Infrastructure: Getting VTOLs off the ground

By 2023 we are expecting to see VTOL commuter services fully up and running. Uber is promising a proper commercial rollout of its UberAir service, priced similarly to its UberX service and will offer inter-city transport across Dallas, Los Angeles and a third unannounced city.

Both of these cities have a severe congestion problem and are clamouring for new companies to come in and revolutionise their transportation systems. But they are by no means the only two cities with severe traffic congestion.

A big reason Dallas and LA have been chosen as the testbed for the air taxi service is because they have a lot of helipads. Los Angeles has the seventh-largest number of helipads of any city in the world, with 41 dotted throughout the city. This makes the VTOL transport viable with multiple take-off and landing points.

Dallas has 27 helipads, with a lot located in the centre of town and at all of the key airports in the surrounding area.

However, these cities are a rarity. Normally, even large cities have only two or three. These include cities that are looking to attract air-taxi services. London for example is hot on attracting new, greener transport services, despite only having two heliports and one air ambulance-specific helipad.

Even cities such as Tokyo, that has the third highest number of helipads of any city in the world, will only use the helipads in the event of an emergency.

Whilst most of these VTOL projects are small and can technically land anywhere, cities and companies planning to launch air-taxi services will need an infrastructure with drop-off points, refuelling/charging facilities etc. This is why services such as Uber are pitching ‘Skyports’ as docking stations for its aircraft.

Before we see cities decked out with these ports and helipads, the demand for the service will need to be there, which means that cities with an existing helipad infrastructure will be the proving grounds for services like Uber’s.


How it is done now

We already have a touch point for how air taxis can help solve the problem of incredibly congested cities.

São Paulo is the fourth most congested city in the world according to Fortune. However, it is also the city with the most helipads. This has resulted in a booming air-taxi market, where a number of operators offering commuter flights across the city, making what could be an almost two-hour long drive in traffic a 12-minute journey.

Whilst it is not a direct replacement for other public transport services, still costing a premium over buses, taxis or trains, the helicopter commuting services are thriving and still have room to grow.

Whilst the air taxi talk has mainly surfaced over the last few years, São Paulo has been steadily growing this industry for around a decade. To make the service more viable, Aribus launched an on-demand booking app called Voom which allows you to hail a helicopter ride from one of the registered operators across the city as quickly as it would take to book an Uber.

Voom also extended its service to Mexico City early last year, widely considered to be the world’s most-congested city.

This system works for these cities as São Paulo and Mexico City had the infrastructure in place to accommodate it. With 215, São Paolo tops the charts for the largest number of helipads of any city whilst Mexico City is only slightly behind with 200.

The infrastructure is what made these services possible, but these are unique cases.


What does this mean for VTOL?

VTOL companies are smartly focusing the cities with good existing helicopter infrastructure to focus on and in which to operate. This is where you can expect to see the air-taxi service be most successful if regulators are willing to take on the task of overhauling their city’s airspace to accommodate them.

However, if the VTOL air-taxi model is to succeed in those cities that do not have the infrastructure to support it, cities will need to collaborate with VTOL companies to build one that suits the requirements for this new wave of transport. Thankfully, this is happening.

Germany, especially, is very keen to get eVTOLs flying in its cities as an effective and fast method of carbon-neutral transport.

The biggest VTOL projects recognise this and are in discussion with city planners and construction companies either to build or to convert specific heliports for their aircraft.

Uber specifically has revealed two concepts to solve this problem, the first being a landing area that can be fitted onto existing buildings. In concept art it shows off a simple conversion for car parks across the city to change the roofs to accommodate VTOL parking. If only everything were so simple.