In the first week of March, the Vertical Flight Society will host its fourth workshop on eVTOL infrastructure for urban air mobility, featuring speakers and updates from federal agencies, key industry players, and numerous local government leaders. Decision-makers at the state and local level are urged to consider attending.
More information on the workshop, to be held online from March 2-4, can be found here.
Rex Alexander, infrastructure advisor to the Vertical Flight Society and one of the workshop’s lead organizers, spoke to eVTOL.com about some of the challenges the industry is facing on the ground in matching the rapid progress underway by aircraft developers.
eVTOL.com: How well does the industry understand the likely characteristics of eVTOL aircraft that are necessary for infrastructure development, standardization, and decisions by policymakers?
Rex Alexander: Not well enough.
There are a lot of great people working on the technology piece and we are moving at Mach 1 in that space. But to get that technology in the air, you have to have policy on the ground on day 1 and that is where we are lagging significantly behind. We need to understand the zoning requirements, the conditional-use permitting process, the building and fire code, the grid alignment for electric supply — and all of these standards and policy decisions require better information about the aircraft.
We don’t have a good handle of the geometry of the aircraft under development; the dimensions, the weights, how they’re designed for loading and unloading passengers, and most importantly their performance capabilities. Those characteristics will drive how standards are formed, infrastructure is designed and policy is written. How many acres of land might be required for a vertiport, for example, may largely be dependent on the acoustics of the aircraft likely to use it. Today, municipalities often require a huge footprint of land for private-use heliports because of the noise considerations.
Performance capabilities of the aircraft is a big area with lots of question marks. As infrastructure designers and policy crafters, we want to know the lowest common denominator we have to design to in terms of aircraft performance and we’re not sure what that is yet. In designing the infrastructure, we’re looking at aircraft being designed by Joby, Lilium, EHang, Wisk, and all the other developers, trying to figure out how to take all those performance values into consideration in terms of an infrastructure and airspace footprint that will support each of them.
If at some point we get good enough data to understand that a certain type or model of aircraft has twice the performance of a helicopter, then we may be able to create categories of infrastructure that allow for a higher-performance vehicle to land at vertiports that have smaller footprints, steeper approach angles and so on, which could equate to lower cost, minimal footprints, lower impact, and a more publicly acceptable facility.
eVTOL.com: In what areas are you seeing companies willing to share data? Where are they more reluctant to?
Rex Alexander: Unfortunately, performance data of the aircraft is also what has been the least shared. The FAA is working to be the conduit for a lot of what is transpiring in aircraft certification, as well as NASA through the Advanced Air Mobility National Campaign it is preparing to do. I have no doubt there will be a lot of non-disclosures needed to make that all take place, but that performance data will be a huge piece for designing infrastructure standards. The same is true for noise data. We hope those organizations will help funnel more of that data to the people developing infrastructure standards and municipality policy.
The result is that we’re at a bit of a standstill on drafting policy. The upcoming VFS workshop is designed to help ask the right questions that need to be asked today; I don’t know that we’re going to get answers, but it’ll help make policymakers aware of what they need to know and begin to pull their teams together to start considering what their policies must speak to and include.
eVTOL.com: Are there infrastructure projects being discussed or in the works that will only allow electric aircraft to land and take off?
Rex Alexander: Yes. Some municipalities are focusing on infrastructure projects that will only cater to all-electric aircraft. The challenge that they are considering, however, is that if you put all your eggs in one basket and all-electric fails or isn’t the prevailing aircraft type in three years, have you wasted a ton of money and now have to re-tool your infrastructure to support and attract a different type of aircraft — say, hybrid-electric?
Municipalities only have so much real estate and so much money. If you decide to build up a heliport, a vertiport and a drone port, those all cost money and space. If you can combine all three, then you could require less money and space invested overall.
When you talk to municipalities and ask if they’re going to design for all-electric, hybrid, hydrogen, or multiple use cases — whether heliports will support both helicopters and eVTOL aircraft or vice versa — these are some of the questions they are currently grappling with. They don’t want five distinct footprints; they want one, or maybe two at the most.
That doesn’t mean that all-electric proprietary infrastructure won’t exist; it’s just a question of whether or not municipalities will embrace it. If local decisionmakers give a company a tax credit for several million dollars, five years from now will that investment be worth it?
eVTOL.com: What are shaping up to be the most challenging political hurdles for infrastructure?
Rex Alexander: This may sound silly, but one of the biggest hurdles is what we actually call this infrastructure. If you go to a municipality today and ask to open a vertiport, they’ll open the book and find definitions for “heliports” and “helistops” but nothing on a vertiport. Taxonomy is hugely important. We need to define and settle on names, and we don’t want 10 different names because that makes everything so much more complicated, costly and confusing.
The first standards group that has done that is the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA). In NFPA’s 2021 standards for heliports (NFPA-418), vertiport and vertistop are now defined in a standards document. ASTM International’s F-38 committee is also working to simplify and define these terms in their vertiport standards.
Another hurdle is how we quantify noise. Will it be similar to what is already published for aviation, or is it different? What do the measurements to be taken look like and how does that get incorporated into an urban environment?
Noise impact is a passionate and emotional subject that often gets heliport projects stopped in their tracks, so how we measure and quantify and present that information to communities will be important.
The same is true of safety. We need to be able to demonstrate that, in its entirety, the novel transportation system we are presenting is as safe or safer than current transportation — not just the aircraft. If a municipality is going to approve the placement of a vertiport in someone’s backyard who may never use it, that person still wants to know what the risk is for them. So, planning commissions are seeking to understand the risks so they can properly weigh them in their decision making.