Podcast: Building Aftermarket and Infrastructure for Advanced Air Mobility

As advanced air mobility gets closer to becoming a reality, aviation is turning its focus toward building up the ecosystem needed to operate and maintain eVTOLs. In this MRO podcast, the CEOs of Eve and Skyports talk to Aviation Week editors about what vertiport networks will look like and how maintenance will fit into the equation.

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Rush Transcript.

Lindsay Bjerregaard:  Welcome to Aviation Week's MRO Podcast. I am Lindsay Bjerregaard, MRO editor for the Americas. There's been a lot of action recently in the urban air mobility market. As the Electric Vertical Take-Off and Landing Aircraft get closer to production. Including collaborations to begin building the infrastructure from which these eVTOLS will operate. Today we'll be talking about what vertiport networks will look like, how maintenance processes will fit into their operations, and how the aftermarket needs to prepare for the advanced air mobility landscape.

                                    Joining me today are Andre Stein, CEO of Eve, the Embraer X spinoff focused on urban air mobility. Duncan Walker, CEO of Skyports, which is working to design build and operate vertiports for advanced air mobility aircraft. And Graham Warwick, Aviation Week's Executive Editor for Technology. Thank you for joining me, gentlemen. So Graham, why don't we start out with you? I know you've done a lot of in-depth reporting on advanced air mobility. Could you maybe explain to our listeners what the main differences are between advanced air mobility vehicle types and how their engineering will affect maintenance compared to traditional aircraft?

Graham Warwick:       Well, this whole field of advanced air mobility, we started out talking about urban air mobility. But it's now grown to be advanced air mobility because it now includes urban, suburban, sub regional and regional type of transportation. All using essentially the same technologies, but in different ways. And those technologies are fundamentally electric propulsion, distributed electric propulsion in most cases, advanced flight controls and over time advanced autonomy as well.

                                    So what those do is they are enabling a class of air vehicle, in a market that today is fundamentally a ground vehicle market. So it's taxis, cars, trucks, buses, trains, metro rail, high speed rail. And these advanced air mobility startups are really targeting that transportation market. Which is today a ground transportation market. And they're offering this access to the third dimension to flight to basically, fundamentally to get over congestion, offer a shorter travel times.

                                    So what we're really talking about is, particularly as we stand now. We're talking about relatively short range vehicles, either battery powered or a hybrid in some cases. But fundamentally, electric powered vehicles with very sophisticated flight control systems that we would normally see in airliners, but are now down in four or five seat vehicles. And then this path that's being developed towards greater pilot assistance, remote piloting and ultimately autonomous operation when we get to scale.

                                    So I've been following this market for some time. And I've actually, my view of the challenges have shifted as we go through time. And I started out focusing on the technology and was it feasible. And I think that the manufacturers have largely answered that question. There are feasible vehicles in the 50 mile to 100 mile range, 15, 25 minute flights. So it really, was then can these things be certified? And we've seen the regulators step up and we see our paths to certification. By 2023, we should have several vehicles that are certified.

                                    And then I moved on to, is there actually a market? And will people want to fly in these things? And what we've seen in the last couple of years is the industry has really started to engage with the communities. Started to talk to the cities, talk to the regions about the transportation options and how aircraft could fit into a multimodal transportation network. And I'm now actually shifting my focus of challenges to scaling up. Because I think it's pretty clear now that we can begin these operations pretty much the way helicopters are today, but showing the energy savings from these electrical vehicles, showing the safety advantages, showing the noise advantages. And then hopefully by that, growing out of that traditional aviation market into a much bigger market.

                                    And my concern at the moment, it's really focusing down on the challenges that scale up involved and really not just about building a lot of vehicles, very affordably. It is about having the infrastructure to put those vehicles in. We have got to have air space that these vehicles can fly in. We have got to have vertiports that these vehicles can fly in and out of. And I think that really is where the next challenge comes. Is we can get this market started, but it's going to take a lot of investment and a lot of dedication to build out a system on the scale that we've imagined it. Whether it really does change the way that people travel.

Lindsay Bjerregaard:  Wonderful! So in terms of the infrastructure, I think Duncan has a lot of great perspective on this. Duncan, could you tell us what a typical vertiport might look like. And what types of spaces or equipment or staff will be needed to perform aircraft turnarounds? What will that system look like?

