Une porte verte pour AAM?

Deep Dive

Last week Skyports, Volocopter and Groupe ADP cut the ribbon on Europe’s first vertiport, and the door to green urban air mobility appeared to open a little further with it. 

The vertiport terminal, which forms part of the Paris Region vertiport network due to be launched for the 2024 Olympic Games, will initially act as an UAM sandbox allowing stakeholders like Volocopter and Skyports to test out operations in a live environment.

“The testbed at Pontoise-Cormeilles is a stellar example of ecosystem partners collaborating to accelerate the realisation of UAM,” said Dirk Hoke, Volocopter’s CEO.

With the Olympics just 18 months away, Volocopter admits it is an audacious goal. But an achievable one that, when successful, will demonstrate the validity of an UAM concept, according to Yves Morier, former principal advisor to EASA’s certification director and flight standards director, New Technologies  an independent AAM specialist with a background in certification.

Morier predicts Volocopter will achieve its 2024 target. “They have a good team, a lot of flight experience – the ancestor of the VoloCity flew in 2011 – design organisation and production organisation approvals and, last but not least, a significant level of investment [its latest Series E signing raised $182m],” he says.

The Paris network is just the start, further pilot UAM programmes can be expected in 2024 and 2025, he tells Revolution.Aero. Conducting large-scale SESAR (Single European Sky ATM Research) demonstrations includes a significant amount of flight testing relative to the integration of UAM in the airspace. Helping to bring commercial operations closer.

“To gain public acceptance, such operations could be demonstrated in remote areas and could also be related to healthcare. All of this should lead to low volume operations that will gather momentum until 2028-2030 when mature commercial operations will be present,” says Morier.

Global operations are part of Volocopter’s remit. The company conducted its first crewed flight in Italy last month using its VX2 prototype from a vertiport at da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport just outside Rome. It is also readying for operations in Singapore.

“Very honestly, we want to become a global company,” Christian Bauer, CCO, Volocopter told Revolution.Aero in Paris last week. “So, we don’t want to just prepare for operations in one location. Paris, with the Olympics, is our audacious goal, but also we prepare Singapore, we prepare Rome, Osaka and so on.”

Bauer said the Paris Region testbed is ideal given its proximity to the intended operational area across the French capital and out to Versailles. The vertiport and wider network is also backed by RATP (Paris Public Urban Transport) and Aéroport de Paris.

That institutional backing is crucial. Skyports, a UK company, has discovered a greater level of governmental cooperation with regards to AAM across the English Channel. CEO Duncan Walker said the Pontoise-Cormeilles vertiport is a physical demonstration of the fact that innovation won’t occur in isolation.

“It requires collaboration from a multitude of area experts, including operators, vehicle manufacturers, and technology developers, each of which have an important role to play in achieving the ultimate objective of commercial AAM services,” said Walker at last week’s inauguration. “With the completion of the terminal, we will now begin comprehensive testing of procedures and technologies in a realistic aviation environment.”

A mock-up of the VoloCity in front of Skyports’ first “fully integrated” vertiport terminal just outside Paris last week. (credit: Revolution.Aero)

So, where do UAM operations fit into the transport ecosystem? The Paris model integrates air taxi flights as an additional form of public transport just like the metro or bus. Morier thinks that UAM compliment existing means of transport. “Today, the benchmark for costs are ground taxis. Not everybody takes a taxi to drive to the airport for example,” he says.

According to Volocopter’s test pilot, Paul Stone – who piloted the VX2 during last week’s inaugural test flight – passengers will represent a full cross-section of society. “When we have a full commercial operation, it will be anybody who wants to fly. Just like booking an Uber,”  Stone told Revolution.Aero.

That said  with only two seats – the VoloCity, simply by lack of space demands some level of exclusivity. Organisers of the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo assembled a fleet of 2,200 coach buses and 2,700 cars to ferry the 60,000 visitors around. (Covid restrictions meant reduced numbers of visitors). Serving 1% of those visitors simultaneously would require 300 aircraft. Now that assumes they are all airborne at the same time which is highly unlikely. But you might be queuing for a while to get on one.

But you have to start somewhere and the region president, Valérie Pécresse is intent on where being Paris. “Just as the first plane ticket of the first airline company was purchased in 1914 in Florida, I want the first passenger flight in a vertical takeoff and landing aircraft to take place in our region, Paris Region. The Olympics are an incredible opportunity to showcase and launch this project.”

But there is a line to toe between launching AAM operations and ensuring public acceptance, says Morier.

“There are at least two facets in public acceptance: The acceptance by the passengers – manufacturers and operators seems to focus on that one,” he explains. “And the acceptance by people on the ground. They usually don’t benefit from the service, but have to cope with the consequences, such as noise.

“That would be detrimental to AAM. In that context, cooperation with local authorities and local NGOs is key,” he concludes.

The saying goes ‘when one door closes another one opens’. That could be a VX2 door pulled shut by the test pilot and a green door opening to AAM for Paris 2024 and beyond.

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