Vertical/Virgin Consortium Wins Funds To Demo UK AAM Ecosystem

Virgin Atlantic and Vertical Aerospace are exploring establishing a UK joint venture to operate Virgin-branded eVTOL services.
Credit: Vertical Aerospace

A project to demonstrate the feasibility of a UK advanced air mobility (AAM) ecosystem has won funding under the third and final round of the British government’s Future Flight Challenge. 

The project will include flights of Vertical Aerospace’s VX4 electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) air taxi from UK airports in 2024.

A £9.5 million ($11.3 million) grant has been awarded to a consortium led by engineering consultancy Atkins and including Vertical, Virgin Atlantic, vertiport developer Skyports and UK air navigation service provider NATS. London Heathrow and Bristol Airports, the government’s Connected Places Catapult, Cranfield University and the Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG) at the University of Warwick are also part of the Advanced Mobility Ecosystem Consortium.

“Our road map sets out how air taxis could be in use in the UK by 2030, but a lot needs to occur for that to happen,” says Gary Cutts, Future Flight Challenge director at the UK Research and Innovation agency. “By bringing technical developments from across the aviation industry together into one network, and undertaking early demonstration in the real world, the Advanced Mobility Ecosystem Consortium could accelerate the timescale for AAM introduction by years.”

The project will demonstrate a UK AAM ecosystem using the VX4 and operated by Virgin. Two demo flights are planned: a cross-country flight from Bristol Airport to an airfield in South West England; and an urban flight from London Heathrow Airport to a “Living Lab” vertiport to be built and operated by Skyports as a testbed for end-to-end ground, passenger and air operations. The third, simulated flight will demonstrate connectivity between London City and Bristol airports.

The test flights are planned for spring 2024 to align with Vertical’s plans to have the piloted four-passenger VX4 certified and ready to enter service in 2025. In June 2021, Virgin signed an option to purchase up to 150 VX4s and agreed to explore establishing a joint venture with Vertical to develop a Virgin-branded UK short-haul eVTOL network centered on the airline’s London Heathrow hub.

The project enters the UK in the global race to be among the first nations to demonstrate and commercialize AAM services. Paris plans to demonstrate urban air taxis during the 2024 Olympic Games, and Japan is aiming for flights during the 2025 World Expo in Osaka, Kansai. South Korea is targeting commercialization beginning in 2025, and Singapore plans to begin commercial services in 2024.

Embraer AAM spinoff Eve Air Mobility will support the project as an unfunded partner, working with Skyports and NATS to incorporate Eve’s urban air traffic management software into the project. Partnered with the UK Civil Aviation Authority, a consortium led by Eve in March published a concept of operations (conops) for AAM in the UK, focused on urban air mobility (UAM) in London.

As part of the Atkins-led consortium, NATS will develop a conops for the safe integration of eVTOL operations into UK airspace through analysis and simulations ahead of the demonstration flights. Cranfield will lead vertiport capacity modeling to support infrastructure such as landside access, aircraft parking and AAM charging. The university will also contribute to development of an integrated scheduling service to optimize airspace and vertiport resources.

Applying its expertise in battery and electric vehicle technologies, WMG will collaborate with Vertical to integrate a smart diagnostic functionality into the battery charger for use in the test flights to enable fast charging for quick turnaround. The Connected Places Catapult will develop a multimodal transport demand model for the AAM, perform an economic, social and environmental benefits analysis and well as provide project management and community engagement support for the program.

“This consortium will help prove how we can deliver safer, cleaner and quieter air travel with the VX4,” Andrew Macmillan, Vertical director of strategy, said in a statement. “Our Living Lab will be a central component of the consortium, enabling Skyports and partners to demonstrate end-to-end operations and test the complexities of developing a commercially viable AAM network in the UK,” added Skyports CEO Duncan Walker.

Graham Warwick

Graham leads Aviation Week's coverage of technology, focusing on engineering and technology across the aerospace industry, with a special focus on identifying technologies of strategic importance to aviation, aerospace and defense.