Whether you believe the estimated air taxi market value of $5bn (by 2030) or $1.5trn (by 2040), when the handful of commercially viable air taxi manufacturers – out of hundreds (in business today) – begin commercial operations later this decade, they will need somewhere to land.
Of the options provided by ground-based infrastructure companies – vertihubs, vertiports and vertistations – Skyports will be one such company building vertiports.
Vertiports will be built in city centres and serve as major sites for both cargo and passenger on-boarding and off-boarding for urban air mobility (UAM).
Duncan Walker, CEO, Skyports, told Revolution.Aero that the operations would be vehicle agnostic – meaning that they would be built and able to integrate with any eVTOL vehicle.
Walker set up the company three and a half years ago, bringing his experience in the real estate sector. Now, Skyports has developed relationships with regulators – such as the FAA, the UK’s CAA, and the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) – as well as manufacturers Volocopter and Joby Aviation.
Walker said: “We have joint ventures with most of the leading vehicle manufacturers on the route to market in certain locations. We are operational in 15 cities, in Europe and the US, and working with the rest of the ecosystem to make this happen in the next two-three years.”
In 2019, Skyports built the first vertiport in Singapore as a proof of concept, where Volocopter’s VoloCity demonstrated a flight around the Marina Bay.
“People genuinely could not hear the VoloCity flying above them. That partnership really set us on the pathway with the Singaporean authorities to turn it permanent at the end of 2022 or start of 2023.”
The VoloPort is essentially the eVTOL equivalent of a private jet lounge, or fixed-base operator (FBO), with the typical facilities to host passengers pre-flight.
Walker said the company’s next big project is an extension of the work it began in Singapore. Shortly after the test flight, Skyports entered into a partnership with the French airports owner and operator, Groupe ADP, to demonstrate air taxi operations at the Paris 2024 Olympics.
There are various workstreams to this project, said Walker. Skyports will build a vertiport and integrate all the enabling technologies including communications and software. The test flights and operational testing will be conducted by other partners such as EHang and Volocopter.
Skyports expects construction to begin by the end of the year and test flights to take place in 2022.
Groupe ADP is also one of the company’s shareholders, alongside Deutsche Bahn Digital Ventures, German Railways, Levitate Capital and Irelandia Capital which participated in Skyports’s £6.3m ($8.7m) Series A funding round in December 2019.
Research and development: NHS trials
In February 2021, Skyports began a three-month trial using small drones to fly the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) pathology samples and Covid test kits in areas of limited access in Scotland. It can take cars and ferries 36 hours or more – from the mainland – to transport samples to and from the Isle of Mull, where the NHS hospital is located.
Walker said it was an environment “very well-suited” to drones. The company used payloads of 3-5kgs, however, he says the systems will be able to integrate with those carrying larger payloads too.
“We were able to complete missions in 15-30 minutes on a journey which may have taken 24 hours plus waiting for the next ground-based transportation,” said Walker.
Skyports used a fleet of 10 Swoop Aero drones to execute the missions. Funding from the UK Space Agency (UKSA) and European Space Agency (ESA) Space Solutions mean access to satellite communications and 4G network.
Stephen Whiston, head of Strategic Planning for Argyll and Bute Health and Social Care Partnership, said: “The drones have given us confidence. This is a potential technology fit within our multipurpose logistics requirements. Not only are we flying between the hospitals across Argyll and Bute, but we have a vast area that are linked.”
Whiston says the drones have the ability to supersede the vans which typically pick up samples once a day. Jef Geudens, head of technology for Skyports, says it could operate as many as “10 to 12 flights in one day”.
Although it is an NHS project for now, Whiston says: “It is quite clear that it needs to become an integrated global logistics approach and there is a really opportunity to scale this up.”
Skyports said it has saved 750 hours via the drone trials in the first few weeks of the trials.
The project with the NHS has helped speed up the research and development, as well as conversations with regulators, said Walker. “It accelerated the conversation with regulators because we were dealing with a lot of the enabling technology and IP development applicable to both drone deliveries and ground-based vertiport
Public acceptance is a well-known hurdle to wide scale urban air mobility operations. Similarly, Walker found that he had to educate people about ground-based infrastructure such as vertiports and how they worked.
“Three years ago, no one believed this was a real thing. Now, those conversations have moved on to ‘how’ rather than ‘whether’ it is going to happen,” he says.
Walker says the regulation around ground infrastructure does not exist, making this a big challenge for anyone in the space.
“It’s quite hard playing a game without rules. There is an opportunity within that. But sometimes you want to know what the rules are so you can comply with them, rather than having to write them.”
Traditional heliports will be part of the network, said Walker. But at the moment, there are not that many suitable for UAM operations. To get to some atop buildings, you have to go through access hatches, ladders and boiler rooms, making them inconvenient for passenger experience.
Skyports is having commercial conversations with companies in the private and charitable health care sector. “We have more conversations than we can deliver. The problem is not demand. It is about picking those ones which we can execute in the short term.”
Future partnerships might include Volocopter and Lilium, with which the company enjoys a close relationship, says Walker. Airbus, Vertical Aerospace, Hyundai and Joby are some others.
“We’ve got some super exciting commercial contracts on the drone deliveries side coming up. And there’s one or two things in the US and the Middle East which could be pretty transformational in the next three to four months.”
Series A – £6.3m ($8.7m) led by Deutsche Bank, German Railways, Groupe ADP. Capital from Levitate Capital and Irelandia Aviation.
NHS trials – funded by UK Space Agency and European Space Agency
Overall, he is confident about the capital the industry has attracted in recent months. “It’s great for the industry, if they [Joby and others] succeed – that’s the real start of volume.”
A robust UAM infrastructure will be one of the key factors in ensuring large scale operations. Deloitte said it was “is likely the biggest hurdle to overcome”.
The company will continue to advance its drone deliveries and ground infrastructure simultaneously, with the first VoloPort expected in Singapore by early 2022 and Paris before 2024.