Electric avenues

posted on 14th March 2023
Electric avenues

The emergence of eVTOLs may provide an interesting market opportunity and revenue stream to airports and regions around the globe. Mark Pilling talks to Canada’s VPorts, one of the main infrastructure players

As part of the drive to diversify revenues, airports around the globe are catching on to the idea that electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft could be a business opportunity.
To be more specific, airports are looking at locating or welcoming an eVTOL ‘vertiport‘ in or near their terminals to allow the transfer of passengers, goods, or medical items.
The generic industry term for eVTOLs and their operations is advanced air mobility (AAM). Over the past few years, eVTOL manufacturers have sprung up like weeds, backed with millions from investors eager to cash in on this new technology. Some of the prominent names are Joby Aviation, Volocopter, Wisk Aero, Lithium and Eve – among dozens of other start-ups. eVTOLs operate almost identically to helicopters, the main difference being that they use electric power to hover, take off and land vertically and are considerably quieter.
While there is understandably a great focus on the development of eVTOL aircraft, their arrival is just one of the three critical pillars needed to bring them into service, Dr Fethi Chebil (Chief Executive and Founder of VPorts, a Canada-based business created to design, construct and operate AAM infrastructure) told ARGS.
The second pillar is providing the ground infrastructure to enable eVTOL operations. The third is the air traffic management side, enabling eVTOLs to integrate safely and efficiently into the existing airspace systems, said Chebil. His firm will offer services that cover both of these pillars in AAM.

Dubai AAM centre
At the early December 2022 Middle East & North Africa Business Aircraft Association (MEBAA) show, VPorts, the United Arab Emirates General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) and Mohammed bin Rashid Aerospace Hub (MBRAH) signed a landmark agreement to create what they claim will be the world’s first AAM Integrator Centre.
The AAM Integrator Centre will be built at Dubai South close to the new Dubai Al Maktoum International Airport, which is becoming an increasingly busy cargo hub and could one day take over from Dubai International Airport as the main air gateway in Dubai.
VPorts has signed a 25-year exclusive lease agreement with MBRAH, renewable for a further 25 years, to establish the AAM centre on a 37,000 sq m site within Dubai South. The project, which represents an initial investment of US$40 million over three years, is expected to generate $7 billion in direct revenues in Dubai and Abu Dhabi combined over the next 25 years and create 1,500 high-quality direct jobs.
Development and construction of the AAM Integrator Centre will start in 2023 with the aim to begin operations and conduct its first flight test in 2024.
The centre will be an eVTOL terminal close to Al Maktoum International Airport and the expanding cargo and business zone that is Dubai South. It will feature an apron with space for about 12 eVTOL landing and take-off pads.
Announcing the deal, Dr Chebil said: “With this milestone agreement, Dubai has underlined its leadership to the advanced air mobility sector. This is a landmark day that brings future mobility one step closer to reality.”
Dubai is a strong backer of AAM. “GCAA’s strategic plan is to build a sustainable and innovative cluster for the advanced air mobility ecosystem to thrive and grow this new entrant mode of air transportation globally from a hub right here in Dubai,” said Saif Mohammed Al Suwaidi, Director General of the UAE’s General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA).
“As a leading civil aviation organisation, we are reshaping the regulatory landscape to leverage the presence of the principal project partners in Dubai to enable innovation and to foster AAM-related technology and know-how capacity building in the UAE and across the world,” said Al Suwaidi. “We aim to build an efficient and sustainable framework that supports the growth and integration of AAM.”