Duncan Walker:          Yeah, of course. So a vertiport will have a basic functions of an airport, as we know today, but adapted to this new form of obviously electrification, is going to need a lot of power to recharge the vehicles. We work across the spectrum with the vehicle manufacturers to understand their performance criteria, their concept of operations, their technical requirements, their anticipated customer journey. All of which is different as it is for some airlines today. And trying to drive both some commonality, but also flexibility up front. Because some vehicles will battery swap, some vehicles will fast charge. We're beginning to see the emergence of hydrogen as a potential fuel source.

                                   But generally, a refueling function a little bit more complicated than the airports we know today. Because there is no history to rely on. There is no standardization yet. It's going to have again, gates as we typically expect. And there's a number of configurations, which are very inefficient, which have space take is driven by regulation. So you can't squeeze it up too much. Typically, we look at three to four Gates per FATO or take-off and landing area. That is a function of how quickly we can move vehicles onto the space, how quickly we can move vehicles off the FATO, how congested the site is itself. Do the other gates need to be clear before we can start maneuvering vehicles around? What are the safety parameters around that? So a lot of configurations that you will see they probably are typical in aviation today.

                                   Traditionally, airports tend to be in areas where there's a lot of land. You can be quite liberal with your space take. You can have lots of nice two way traffic. You can have lots of separation. This industry becomes really successful if we're dealing in city centers. Where there's a lot of congestion, a lot of friction. City centers by their nature are space constrained. Typically, we find the best of the site of the more space constraint. Because it's in the densest of dense downtown locations.

                                   So it's always a trade off between what we would like optimized from a vehicle movement perspective. And what we are able to do from a repatriation and space constraints perspective. In a whilst we would always love a nice [inaudible 00:07:28] of for four gates, one FATO. It's not always a simple case of just put the obstacle down. It's what's the best of the compromises that we have to face. Then we have all of the air side staff, which everybody knows about.

                                   And I think the next difference positional airspace is high speed throughput. Not necessarily high volume throughput, as you might expect a Heathrow or a Changi or a LAX. But high speed throughput, people aren't going to be hanging around in vertiport terminals for a long time because it defeats the purpose of using a eVTOL. The purpose of using a eVTOL is to save time. And therefore we need highly automated functionality, weight checking, biometric check-ins security, clearance, safety briefings. All of these elements that make up the journey, to be done in a very quick, robust, great customer experience. But in a way that meets all of the safety regulations that we need to meet.

Lindsay Bjerregaard:  Sure. And so you had mentioned the idea of a lot of these operations happening in dense urban centers. And obviously, in bigger cities, certain buildings have heliports on top. There's an infrastructure already built out with that. Does Skyports see, the model for this being repurposing those types of structures or building new facilities from scratch? What is division there?

Duncan Walker:          We find very few existing urban helipads that are suitable for medium term eVTOL operations. The drivers for that are a few. One, the range of traditional helicopters with combustion engines is much higher than the Electric Vertical, Take-Off, and Landing. So typically, eVTOLs won't be landing, dropping off, reloading and exiting without some kind of recharging. So that recharging infrastructure has to be in place. It's not insurmountable, retrofitting in existing heliport, but it's often difficult getting the electrical capacity we need all the way to the roof of the building.

                                   The second piece of it is the ambitions of the Advanced Aero Mobility Space is volume. And these existing heliport are often emergency access, single FATO. They're not built for volume. Might be suitable for near term operations, get the market going. Absolutely, no problem with that. But medium term that they're not fit for purpose. The third problem. And I've stood on a lot of heliports over the last three or four years, rooftop heliports, is the customer journey to those heliports is often very bad. Because they've been designed for something different. They've been designed either for the occupier of the building and that alone, or they'd be designed for emergency access.

                                   Those journeys, you're often walking through a plant room going up an escape hatch. It's not a very safe environment on the roof, because it's not designed for public use. That's all fine, in very low volume utilization. But for the ecosystem to be successful, we need a degree of utilization, which is much higher than that. Therefore, the customer journey has to be safe, secure. You need to be able to bypass all of the other occupants in the building in a way that doesn't affect them. Long story short, it might be a way to get it going, but it's not a medium term solution.

Lindsay Bjerregaard:  Okay, wonderful! So then I'd love to get a little bit more into the actual maintenance model that we'll be looking at with eVTOLs. And Andre, since Eve is actually building one, you probably have some good perspective in this area. What type of maintenance models or intervals might we be looking at with these new advanced air mobility vehicles?

