Americas, Aviation, Cities, Transportation Electrification

The increasing development of Electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing (eVTOL) aircrafts is making the case for building out a new network to support them, which will drive the opportunity to develop a new model for green infrastructure. Often depicted as flying cars, some predict these electrified “short-hop” passenger and freight aircrafts are the future of regional flight and urban taxis, holding the potential to deliver an accessible, carbon reduced transportation network that provides increased mobility in urban areas and from city to city.

What are eVTOLs? Powered by electricity, eVTOL take off vertically like a helicopter, and fly horizontally like a traditional airplane. Differing from its predecessors, eVTOLs are technology-heavy, featuring virtually silent electric motors or rotors that communicate with the batteries that power them – functions that require sophisticated proprietary software and charging technology.  As a result, we are seeing eVTOL developed by technology companies that have hired experts from the aviation industry.

This new transportation mode may improve mobility by quickly transporting small numbers of people within cities and across regions. They may also provide the rapid response logistics needed for emergency situations and increase small and rural market access.

How might they operate? There are currently two passenger transportation models, each designed to accommodate specific needs and functions. The first is based around vertistops, which is envisioned for urban locations and designed for short hops that allow for easy mobility within cities. These can be placed on existing infrastructure such as building tops or other unused spaces. The second model is compatible for intracity travel within a 150-mile range, restoring regional air service discontinued by traditional airlines due to cost considerations. Longer range eVTOL might require vertiports, stand-alone terminals, Maintenance Repair and Overhaul (MRO) operations and charging facilities within existing airports, greenfield sites or on top of other existing infrastructure. As a faster way to travel, eVTOL may replace cars, regional trains or buses, with many developers and manufacturers focusing on making eVTOLs affordable and accessible.

Vertiports: green infrastructure required. With many eVTOL developers aiming to launch by the year 2024 with the potential for established networks by 2030, these aircrafts represent an entirely new zero carbon industry that must be served by a new type of conducive infrastructure. With these aircrafts not always depending on airport access, our AECOM team is currently studying the re-purposing of existing, non-traditional infrastructure such as parking garages and distribution facilities. The aircraft may also use existing logistics facilities as vertiport hubs and nontraditional rural locations, such as repurposed roadway infrastructure, as logistic hubs, significantly improving supply chain speed and remote location access.

As with all electric vehicles, eVTOL will increase energy demand. Grid upgrades will be needed to supply the energy required for battery charging and cooling. To complicate matters further, these aircrafts are expected to vary in size, each with proprietary charging methods and requirements specific to the manufacturer. Because of this, these vertiports and vertistops will require facilities to support multiple eVTOL designs and charging types.

What are the challenges in development? Federal, state and local governments are working with developers to create necessary practices, regulations and certifications, with a strong emphasis on flight standards. Given their similar range of motion to helicopters and airplanes, the industry is using those standards as a preliminary form while working to develop one overall flight standard. AECOM is actively involved in this process with several agencies that are driving policy around the future of eVTOL, such as NASA and North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG). In addition, AECOM holds a board position on the City of Los Angeles Urban Movement Lab, which is a dynamic collaboration between communities, local government and mobility innovators.

Establishing a new industry demands experience and insight. AECOM is meeting those needs by providing expertise to private developers, airport agencies and eVTOL developers. Recognizing our focus on the future of infrastructure and global airport experience, eVTOL manufacturers are presenting their business models and technical capabilities to our design professionals to help determine feasibility in their ideas and designs. And our familiarity with eVTOL is driving airport authorities, private developers and infrastructure providers to AECOM for assistance in determining potential preparations and support required to make eVTOL viable.

These efforts may seem like to be a heavy lift but with advanced technology and our integrated expertise combined with manufacturer, federal, state and local government focus, eVTOLs are poised for a smooth takeoff and with them, a more sustainable, equitable future for aviation.

Originally published Aug 11, 2021

Author: Elisabeth Bernitt