Phased development
The partners have designed an initial eVTOL-only airspace corridor which bends around Al Maktoum International Airport to a dedicated eVTOL flight testing area and goes from ground level up to a ceiling of 7,000 ft, said Dr Chebil. The corridor has been designed so that it does not interfere with the airport’s operations. “The support of GCAA has been very important in assigning this dedicated airspace for AAM,” he said.
VPorts will operate this airspace in addition to the vertiport, with VPorts responsible for all the costs of development and operations, said Dr Chebil. The initial revenue stream for VPorts will be eVTOL manufacturers and operators testing their aircraft, he added. The aim is to foster the global growth of the AAM industry and accelerate the certification of eVTOL aircraft.
“Authorities from the region and around the world will be able to take advantage of the AAM Integrator Centre in Dubai to build a regulatory framework for the benefit of their own jurisdiction, therefore increasing global efficiency and the adoption,” said Dr Chebil.
When eVTOLs are certified and the operational procedures for safe and efficient airspace usage are laid out, the next step will be to develop commercial operations. Initially, it is expected this will be the carriage of cargo and goods, moving on to passengers in time, flying between a network of vertiports in the UAE.
“Our initial growth strategy is based on the regional transportation of goods and the efficient movement of patients, organs for transplants and medical equipment,” said Dr Chebil.
The AAM partners envisage by 2030 a network of AAM corridors and vertiports extending to all major industrial areas across the UAE. The network will focus on locations that optimise multimodal transportation connectivity, including Dubai South, Jebel Ali, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah and Ras Al-Khaimah.
“Logically, the first places to set up vertiports are existing helipads,” noted Dr Chebil. “Industrial and cargo areas are also excellent options to consider. We look forward to collaborating with each Emirate to define the location of dedicated vertiports, safety and security regulations, flight corridors, urban integration, and business community engagement for this important undertaking.’’
In the coming months, VPorts will work with an extended partner network to engage with key strategic players, including eVTOL manufacturing, flight simulation and training, regulators, air navigation service providers, technology service providers, operators, electric charging manufacturers and urban planners to explore every angle of the Dubai project.

Investment phase
Having signed this significant deal to establish the vertiport network in the UAE, Dr Chebil is turning his attention to raising the money to develop the Dubai and other projects. “Funding is the challenge and the business goal right now and over the next six months. It is natural to see money going to develop the aircraft, but at some point we need to think about the infrastructure.”
NEXA Capital Partners, based in Washington, DC in the US, will lead the initial investment round, assembling a consortium of investors already active in the AAM sector.

Vertiports spring up
In addition to its Dubai ambitions, in November 2022 Québec-based VPorts announced a consortium that plans to create the first international AAM corridor between Syracuse Hancock International Airport (New York, USA) and the VPorts vertiport in Mirabel, Canada.
This corridor will foster the establishment of an AAM ecosystem for full commercial cargo transport operations using eVTOLs. Test flights are planned this year. The consortium features VPorts, NUAIR, Syracuse Hancock International Airport, Aéro Montréal, Innovitech, the Unmanned Aerial System Centre of Excellence (Alma) and Helijet International.
“There are currently over 5,000 underutilised regional airports throughout the US,” said NUAIR Chief Executive Ken Stewart. NUAIR (Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Research Alliance) is a New York-based non-profit organisation with a mission to safely integrate uncrewed aircraft systems (UAS) into the US national airspace, enabling scalable, economically viable commercial drone operations.
“The development of this international AAM corridor between Syracuse, NY and Montreal will help lay the foundation for regional air mobility operations for those underutilised airports, assisting with cargo deliveries and strengthening US supply chains,” said Stewart.
Syracuse Hancock International Airport aspires to reconnect communities who have been previously cut off from economic opportunities due to a lack of traditional transportation infrastructure.
Furthermore: “This undertaking, which will sustainably connect communities in Upstate New York and beyond, firmly aligns with the SRAA’s goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through the electrification of transportation-related technology at Syracuse,” said Jason Terreri, Executive Director of Syracuse Regional Airport Authority, which operates Syracuse Hancock International Airport. “Syracuse is one of the first airports in the US to include AAM infrastructure planning as part of its masterplan.”
Dr Chebil sees the pioneers in the USA, Canada and UAE as just the start of he AAM wave. “We see airports and airlines moving in this direction, with the ground services players a little further behind,” he said, although the latter is an ecosystem that will need to be created around eVTOL operations.
“AAM will enable airlines and airports to expand their markets. Whether it is cargo or passengers, AAM will offer another way for airports to expand their service or for airlines to offer an extended local network,” said Dr Chebil.
VPorts has an ambitious strategy to build and operate 1,500 vertiports around the world by 2045. AAM is certainly a topic that all aviation players will be exploring in the coming years, with an increasing number of airports assessing whether a vertiport can become part of their business arena.