André Stein:                Oh, first of all, thanks for letting me talk here as well. It's always a great opportunity to share our view, and to listen as well. And I was listening to Duncan, and we're aligned on the way he sees it. So you're pretty much on the same page there. When you are talking about this new frontier for airspace. It's all about reliability. It's all about volumes, safety and making sure it is a good opportunity for the user to go from A to B, in a much more efficient way. So if it's not integrated, it won't work. And for the first time, I think since the dawn of aviation, we have the opportunity to create it together. When you are designing new aircraft, it's typically for airports that have been there for quite a while. And you need to adapt and evolve, and that's fine.

                                   But as Duncan said, now we have in one way the challenge, but the opportunity to create it together, relying on existing infrastructure to just start it over. And I agree that that's a way to go. But you can think together in both the vehicle side and the vertiport infrastructure. So we can really optimize the whole journey for the user to getting on board easily, and making sure everybody can do that. And that applies for the maintainability of the vehicle as well. You need all this big throughput. You didn't need all this reliability, if you're replacing your ground journey to move through air. We need to ensure that the aircraft will be there. And if the eVTOL is late or is delayed for some maintenance tasks, that won't work. Right? If you lose half an hour of waiting for it to be ready, it won't work. It defeats the purpose. So we need to leverage on everything we've learned.

                                   In our case specifically, we have been on that industry for half a century. So there's a lot to be learned there. And in a lot of the side of the industry that particularly deals with high utilization aircraft, we fill out the regional environment and apply that understanding, but changing some points. For example; now we are talking about a vehicle that cannot go to a far away base for heavy maintenance. We were are looking at something that a lot of it could be done online more and more. So that's a transfer, using data to have all the predictive maintenance in place. That will help a lot.

                                   We need to rely on things like platform based solutions to not necessarily concentrate everything, but to really have access to third parties and having that in a very seamless way. One of the things we've done for the industry in general, not only for urban air mobility, and that was another project that was accelerated inside EmbraerX was, is that you create a platform for maintenance where mechanics and operators could contact and exchange information and really expedite.

                                    The other interesting point, it's that, again, we have a unique opportunity to work together, even with other OEMs. And may create the industry together, and being really agnostic about it. So when you're looking on both solutions for maintainability, it's not only for our vehicle—we need to look in that across the board, for all types of different vehicles that will be out there and create that together. I mentioned about data exchange. Thinking about intervals, as I said, in a different way, as well as more and more with these vehicles are going to need to assure that there is infrastructure within the city. What's completely different than what you have today, again, on aerospace and aviation. And making sure that it is continuous.

                                   So it's not stopping the aircraft. You're talking about sometimes more than 5,000 cycles a year. Which, again, it's unique in the industry. So we need to think that. And we add the layer of the literification. Which again, it's something new to the industry including in terms of maintenance. How are you going to deal with this? It's something rather large. It's not a car battery that we're talking about. How are you going to deal with that? And that eventually needs to be replaced as well. We need to think on the whole life cycle of that. If you want to create a solution that's sustainable, it's not only about emissions. We need to make sure that this battery has a second life elsewhere. It could be in the Skyport itself.

                                   But there is a lot of news at the same time in the industry when it comes to an eVTOL and Graham touched on that. We are talking about very short range vehicles, but they are completely electric in some cases. And we are learning through the development of the vehicle. So how we address each one of these topics, and particularly this use of batteries, these very large batteries. How you make sure you have the right ground support equipment in place. How we are able to move that from one place to the other. It's not like you're getting that in the top of the building and moving that to the ground that easily. Right?

Lindsay Bjerregaard:  Absolutely. And then in terms of preparing for operation of these vehicles. I'm curious where we are in the timeline of eVTOL manufacturers like Eve working with MROs or regulatory authorities on getting everything into place. So is Eve already working on certification requirements for eVTOL maintenance manuals and technicians? And do you have a sense for where other players in the market might be in this process as well?

André Stein:               That's the point where I think we have some advantage there. Because one thing that we understand quite well, that when we're talking about the manuals and the certification of the whole process from manufacturing the vehicle to maintaining and servicing the vehicle, we need to engage with the regulatory authorities from day one. It's not something that we can leave for later, "Oh, let's do it. And I've figured out the most efficient way to do it and then we can engage the regulatory authorities.” Particularly, in a scenario like that, where a lot of the ground rules are not clear yet. The regulatory environment it's being created together with the vehicle and with the maintenance manuals and the service and support solutions.

