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Vertiport and eVTOL network competition is creating a major urban UTM challenge

Earlier this month Archer Aviation and United Airlines announced plans to launch the first air taxi route in Chicago, between O’Hare International Airport and Vertiport Chicago in 2025. Chicago is one of two major US cities where eVTOL manufacturers and vertiport operators are setting up competing operations – although competition is likely to be muted in Chicago as Archer’s eVTOL rival there, Eve Air Mobility, is also a United supplier. In July 2022 United paid a USD10 million pre-delivery deposit for 100 eVTOL air taxis from Archer and a month later announced an order for 200 eVTOL air taxis from Eve.

Far more interesting, from a competitive point of view, is Miami, Florida, where Joby, Lilium, Eve and Archer have all declared the city as a priority UAM hub. The competitors all have slightly different visions of how they will develop their services in the city. Archer wants to provide a mass transport alternative to the road network; Joby has an agreement with real estate company Reef Technology in 2021 to develop rooftop take-off and landing sites on car parks; Eve wants to connect the city with the airport and Miami is an integral part of Lilium’s wider regional Florida network.  Some of these strategies are complementary but others are highly competitive. And this presents a particular challenge for UTM service suppliers seeking to understand not just the scalable infrastructure requirements for urban UTM services, but the business plans, too.

In the latest March 2023 update to Unmanned Airspace’s sister publication Global AAM/UAM Market Map, which now lists 117 city/region programmes under development worldwide, it is becoming clear that cities are planning eVTOL services from 2025 in very different ways: from a structured, gradual development strategy which includes all stakeholder groups early on, to a far more freewheeling, market-based approach, relying on networks coalescing around  eVTOL/vertiport consortium programme leaders. These structural differences are likely to present common service providers, such as UTM service providers, with some significant challenges.

Many of the most important early UAM eco-system developments are government programmes to meet a specific event deadline. Consortia of stakeholders (including competitors) are working together to test the technical possibility of eVTOL operations, without too much thought given by the government to their eventual  revenue earning potential; the 2024 Paris Olympics, the Osaka 2025 World Exposition, the Brisbane 2032 Olympic Games are important early catalysts here.

Some of these programmes are remarkably complex: for Osaka 2025 eVTOL manufacturers Joby, Skydrive, Volocopter, EHang, and Vertical are all working within a government programme on arguably the world’s most ambitious and complex urban UAM eco-system under development anywhere in the world. For many in the industry the real test will come after 2025, when some of these eVTOL manufacturers and their operating partners will have the opportunity to scale up their operations to their full commercial potential. It is this scaling up process which represents possibly the biggest challenge to urban UTM service providers, as the process is likely to be extremely dynamic.

Every new route will carry with it a plethora of air and ground risks which will need to be understood and monitored.  And the problem with differently-constituted consortia will be to understand how one consortium (with, say, a mobile network operator as a main member) will work alongside another consortium, made up of mainly legacy aviation players.

But at least these companies will be working within a single concept of operation and with a single UTM supplier or consortium, identified early on in the programme.

For other early UAM adopter cities, competition is being planned from the start but limited to just two or three eVTOL competitors (for the moment). Atea and Volocopter are developing competing networks in Singapore; Lilium and Volocopter are fighting it out in Frankfurt; Jaunt and Manta are competing in Naples and Turin, while Jaunt, Manta and Volocopter all plan to develop new services in Rome and Venice.

But for cities where UAM programmes are being pioneered not by government departments or eVTOL OEM/operator consortia, but by vertiport operators, the urban UTM challenge will be far more complex. Almost all vertiport operators have UTM systems and services embedded in their service offerings, with different concepts of operation. This creates a major integration challenge.

In Dubai, for example, Skyports, Vports and Kookiejar of Sweden (KOS) are now all developing competing networks.  In March 2023 Japanese eVTOL manufacturer SkyDrive and Canadian vertiport manufacturer VPorts announced that they will collaborate in developing the AAM Integrator World Centre in Dubai, on a 37,000-square-metre site within Dubai South. As part of the agreement, VPorts says it will partner with private investors to deliver advanced infrastructure, development, and operations.

This came after the February 2023 announcement that Skyports Infrastructure (with Joby) had had its vertiport design approved for development. According to a press release :“The air mobility exposition demonstrates the RTA (Road and Transport Authority) and Skyports Infrastructure’s planned roadmap for developing a vertiport network in Dubai for launch by 2026, including a concept for how future vertiport infrastructure may look and how it will integrate with existing transportation, including the RTA’s Dubai Metro network and Dubai International Airport.” Four vertiport sites located near Dubai International Airport, Palm Jumeirah, Dubai Downtown and Dubai Marina have been identified for the initial network.

Meanwhile in November 2022, during the MEBAA show in Dubai, Air Chateau and vertiport provider Kookiejar of Sweden (KOS) signed a partnership to establish vertiport operations with a heliport and VIP Lounge Terminal at the Dubai World Central (DWC) Airport’s-Dubai Helipark.

These three competing vertiport-based networks with competing UTM services will somehow need to be integrated within a common operating picture,  without compromising the business plans of the vertiport operators,while making space for new entrants – Eve Air Mobility and Falcon Aviation Services also plan to introduce the first eVTOL tourist flights from the Atlantis resort hotel at The Palm in Dubai in 2026.

Dubai is not the only city in the world where competing vertiport operators are developing UAM networks in parallel. Integrating them all will be a huge task and time is tight.

(Image: Shutterstock)

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