“Cars need roads, trains need rails, and eVTOLs need vertiports,” Adrian Zanelli, Chief Financial Officer of Urban-Air Port, tells us.
We’re standing at the Supernal stand at the Farnborough International Airshow chatting to Zanelli about the future of flight. Supernal, is the Hyundai-backed electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) and is one of Urban-Air Port’s partners.
“There are over 300 or maybe 400 eVTOL companies out there of one size or another,” Zanelli tells us. With eVTOL manufacturers becoming increasingly commonplace, and with many targeting commercial activities as early as 2025, it seems as though we might be on the brink of an aviation revolution. However, it remains impossible for the sector to take off unless the aircraft have somewhere to land. Fortunately, Urban-Air Port is trying to fix that.
Supporting the Take Off
“A vertiport is an airport for drones or these eVTOLs that you see carrying passengers,” explains Zanelli.
“It is a condensed-down landing infrastructure for the aircraft to safely land and take off and to get baggage and people on board. One of the key reasons we are called Urban-Air Port is that we believe it’s going to be about getting the landing sites as close to where people and goods need to be.”
While the idea of locating airports and aircraft infrastructure close to cities is nothing new — consider London City Airport, for example — large jet planes and noisy internal-combustion engine-powered helicopters have forced the infrastructure further away from the places people want to get to.
“We want to be in cities, and potentially out of cities, but at high-value locations,” continues Zanelli.
“Perhaps at an existing airport, at a cultural event over a short term, at a specific tourist site, something like that. But the point is to land on the ‘X’ and to be exactly where you want to be. They [eVTOL companies] have gone to a lot of trouble to make these aircraft able to land and take off vertically and the infrastructure needs to reflect that.”
Building that infrastructure, however, is challenging. While many eVTOL companies are targeting 2025 to start commercial operations, without anywhere to land, charge or swap depleted batteries, load and unload their passengers and cargo, and take off again, it seems likely that the sector will be stillborn. However, without the eVTOL craft, there is no need for dedicated sites.
Urban-Air Port, meanwhile, has been trying to make some headway.
“The demonstration we had in Coventry had a 1,500 square metre footprint,” says Zanelli.
“Our estimate of its maximum capacity is about 130,000 passengers a year. With some modifications and without increasing the size too much, we might be getting to 200,000 or 300,000 passengers per year which, by airport standard, sounds relatively small. But, at the same time, we’re taking up a lot less space, it’s a lower-cost piece of infrastructure.”
Finding a Market
Typically, eVTOL craft are presented as being a silent, swish, and sustainable way for important people to hop between cities. However, according to Zanelli, the initial market for many companies and, consequently, its vertiports, will be packages, not people.
“I think cargo is certainly the go-to at the moment,” he explains.
“Cargo drones are flying, there are operations around the world. We are talking to a number of cargo drone operators that want to densify, they want to increase the frequency and they see the need for infrastructure at either end to provide a safe, secure landing space with storage, charging, maintenance facilities, all that sort of thing.”
Passenger eVTOL aircraft, however, might be a bit further behind.
“We see an initial low volume market in specific areas,” says Zanelli.
“Potentially in tourist or business-focused routes. Then, as that passenger demand and rollout continues, it will scale out across regions and scale up in technology and mass manufacturing.”
According to Zanelli, once that ball is rolling — whether in 2025 or a later — costs will decrease and eVTOL flight will become a mass-market proposition.
“That’s when you’ll see, perhaps closer to the end of the decade, passengers starting to overtake cargo. But I don’t see cargo disappearing anywhere, it’s going to benefit from all the technology you have for passengers.”
However, Urban-Air Port also has another type of site it is looking to explore.
“In general, we talk about Air One for passenger operations. But the humanitarian side is Resilience One — rapid deployment, off-grid operation, all of that is key,” says Zanelli.
“It would be more of a drone operation centre and logistics hub, potentially in a disaster zone or an extremely underserved, remote location. Within the next decade, we definitely see ourselves working with a number of companies, particularly in places like Africa and the Middle East, to build these pieces of infrastructure to either increase existing networks or to have it as a rapid reaction piece of infrastructure.”
The Future of the Industry
“I think one of the things that people often say is, ‘Oh flying electric taxis, it’s a bit of a pipe dream,’ says Zanelli.
“Then they give various bits of technology in history, such as the light jet boom in the early 2000s which fizzled out. Honda managed it but no one else did.
“But, I think it’s important to point out, and it’s interesting sitting here on the stand, that it’s [eVTOL] very much a derivative of the progress of lithium-ion batteries, which started in our phones and have been driven forwards by Tesla and other automotive manufacturers.”
In fact, according to Zanelli, the link between the automotive and sustainable aviation industries is closer than one might think.
“That’s what all the automotive manufacturers are moving in, whether overtly like Hyundai or less openly like Toyota with Joby [Aviation] and the German automakers with German eVTOL manufacturers.”
What’s more, the range of companies active in the space is another encouraging sign for Zanelli and Urban-Air Port.
“Ricky Sandhu, our founder, was on a panel yesterday and he was seated in the middle of Joby, the most well-funded private eVTOL company, Eve, which is a spin-out of Embraer, Vertical, which is very well-funded and very well-supported by the UK aerospace industry, and then Supernal on the end, with Hyundai backing,” says Zanelli.
“So, there’s a huge amount of support for these top-tier players. And you could add a bunch of others there like Lilium, Volocopter, and Wisk. So, all these people are in this market and pushing ahead and that is obviously key for us.”
However, Zanelli is keen to point out that, despite the money being thrown at eVTOL startups by automotive companies, venture capitalists, and others besides, success is not guaranteed for anyone.
“We think that there could very well be consolidation in the market, but probably not at this stage. A lot of the funding has been done and now people are running against the clock to certification. Then we will probably see a round of consolidation around that point. But it’s certainly good news for us at this time,” says Zanelli.
The eVTOL market is still in its early days and the chicken-and-egg style problem of aircraft and infrastructure hasn’t been completely solved. But, in Urban-Air Port, it’s clear that the nascent eVTOL manufacturers have a partner that is ready and willing to provide the support they need.