Where do eVTOLs sleep at night?

Deep Dive

Picture a busy vertiport.

Passengers walk out to board electric vertical aircraft happy to be saving hours in travel time. Now imagine the chaos when one or more aircraft have technical problems in the final approach and takeoff area. Also, what happens during off-peak hours, where do these aircraft go of a nighttime?

It is a situation like this which drives Clifford Cruz, CEO, Skyway  a company focused on building Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management (UTM) systems. “There was no business model that made corporate sense around the technologies that are needed for these aircraft to run, appease the government and actually make money. So, we said perfect, that is our business case.”

Cruz spent about 20 years in the cyber security field where he worked on a range of problems including radio encryption communications and fragmentation technology for the US Department of Defense. Cruz also worked on 3D cameras back in 2006/07. After exiting a company before the pandemic, he and a few friends set up an incubator and out of it came, what he believes is an answer to the above, Skyway.

“I’ve been around the block. I have been in the startup world for many years. It is what I do,” says Cruz. The team began building out the basics of the UTM starting with the core system. This collects every possible point of data from vector to windspeed. The core system also collects data on things like charging and fuel availability or take-off area and parking assignment. “It really becomes a marketplace. Letting you know where to go and what to buy, it’s a hub for information,” he tells Revolution.Aero.

He says that unlike other unmanned air-traffic management systems, Skyway has strapped AI machine learning technology to the software. So, it in effect becomes a hybrid AI operator-to-air navigation services provider air traffic management (ATM) system. This means that a controller can monitor around 500 aircraft at any one time, currently that is limited to around 40.

“NASA put out a paper which noted that the UTM airspace was unfederated, so companies went out and grabbed that,” says Cruz. “But they couldn’t figure out a business model so they went with SaaS [Software as a Service], they strapped it on there, went to the VC and got funded. So now they had something there they couldn’t sell because the market wasn’t there. Plus it was so thin companies had to spend more money implementing it – why pay for something when you could build it yourself for free?”

Skyway uses what it calls a navigation pod, a tentacle-like system through which the firm’s staff, known as navigators, work. “They sit in the chair and they interface with the AI. So, the AI monitors all of our customers and all of the flights. If anything is not normal, the AI will inform the navigator, allowing them to assess the situation and potentially implement a no-fly zone. That works for weather, unidentified objects, everything.”

Working with a number of undisclosed eVTOL OEMs, Cruz is concerned with the “Apple-like” approach many take to this sector of aviation. Doing everything in a vacuum is huge challenge, he says.

“One thing our research arm discovered is that you cannot use traditional infrastructure like a helipad to build a vertiport because the automated system in the eVTOL cannot communicate with the ground. You will notice eVTOLs do not have windows in the bottom like a helicopter. They are basically iPads in the sky. But they require systems to be in place to guide it in – covering trajectory, traffic etc. It can land on its own right now if you’ve got no one around, but if you have a bunch of traffic there is a big issue there,” he says. Skyway’s automated vertiport management system, with the aid of infrared beacons, operates this  from the gates to the charging couplers. This digital management layer for the vertiport connects into Skyway’s vertiport ATM system and that then links to the operator. This creates a ‘chain of disconnect’ that allows eVTOLs to land at vertiports not necessarily owned or operated by Skyway.

So what might this look like? The airline can digitally call Skyway with a time of arrival and requirements once landed. Skyway will then supply a breakdown of costs. “We say okay it is going to cost $80 to land here for 30 minutes,” says Cruz. “The airline then goes and charges their customer $175, they are then able to book the flight and we pay everybody out.”

What makes the business model unique is that Skyway contracts with the land developer, says Cruz. “If you’re a venture-backed company there is no way you are spending your employee money on this, that is suicide in a way. Vertiports cost a lot of money and you barely have enough runway to last until 2026-28 when these things fly to be in the black. We decided to partner with current construction companies and leverage their experience in that area.”

Many are familiar with the term mom-and-pop stores, in the UK we call them corner shops, but have you ever considered a mom-and-pop vertiport? Skyway’s business model would allow for anyone with the construction means and land available to ink a deal to own a vertiport. “They wouldn’t have to worry about anything. Just sing up with us and we bring in our sensors and tech and together we build it,” adds Cruz.

When building a vertiport, consideration has to be given to what happens to eVTOLs during non-peak times. Will charging occur on rotation? How many bays are required? At vertiports in more remote locations adding infrastructure will be simple, but detailed prior planning considering the potential scaling of the sector is key when building in metropolitan environments  where we expect many of these aircraft to operate.

Skyway has come up with the vertipark as a place where eVTOLs can go at night. There will be no passengers or flights operated from here. Instead there will be a series of shared FATOs that airlines will use to land and then each will store their aircraft in assigned hangars. “Here you will have cleaning crews, maintenance teams and charging to make sure everything is good to go for the morning,” says Cruz. “You are going to need at least one of those per region.”

Skyway believes the eventual ecosystem will be a hybrid of private, public and private/public vertiports. Whatever that ecosystem looks like it is going to be complex to build. But cooperation between stakeholders and standardisation look to be keystones for a smoother construction and a good night’s rest.

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