Electric aviation is an innovative field that is rapidly developing to meet both consumer demands and climate-friendly goals for aviation stakeholders as well as reimagine new use cases for aerial mobility.
Compared to conventional aircraft that are powered solely by internal combustion engines, an electric aircraft’s propulsion system is either partly or entirely powered by an electric motor. This means that electric aviation has the potential for zero-emission flights with significantly reduced noise levels and, potentially, lower operating costs.
Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) combines these technologies with new ways to offer air travel and to provide air traffic management into a safe and efficient aviation system for transporting passengers and cargo within urban and suburban areas, as well as between cities and airports.
Gaël Le Bris, WSP USA vice president for aviation planning and senior technical principal, has been at the forefront of electric aviation and AAM as a viable transportation option, helping aviation stakeholders evaluate and implement the latest technologies in electric air travel, assessing new opportunities and solutions for transporting travelers quickly and sustainably.
“Our focus is on assisting aviation facility operators, local governments, and other stakeholders to get ready for the next step in aerial innovation with realistic plans to enable air mobility for all and to incorporate these technologies for the benefit of our communities,” Le Bris said.
One of the latest steps WSP has taken in this field is the development of the Transportation Research Board Airport Cooperative Research Program (ACRP) Research Report 243, dubbed Urban Air Mobility: An Airport Perspective. Released in February 2023, this report is a comprehensive examination of the emergence of Urban Air Mobility (UAM), particularly the industry’s impacts and emerging opportunities for airports.
This report also follows up another study that WSP developed last year, which was ACRP Research Report 236: Preparing Your Airport for Electric Aircraft and Hydrogen Technologies. This served as the first practice-ready guidance document to airport practitioners on the matter for the TRB, a division of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.
“These are the first-ever guidebooks on the planning, design and operational aspects of advanced air mobility and electric aviation for airports and vertiports that are accessible to the aviation community,” Le Bris said.
Delivering the Vertiport Infrastructure
AAM will leverage both existing and new assets to provide on-demand and scheduled aviation services. This could involve turning general aviation airports into community mobility hubs for vertical and short takeoff and landing (V/STOL) aircraft, and adapting rooftops and parking lots to accommodate vertiports. These facilities will have to be connected with ground transportation networks to provide first- and last-mile solutions.
According to Le Bris, vertiport development is an ongoing conversation that sits at the intersection of several different disciplines, from aircraft design to flight operations to urban planning and more, with a strong community engagement component.
“You also have a myriad of different emerging aviation stakeholders,” Le Bris said. “For instance, utility and hydrogen providers will need to join long-term aviation planning efforts. Also, many aircraft manufacturing startups that are coming into this field are not necessarily familiar and integrated with the mechanisms that have taken decades to develop with fixed-wing commercial aircraft to ensure successful aircraft/airport compatibility.”
One facet of this conversation is about micro-weather forecasting. This is about predicting small-scale inclement weather situations, such as winds around high-rise buildings, and the technology being developed in this field will be crucial for small electric aircraft that will operate in the lower airspace with potential influence from “urban canyons” effects.
“With the perspective of higher-intensity operations at small facilities accommodating VTOL passenger aircraft, we need to develop ways to make these operations robust and bring the right information to the pilots to assist them with tactical and real-time decision-making,” Le Bris said. Artificial intelligence and advance sensor technologies are being developed as a tool towards micro-forecasting as the vertiport conversation continues among stakeholders and the Federal Aviation Administration in terms of regulatory policies.
Electric charging and hydrogen infrastructure systems are currently not eligible for traditional federal grant programs such as AIP (Airport Improvement Program) or VALE (Voluntary Airport Low Emissions), and the implementation of electric aircraft will impact traditional airport fuel revenue streams as well. Discussions are being held under the leadership of the U.S. Department of Transportation to identify policy needs.
There are more than 100 electric aircraft projects in development, many of them being designed for intra-city air taxi services and regional aviation. Some projects feature large uncrewed aerial systems (UAS) for emergency and medical services as well as freight transportation. In addition, smaller UAS (sUAS), also known as drones, already provide a broad range of services from aerial surveys to last-mile small freight deliveries for parcels, food and medication.
Due to the limits of current battery technologies and the use cases under consideration, most electric passenger aircraft designs are for smaller vehicles, with two-to-six-passenger capacity for on-demand or commuter services. Most have VTOL capabilities, or at least STOL capabilities. Some projects also expand the electric aircraft concept to larger regional aircraft with more conventional capabilities (or CTOL) with 19 to 30 passengers and more. Progress in batteries and fuel cell technologies are expected to help expand the range and capabilities of these vehicles.
Earlier this year, WSP delivered the new master plan for the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas, Texas. This included a proposed redevelopment of the existing vertiport facility to accommodate the next generation of electric VTOL aircraft and provide connectivity with other modes on the ground.
WSP included provisions for a vertiport in the recently completed San Antonio International Airport Master Plan and is also finishing the master plan update for the Philadelphia International Airport that will have provisions for a vertiport in the immediate vicinity of the passenger terminal area, Le Bris said.
“Our vertiport approach in the Philadelphia International Airport master plan update is to leverage future plans for a consolidated rental car parking garage and ground transportation center. Its rooftop can provide an ideal location for a scalable vertiport that can be sized depending on the reality of the future market,” Le Bris said.
Early applications of electric aircraft may impact smaller airports and existing heliports first. As new vertiports are built, the AAM network will grow between these different facilities to bring air mobility services as close as possible to consumers and their final destination.
There is an opportunity to optimize the use of underutilized general aviation airports, especially at the early stage of AAM, and to enhance mobility options at the local level. For travelers taking a flight to a farther destination and using AAM to reach a larger airport from their neighborhood, electric aircraft should be a fast and convenient operation enabling them to literally fly directly and over traffic congestion.
Airport operators should assess this emerging demand and determine the best way to address it. For capacity, safety and security considerations, many commercial service airports accommodating eVTOL for on-demand mobility might want to consider a “landside” vertiport, which would be separate from their main passenger terminal complex.
Such vertiports could be conveniently located on top of their parking garage or consolidated rental car facility, while lower-volume airports and facilities served by regional air mobility connecting may elect to use their existing airfield and terminal apron.
For Le Bris and his team, part of the planning process for these projects is to build different planning scenarios for these emerging technologies, as opposed to more traditional forecasting methods.
“Scenario building is kind of an art requiring a deep qualitative understanding of the market dynamic and the way aircraft are used to respond to it, compared to traditional forecasting which is more data-centric and model-focused,” Le Bris said. “For most aviation planning projects, historical data are typically available to create robust projections to the future. However, the history of AAM has yet to be written. Also, there is still uncertainty on the operating cost of these machines with, for instance, ongoing discussions about the FAA certification pathway for these products. Ultimately, costs will influence air fares that will drive the demand along with availability.”
“In order to address these challenges, we derive realistic scenarios from both local and national factors. Most importantly, we make our solutions scalable along with demand-based triggers and recommendations on how to implement them,” Le Bris added. “We don’t pretend to have a crystal ball on what can’t be reasonably predicted today, but our clients instead receive robust playbooks with scalable concepts that are based on reasonable market realities.”