AAM Is Bigger Than Just Aircraft, Panelists Advise

Stakeholders discuss how eVTOLs can be integrated, l-r, Adam Twidell of OneSky, Christophe Lapierre of Luxaviation Group, Juliana Kiraly of Eve Urban Air Mobility, Diego Magrini of aviowiki, Damian Kysely of Skyports Infrastructure and Bernhard Fragner of GlobeAir.
Credit: Mark Wagner/Aviation Images

GENEVA—Advanced air mobility (AAM) vehicles may be the aviation industry’s shiny new object, but there is more to consider before they become commercially viable—not the least of which is the ground infrastructure that will support them, AAM stakeholders say.

The availability of launch and landing sites, the integration of electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing (eVTOL) vehicles in the air traffic control environment, electrical charging capability and community acceptance were among the challenges that stakeholders described during an AAM panel May 24 at EBACE.

AAM vehicle developers “are not only working on the certification, production and delivery of these eVTOLs,” said Juliana Kiraly, business development lead for Europe with Eve Urban Air Mobility. “In order to be able to deliver these in 2025-26, we needed to work with infrastructure developers, energy companies, with communities on public acceptance. It’s a huge thing that we are doing right now. We need to think about the whole ecosystem.”

The FBO division of Europe’s Luxaviation Group plans to develop ground infrastructure for AAM vehicles as it pursues a growth strategy based on building and acquiring new facilities. But supplying electricity to recharge eVTOLs conducting frequent flights will be a challenge, said Christophe Lapierre, Luxaviation Group head of strategy and president of business aviation support services.

“The electrification is a bit hard, not only at the facility but [with] everything that is upstream—the microgrid and the connection to the grid—that’s where a lot of the challenge stands,” Lapierre said. “For us in aviation it’s not something that is visible. We do all this and we’ll get acceptance only if the main benefit is perceived as being sustainable. All the provision of the power, of the energy needs to be integrated under that scope, otherwise we will fail.”

Lapierre and other panelists concurred that existing FBO and airport ground infrastructure will host AAM traffic, at least in the near term.

“We see it as an evolution,” Lapierre said. “When we know what it takes to phase in a new aircraft, open new routes, open a new facility for an FBO, it takes a lot of time. Beyond the passion, we need people on the ground. Then we’ll have to confront the economic models with the pace of the regulation, of the customer demand, of the infrastructure building up. That’s why we strongly believe that it will be leveraging the existing [infrastructure] that is there today.”

According to information presented by data company aviowiki, there are roughly 80,000 existing landing spots eVTOLs could use, including 30,500 airport and vertiport locations with ICAO or FAA codes, 23,000 heliports “with no official mentions” and 26,000 air strips. Even with those sites, however, the aviation system will have to transition from its current reliance on voice-based communications between pilots and controllers to automated air traffic management, said aviowiki founder and CEO Diego Magrini.

“How do vertiports talk to aircraft?” Magrini asked. “It’s not going to be on VHF [radio]. The digitization of aviation needs to progress at a very fast pace. In five years, we’ll probably start to see some forward-thinking authorities approving commercial operations. But we cannot have dispatchers and pilots reading Notams [Notices to Air Missions] before every 90-sec. flight between Walmart and the playground. You must know if that [landing] platform is occupied, if the charging capability of the vertiport is the right one. The systems need to be agnostic to the aircraft.”

Panelists expect that AAM flight operations will be offered by helicopter, executive jet and charter operators as well as regional airlines and current drone operators.

“The interesting inflection point will be when we start seeing some level of autonomous operations because it will stop being about pilots; it will start being about how can you run and operate technology remotely,” said Damian Kysely, Skyports Infrastructure head of Europe and the Middle East. “That’s where existing drone operators will come into play, where they will be eating into the aircraft operator market because they will have 10 years of experience operating autonomous or automated aircraft, albeit a different category.”

Kysely said Skyports’ drone-delivery company, which has deposited COVID-19 test samples and other medical materials in remote areas of Scotland, aims to eventually transition from operating drones weighing 35 kg (77 lb.) to automated aircraft carrying passengers.

Bill Carey

Based in Washington, D.C., Bill covers business aviation and advanced air mobility for Aviation Week Network. A former newspaper reporter, he has also covered the airline industry, military aviation, commercial space and unmanned aircraft systems. He is the author of 'Enter The Drones, The FAA and UAVs in America,' published in 2016.