                                   So we've already started, as I said, needs to be day one. We do have a bit of a potentially, a better understanding of how to do that, on how to create that. And you mentioned about manuals, but thinking about it, not only from the regulatory perspective, but on the type of mechanics that will be out there. People that grew up in the digital age. So we need to have the tools, not only for the training, not only for the manuals from the regulatory perspective and make sure that you have a certifiable manuals, but how you reach this new generation of potential mechanics. And how you give the information at their fingertips when they need it. It's not only about providing a nice setup for training. It's about providing that info with all potential new tools, like augmented reality, for example; to have that, so you are seeing that at the same time. A lot of decentralization. And the more you decentralize, more important, more relevant having the data at your fingertips and being able to exchange information becomes.

Lindsay Bjerregaard:  Sure. And then in terms of digitalization, I'm curious, obviously I think the goal with a lot of these vehicles is to eventually fly autonomously. So, Andre or Duncan, maybe, how do you think that digital tools are going to play into the autonomous operations of these vehicles and how the turnarounds will happen at vertiports and that sort of thing?

Duncan Walker:          Yeah. I'll have a go at it from the ground perspective. And I'll be interested to see if it aligns with Andre's view from an air perspective. I mean, when you take the pilot out of the loop, but you're still moving passengers around, there's a missing interface. Particularly, in a vehicle which hasn't got air hostesses or air hosts and all the things we’re used to when traveling by air at the moment. I think that places more responsibility on the operator of the ground infrastructure than there would be with the pilot. So traditionally pilots, person responsible for the flight, they are going through all the safety checks. They are the ultimate source of responsibility. Does this vehicle go, does it stay on the ground because of some kind of issue?

                                   Now, you can automate a lot of what a pilot does in terms of pre-flight checks, in terms of running systems logs, running flight plans, running weather data, running routings, running interfaces with air traffic control, or a UTM as it will be. But there's things that you can't fully automate like people. And you still would've embark a passenger. You've still got to make sure the vehicle is not filthy because someone spilled their drink on the way in. You've still got to have a human in the loop that is making rational decisions based on what they can see in front of them—not what the system can tell them.

                                   So, the way we see it working is very much having a pilot in the loop to start with. And that's an extra level of safety and a point of interface between the ground and the air. When that pilot moves, there's an operational responsibility on the ground handlers, whether that's the airport owner or whether it's an MRO type functionality. Which frankly, doesn't really exist today because we're flying autonomous drones, but really once you start putting people into those vehicles, you've got to make sure that the safety latch on the door is clicked. You've got to educate the customer because they may not have flown in this kind of vehicle before. So I think the hand off, the responsibility to hand off, becomes even more important than when you've got that extra level of safety, which is a pilot.

André Stein:                Absolutely! And again, I’m really enjoying listened to Duncan and seeing that you are moving towards the same direction, a lot of the aspects. And that when it comes to automation, we agree on that field that we will start with a piloted aircraft, not only from the regulatory aspects, but even from the centers from the passenger. It's really a unique proposition. People are already afraid of flying, never mind not having a pilot in front of them. How are we going to tackle that? How are we going to make sure it's not only safe—and it needs to be very safe—but perceive it as safe by the community, by the regulatory authority but by the user as well?

                                   So that seems to be a great way to start. Making sure the technology is available. And it does have its unique challenge, versus a lot of the things we’ve already seen, going towards automation like the ground transportation. We won't have anyone crossing in front of the vehicle in the sky or anything like that. But we are talking about different types of speeds. And one point that Duncan touched on as well, it's the whole journey, again. It's one thing to have the aircraft flying autonomously. If you look on a current aircraft, they are all but automatic, if not autonomous. There is so much that the pilot actively needs to do if everything goes right. A lot of it, it's not responsible necessarily. It's really more automatic than autonomous. But it is there, if the fight goes right, you go from A to B in a very seamless way. But you need to address that.

                                    And one of the exercises, I think interesting to share what we’ve done on that side, because we were thinking of solutions to make sure that the latch is closed, for example, just using your example. It's very easy to think about solutions that will work with someone that has perfect sight or perfect hearing. But you need to make sure you have all that happening for everybody. Right? So we brought people with special needs on board for mock-ups to understand how they get in and out of the vehicle, make sure that's an easy path, even if you don't have anyone around to help with... again, it becomes a very relevant part of the equation.

