UAM Landing sites - Where and How?
By Captain Mark Trotter
One of the biggest changes that Urban Air Mobility (UAM)will bring, apart from lots of flying cars, is many more landing sites dotted around our cities without you noticing them, except when you need an air taxi.
Just as skyscrapers allowed cities to use limited land more efficiently, Urban Air Mobility will take to the sky to alleviate congestion on the ground and improve your door-to-door travel experience.
In simple terms, these sites are the bus stops or taxi stands of the UAM world. They will be where you get on and off at the start or end of your trip.
As with all things aviation there are some key differences to your standard taxi stand. They will need to manage a similar experience but in a safe and approved way. The priority will be safety but at the same time the experience needs to be efficient and effective, otherwise we will lose the advantage that UAM can have over conventional ground transport – especially for short inner-city hops.
Thankfully, we have a great foundation for these landing sites (now often referred to as Vertiports) already in place with the conventional heliport/helipad regulations and industry experience. These have been developed from the early days of helicopter flight and the modern heliport has an advanced design and set of regulations that ensure a high level of safety. There will be a few fundamental differences when designing and building sites that can cater for both helicopters and UAMs. Some thoughts on these are:
- Size regulations – currently based on the overall size of the rotor and body. These can most likely be consistently applied but should be reviewed to ensure safety margins are maintained.
- Refuel or Recharge – Current heliports are normally structured for conventional turbine fuel refueling systems. Future UAM vehicles are likely to need electric or hydrogen recharging systems. Provision of suitable electrical and hydrogen supplies will need to be factored into the design.
- Passenger Facilitation – To ensure a seamless and enjoyable experience passenger facilitation will need to be fast and efficient. Security requirements will most likely vary from region to region, but fundamentally, the check-in, security and board period should be no more than 20 minutes before the flight. The Hong Kong Skyshuttle is good example of this. The flight is 15 minutes from Hong Kong Island to Macau. Check-in is 20 minutes before the flight. Other means to transportation will take from 1 to 2 hours depending on the mode. The main challenge will be how to apply this across all Vertiports regardless of size.
- Integrated System – For UAM to work effectively and scale up beyond the current limited helicopter networks, we will need to make use of our ability to integrate technology systems. This means being focused on automation and an end-to-end customer experience. Vertiports need to be managed like mini airports. All associated approvals and clearances will need to be catered for in the system integration.
The other key element will be location and scalability.
For location, this will need to be carefully studied for each city and aligned with the urban planning and future development strategies. Some locations will be obvious, i.e., Airports, CBDs but others will need to take in careful consideration of the population density and projected acceptance of UAM. Cities will need to focus on education of key business partners and working with them to establish an agreed development strategy. Vertiports will take up significant real estate and therefore need to be located strategically to ensure the needed passenger growth can be supported. The best way to ensure this is done correctly is to start the planning now and build a UAM landing site roadmap for a seamless Urban Air Mobility future.
The scalability element involves an assessment of what volume is expected and planning the size and capability of each site. This can be done in phases, like airports, it is easy to outgrow the space you have if future growth is not planned carefully. Scalability and size also have implications for build and ongoing management cost. A full assessment of requirements, from small community vertiports to large vertiports at CBDs or airports. How many parking/loading/unloading spots will be needed? How many vertiport staff to manage the process safely and provide the requirement emergency services? These are all questions that need to be considered, answered, and customized for each location.
The foundation we are inheriting from heliports and airports is an excellent starting point, however we will have different and unique challenges as Vertiports are introduced to support UAM operations. This is an exciting challenge and one that we can manage, but one that we must plan for and implement carefully and gradually.
In our next article Mark will discuss the UAM airways and associated concepts.