What Will Self-Flying Air Taxi Vertiports Look Like?

Boeing-backed Wisk Aero details its vision for automated electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft.

California-based Wisk Aero, the Boeing-backed (NYSE: BA) developer of a self-flying air taxi, doesn’t want to be left out of the conversation about vertiports—the facilities that will serve electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft.

So this week, Wisk released a “first-of-its-kind” report detailing how vertiports and related systems and infrastructure could better accommodate automated air taxis. 

The report touches on an issue that could make or break the nascent eVTOL industry. Experts have long said the planned business model for eVTOL air taxis will not succeed without permanent, established vertiports where these new, battery-powered aircraft can safely and efficiently land, takeoff, and recharge, as well as securely handle passengers and luggage. 

In fact, vertiports are already being designed and planned, with at least one expected to be completed by this fall in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, though the FAA hasn’t even weighed in yet on requirements. 

Just think for a minute about how airport operations and configurations are driven by the types of aircraft they serve. Now, extrapolate that to factor in how airports would need to be different if the aircraft were automated. The concept triggers several questions:

  • How would automated eVTOLs taxi at vertiports?
  • Who would act as the pilot in command (PIC) of a self-flying aircraft and who would maintain situational awareness (SA)?
  • What redundancies may be needed to maintain safety levels achieved by piloted aircraft?

Though Wisk’s two-seat air taxis will be self-flying, the company says a human will always “be in the loop,” ready to intervene if necessary—so-called pilot-over-the-loop (POTL) mechanisms. Wisk’s competitors—Joby Aviation (NYSE: JOBY), Archer Aviation, (NYSE: ACHR) and others—plan to launch on-demand services with onboard pilots flying their aircraft. 

This vision of the near future comes less than three months after Boeing announced a nearly half-billion dollar investment in Wisk—as it seeks to test, certify and manufacture a 21-foot-long eVTOL with a range of about 25 sm, plus reserves. Wisk and its rivals hope to create a new form of environmentally friendly transportation that enables passengers to fly on zero-emissions aircraft over traffic congested cities.

The report, co-authored by U.K.-based vertiport developer Skyports, points out that now is the time to consider “autonomous eVTOL integration” to “help future-proof the development of [urban air mobility] UAM aviation infrastructure.” Also, the document “serves as a basis for discussion as industry and regulators begin to consider the integration of autonomous eVTOL aircraft systems into the [national air space] NAS.”

Here are a few interesting details contained in the report.

Vertiport Automation System

Wisk envisions a vertiport automation system (VAS) that “would passively interface with the existing ATC traffic flow management system.” Active coordination would be facilitated by a flight operations center (FOC) which “serves as a conduit between air traffic control (ATC) systems and the VAS.” The VAS also would “interface with uncrewed aircraft traffic management (UTM) provider systems for UAM-specific routes through controlled and uncontrolled airspace.”

How Would PIC Work for Self-Flying Air Taxis?

The PIC is defined in the Wisk/Skyports document as “an individual, employed by the eVTOL aircraft operator, who has responsibility and control over the aircraft’s beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations.” PIC would assume “responsibility and control” beginning “when the aircraft doors close on departure, through takeoff and landing, and until aircraft doors open at the destination.”

The PIC would be located at the vertiport’s FOC, where they would “monitor the aircraft “and could “step in to remotely pilot” it, “if the need arises. This individual will directly communicate with the aircraft, vertiport staff, and ATC where applicable.” The FOC, the document says, “may or may not be co-located with a vertiport.”

Passenger Safety

“The FOC will maintain open communication channels with the aircraft’s passengers and monitor passenger well-being and activities throughout the flight.”

What if the availability of resources at the destination vertiport during the flight threatens to affect the ongoing flight plan? 

In that case, the report proposes that “the FOC and vertiport will communicate such changes to the PIC. Fleet management and/or the PIC will maintain SA of the aircraft throughout the journey and may make changes to the current flight plan or future scheduled operations.”

Emergency Procedures

Out-of-the-ordinary flight situations and emergency procedures “will be designed to safely land an aircraft as close to the original destination or takeoff point as possible.” 

“For each scheduled flight, the eVTOL fleet operator will identify en route contingency landing sites—vertiports, heliports, airports, and other prepared landing sites. These locations can be used for emergency diversions, delay mitigation-prompted diversions, or aborted landings to ensure continued safe flight and landing (CSFL).”

Taxiing

Because of limited space and tight dimensions at vertiports, PICs would not remotely taxi their eVTOLs to designated parking positions. Instead, “autonomous eVTOL aircraft will most likely require a tow or tug solution that transports the aircraft on vertiport taxi routes,” the report says.

Weight and Balance

Air taxis, including Wisk Aero’s eVTOL, will be small—seating two to seven people. Therefore maintaining precise weight and balance for each aircraft will be critical to safety. 

The report says passengers would be weighed before boarding. “After passenger verification, passengers and luggage may go through a non-intrusive security scanner and weight check,” the report says. “Both of these activities will be overseen by a vertiport terminal agent who can perform in-person check-in and security actions as needed.”

During boarding, staff might be needed to designate specific seats based on the weight of each passenger, according to the report.

Things to Keep in Mind

In general, eVTOL commercial air taxis in the U.S. are expected to be operated as commuter and on-demand airlines under Part 135.

Obviously, aircraft or fleet operators would be required to fly type certificated eVTOL aircraft listed on their FAA operating certificates. It’s worth noting that, so far, zero eVTOLs have been type certificated in the U.S., although Wisk, Joby, Archer, and others are making significant progress. Wisk, a privately held company, has not publicly offered a timeline for type certification of its air taxi or when it plans to begin commercial operations. 

Clearly, before this vertiport vision can become reality, eVTOL developers and the FAA have much to do. 

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