Lindsay Bjerregaard:  Wonderful! Well, we're just about out of time, but to wrap things up. I'm curious in terms of the timeline. Graham, Andre, Duncan, either of you feel free to time in on this. How long do we realistically have until we start seeing these eVTOLs flying and until we need to have these vertiports operating?

Graham Warwick:       Well, I'll jump in just on generally on the industry that I think we're hearing a lot of talk about 2023, 2024 for the beginnings of commercial service. But we have to remember that is very limited numbers of vehicles, limited routes in key cities. Sort of like a helicopter operation, but a with a more efficient vehicle, and then we move up from that. And I think one of the…both Andre and Duncan have hit on this. We do have an opportunity here to create a complete system. Everybody is at the moment talking together of the manufacturers, the regulators.

                                   These vehicles are incredibly sophisticated. They're going to have health management capabilities built into them from day one, which we can take advantage of. So, and then of course with electric, they don't have the criticality of a helicopter, we can bring a different approach to maintenance. But in order for this to work, we have got to work with everybody talking, the regulators and the manufacturers and the operators and infrastructure providers. So, yes, 2023 to get something started, but we have then got to scale up.

Duncan Walker:          I totally agree with Graham. We're building for 2023 launch in Singapore, hopefully similar in Paris. We are building for exactly that initial launch, but not scale. Of course, we anticipate scale, we've got future-proofing, but it's not going to be 10,000 vehicles in the city dominating a network, day one. It's a, what we think quite a rapid scale up, but a scale up over time. What excites us about this industry is there's now on the relatively near term horizon, some visibility of operations.

                                    The conversations with vehicle manufacturers that we endlessly have with Eve and others we work with, is here's a bunch of stuff we know, and we can plan for. Here's a bunch of stuff we know we don't know and can plan for. And there's also a bunch of stuff that neither of us know, because no one has had an autonomous vehicle flying around, interfacing with an autonomous taxi through a high volume, low size vertiport in a city center. That kind of stuff has to meet the regulation requirements. It has to be safe, number one, fundamental. Beyond that, actually there's a lot of latitude of things we can do. And it's a real great opportunity to push the boundaries of aviation, push the boundaries of automation, push the boundaries of customer interface, but as we're building it from scratch.

André Stein:               Yeah, no, absolutely! I think we are talking about different times. That there's the very beginning of the operation that, it might happen very soon. And there is a scale up, there is when are they going to became an autonomous? And all that do have their own unique challenge. And the way to future proof that it's exactly right—beginning with a lot of understanding of what's out there already. So sometimes using existing infrastructure, for example; leveraging lessons learned from markets like Sao Paulo that has a lot of air taxis going on with helicopters today so we can understand a thing or two about the traffic management side of the equation. Understanding everything that's going in the different aspects of the industry. So we can not only start, but grow and with safety as the first requirement.

                                   So we can make sure you are providing a solution that's…I wouldn't say even as safe as, but safer than anything that's out there. Right? So that's the goal, to make sure we are providing an option. So you can enjoy that third dimension as Graham said, as soon as possible, in a very safe code. And it will be in different rates, in different countries. You are seeing some countries already looking at it, and to become one of the early adopters. And because a lot of this regulatory environment, it is related to the [inaudible 00:27:51] of the country regulatory environment specifically, or sometimes quite often the city.

                                    And sometimes not even about the regulatory, it’s just about some of the perception. Things like noise, for example, which could be quite a roadblock for this industry to grow. If you are not quieter than helicopters, it won't cut. And it's not a clear cut regulatory issue. It's not like there is a level that you need to hit and that's it. It is something you need to collaborate with the community to understand how we can create that and scale that up without creating more problems. We want to create more solutions, not more problems for the community.

Lindsay Bjerregaard:  Wonderful! Well, unfortunately we need to wrap things up. But thank you so much gentlemen, for sharing your insights with us today. It sounds like there's a lot of exciting infrastructure and maintenance developments in the market. I'm looking forward to seeing what's to come. Hopefully by 2023, we will have a lot of action to look at. Listeners if you have any comments, feel free to contact us at [email protected]. You can download and subscribe to Aviation Week's MRO Podcast on iTunes. Thank you for listening and for joining us.

Lindsay Bjerregaard

Lindsay Bjerregaard is managing editor for Aviation Week’s MRO portfolio. Her coverage focuses on MRO technology, workforce, and product and service news for AviationWeek.com, Aviation Week Marketplace and Inside MRO.