globally now, not just in the UK. The reason we’re getting that interest is that people can see how this infrastructure, which doesn’t exist anywhere in the world, could be integrated into your city.”
With plans to build 200 sites globally within the next five years, Urban-Air Port is gearing up to deliver its first site, Air-One, in Coventry this month. Hailed as the world’s first fully operational airport for electric aircraft such as eVTOLs and drones, the site aims to provide an accessible inner-city hub able to host the new transport mode and bring a wealth of improvements such as reduced emissions, reduced congestion on the roads, and ultra-fast, accessible travel.
“Lots of cities have missing links and can’t afford that extra bus route … certain cities have outgrown their bus system and can’t afford their own subway or metro system,” Sandhu said. “Even without those, there’s also a lot of congestion already just from passenger movements — but also from cargo movements, with more and more e-commerce being taken up by consumers because of Covid, more vans and lorries clogging up the roads.
“Even if all those vehicles were electric, there’s no end emissions on the street from the tailpipe, but there’s still congestion and there’s still very dangerous particles — PM10 and PM2.5 — when you’re braking, those particles are released … those are never talked about but [they] are rife in our atmosphere.”
The vision, Sandhu added, is for the Urban-Air Ports to be almost ‘invisible’ in the way that we no longer notice bus stops, taxi ranks or tube stations in our cities. They are simply embedded, and this is his ambition for Urban Air Mobility.
One of Urban-Air Port’s USPs lies in its flexibility. Sites can be built and deployed with an extremely fast turnaround — a matter of days and weeks, rather than months or years, with ease of movement to alternative locations. A lot of the company’s patented technology is around having an ultra-compact physical footprint, with sites designed to be around 60 per cent smaller than a traditional heliport.
The Coventry site is based in a car park next to Coventry’s mainline railway station, a prime location for rail and road connectivity. The lightweight modular system of the hubs mean they could be deployed in various compact urban areas, such as on rooftops, or even floating offshore.
“There’s been a lot of engineering work from our team in being able to deploy, rapidly, a piece of infrastructure like this. One of the biggest pieces is what I call our 3D runway,” Sandhu said. “The technology involved in that enables a very quick turnaround of vehicle, which is key.”
The launch pad’s design enables the vehicle to take off from an elevated position which reduces a significant section of the sound for those at street level, he added, as well as providing a clearer view, whether the aircraft is piloted or autonomous.
“From a safety perspective, our solution works best for the vehicle and for the passenger, from a cargo perspective it’s the same. We provide a safe and secure environment for the cargo to be processed, out of the rain, out of the sun, at the right level. All of those things are being tackled by our core piece of technology, which has allowed the 3D runway.”
Urban-Air Port has received investment from Supernal, previously Hyundai Motor Group’s Urban Air Mobility division, to support its global expansion plans. The partnership forms part of the companies’ shared vision to advance urban air mobility, with Supernal currently working on commercialisation of its own electric aircraft by 2028.
The innovation doesn’t stop at air taxis — through a partnership with the Electric Infrastructure Security Council, UAP is working on integrating the infrastructure to deploy a next-generation survival comms system, which EIS is developing for re-establishing communication in emergencies or natural disasters.
The RESILIENCE ONE service, incorporated within the Urban-Air Port concept, aims to provide a customisable solution in scenarios such as disaster relief operations, defence and logistics lines, airside-mobile-clinics and more.
Sandhu explained that a modified Urban-Air Port, whether offshore or out in the field, can act as an operating base from a defence perspective to deploy security drones. One of the company’s innovations, which Sandhu describes as particularly exciting, is its ‘City Box’ concept for cargo drones.
We’ve got a chance here ... we’re a leader in aerospace. This revolution is happening. Get on board to put a marker down and say let’s make this happen by 2025
Andrew Macmillan, Vertical Aerospace
“City Box looks a bit like a Rubik’s Cube model,” he said. “What that does, is it miniaturises our technology from our passenger Air One model … and we can replicate it, they’re smaller in size and they’re designed explicitly for smaller cargo carrying drones up to three metres in diameter.
“The cargo market is huge at the moment, and we can start to use more drones to mitigate some of the van and vehicle movements on the ground if we’ve got the air infrastructure in place to do that and the safe ground infrastructure.”
Sandhu envisions the City Box to be much like a ‘future post box’, which can be positioned around cities to receive drones safely and securely from an elevated position.
“We process the cargo inside and deliver the cargo via locker at plus one metres, and the same happens in reverse so if you want to get a package you can go to a City Box and receive it via drone,” he said.
The technology will be showcased in live trials upon Air One’s launch in Coventry, alongside demonstrations of other drone technologies such as with partner West Midlands Police on how they’ll be moving from ‘dogs to drones’, using drone tech to keep communities safe around the region.
Vertical’s Andrew Macmillan said that perhaps the ‘single most subtle but challenging’ element to Urban Air Mobility becoming a reality in the UK is that everybody has to work together. “There’s got to be some momentum behind that,” he said. “I think one of the things the UK could use, and it’s one of the things we talked about in our white paper, is a bit of a deadline in a sense of mission and purpose.
“Various other countries have got a real sense of ‘right, this technology is coming, we can make this happen, let’s get it flying.’ The UK is very good at thinking about these things, but often lacks a bit of that sense of purpose. So if I was giving some advice to the UK government, that’d be one of the things I’d say.
“We’ve got a chance here ... we’re a leader in aerospace. This revolution is happening. Get on board to put a marker down and say let’s make this happen by 2025, and let’s get some real urgency around that… We’ve all got to jump together.”