The promise of utilising VTOL (Vertical Take Off and Landing) craft to revolutionise the way people and goods move around cities is a dream long in the making. It still has a way to go, but more concrete designs, investments and policy frameworks are now emerging to turn a futuristic pipe dream into a near-future reality.
Designing the future, as standard
The very end of August 2022 saw the standards development organisation ASTM International publish a new set of comprehensive standards for the design and development of vertiports and ‘vertistops’ (smaller facilities meant for unloading passengers and cargo – without providing refuelling/maintenance). In it, ASTM lays out a vision for the future of urban mobility where such facilities support the safe, efficient and sustainable movement of people, goods along with myriad support services.
The ‘F3423 standard’ takes into account the rapid evolution of the VTOL industry, with designs that accommodate various types of eVTOL aircraft, including multi-rotor, lift & cruise, vectored thrust, tilt wing, and tilt rotor. With over 300 different types of VTOL currently in development worldwide, this kind of flexibility is a prerequisite, especially since we don’t yet know which designs will beat out the competition to become the industry standard.
The release of F3423 is an important milestone in the incorporation of vertiports into the urban mobility landscape. With commercialised air taxi operations predicted to be only a year or two away, cities that are ahead of the game with vertiport infrastructure will be poised to capitalise massively on this gamechanger of a public/private transport innovation.
Industry Exemplar – Sao Paulo International Airport (GRU)
Sao Paulo is already an urban mobility innovator with its highly developed network of helicopter operators and transport infrastructure. This vibrant Brazilian city wants to be a world leader in the next wave of innovation, as VPorts and Air Traffic Management Inc have been chosen to design and build a vertiport hub at GRU.
Scheduled to be up and running in 2023, the airport’s new 5,100m2 private terminal building will incorporate the city’s first vertiport hub. This will provide the initial platform for a citywide network of VTOL air taxi operations, connecting the airport to main Sao Paulo city areas by 2026. By 2045, the 100,000 passengers are expected to use the hub. This is just the first of Sao Paulo’s vertiport developments, in a city with an Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) industry worth over $15 billion annually.
Sao Paulo has seen which way the wind is blowing, and clearly wants to be among the first major world cities to see commericalised air taxis take flight.
Vertiport demand is growing, can supply keep up?
Leading eVTOL companies like Joby, EHang and Volocopter are developing technically viable, operationally ready craft at a pace that suggests there will be fleet-sized stock available for sale within the next one or two years. Flight certification for commercial operations may be granted to operators across some of the world’s biggest cities in as little as 12 months. Overall, everything is pointing towards commercial VTOL flights being a regular occurrence before the mid-point of this decade.
The craft is only one half of the equation, however. VTOLs need to have somewhere to take off and land. The ‘wait and see’ approach on how VTOL craft develops may potentially mean that the starting pistol was fired too late on the development of vertiport infrastructure. However, the size and scale of the opportunity posed by air taxi services, not to mention all manner of ancillary services, means that leading cities may still be able to play catch up effectively. This will take a combination of rapid investment, intelligent design decisions and plenty of cooperation with key stakeholders such as existing airports in or near the city in question. Saudi Airport Exhibitor Assaia is one example of the kind of solution providers whose ability to drive the future design of aviation operations will prove vital in making vertiports a workable reality to fit every city’s unique circumstances.