What regulations should vertiport developers know about, and how do they vary from region to region? Mark Broadbent reports
Regulators must determine certification requirements and processes for the emerging advanced air mobility sector (AAM, aka urban air mobility or UAM) and vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) vehicles, commonly dubbed air taxis. These relate to their day-to-day operation as well as the design, production, airworthiness and operation of the aircraft.
A vertiport is classified as an area of land or structure used or intended to be used for electric, hydrogen and hybrid VTOL operations including supporting buildings. (Another, less commonly used, term is vertistop, which describes a facility purely intended for boarding and discharging passengers and cargo, in other words without facilities for fuelling, maintenance, repairs, or aircraft storage).
The European Union
The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) was the first regulator to publish prototype technical specifications for vertiport design, in March 2022, issuing PTS-VPT-DSN to cover physical characteristics, obstacle environment, visual aids, lights and markings, and concepts for safe flight and landing.
EASA executive director Patrick Ky said: “The EASA guidance offers new and innovative solutions specifically for congested urban environments. One notable innovation is the concept of a funnel-shaped area above the vertiport, designated as an obstacle-free volume. This concept is tailored to the operational capabilities of the new VTOL aircraft, which can perform landings and take-offs with a significant vertical segment.”
Noise assessments will help vertiport developers ensure public acceptance
Ky continued: “Depending on the urban environment and on the performance of certain VTOL-capable aircraft, omnidirectional trajectories to vertiports will be possible. Such approaches can more easily take account of environmental and noise restrictions and are therefore more suitable for an urban environment than conventional heliport operations, which are more constrained in the approaches that can be safely applied.”
According to Ky, EASA will develop a full regulatory framework for vertiport design and certification, operations and oversight in co-operation with vertiport companies and eVTOL manufacturers.
In September 2022, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued vertiport design standards for the United States. The FAA said: “Initial operations will be much like helicopters today. As operations increase, we could have corridors for these vehicles as well as rules for communicating with air traffic control when necessary.”
In May 2023 the FAA released an updated AAM/UAM concept of operations (CONOPS). A central actor in the agency’s plan is a Provider of Services for UAM (PSU), defined as “the primary service and data provider for UAM stakeholders and the interface between the UAM ecosystem and the FAA. A PSU can be a separate entity from the UAM operator, or an operator can act as its own PSU.”
According to the FAA, “A vertiport is a designated area with the capability to support UAM departure and arrival operations. The UAM vertiport provides current and future resource availability information for UAM operations (e.g., open/closed, pad availability) to support UAM operator planning and PSU strategic deconfliction.”
The CONOPS continued: “UAM vertiport information is accessible by the operator via the federated service network and supplemental vertiport information may be available via the SDSP [Supplemental Data Service Provider]. The vertiport information is used by UAM operators and PSUs for UAM operation planning including strategic deconfliction and DCB [demand-capability balancing]; however, the vertiports do not provide strategic deconfliction or DCB services.”
The FAA continued: “As UAM operations evolve, UAM Corridors may be segmented and connected to form more complex and efficient networks of available routing between points.”
Skyports Infrastructure is working on the Dubai vertiport project
The CONOPS further noted: “As the UAM operational tempo increases, UAM operations may further evolve to support operational demand… The UAM Corridors may form a network to optimise paths to support an increasing number of vertiports; the internal structure of the UAM Corridors is expected to increase in complexity, and the necessary performance parameters for UAM participation may increase.”
Vertiports exchange information with the federated service network to facilitate the communication of situational awareness and resourcing information, the FAA explained. It said: “The PSUs make the aggregate vertiport information available for the operator to be aware of capacity and situational constraints present at the time of respective departure and arrival time. PSUs could potentially provide additional services with this information (e.g., suggested alternate vertiports, suggested alternate departure/arrival times).”
In the UK, meanwhile, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) intends to publish technical requirements for vertiports in late 2024. The agency issued a guidance document, CAP 2538, in May 2023 which it hopes will “lay the groundwork” for determining the most appropriate standards to safely accommodate VTOL aircraft – at either current licensed aerodromes/heliports or newly-created vertiports – ahead of drafting and consulting detailed specifications.
A CAA spokesperson told Airports International: “While we can’t comment on any individual AAM, vertiport, or ground ops projects, the CAA… continues to work closely with industry via working groups and innovation projects.”
In guidance document CAP 2538, the CAA says: “Before a [vertiport] licence is granted, we will need to be satisfied that the physical conditions on the manoeuvring area, apron and in the environs of the aerodrome are acceptable, and that the scale of equipment and facilities provided are adequate for the flying activities expected to take place.”
Working out adaptations for current infrastructure for eVTOL city operations is key
It continues: “In addition to the aerodrome characteristics, these requirements will include the demonstration of competence by the applicant to secure that the aerodrome and its airspace are safe for use by aircraft. Following the initial grant of a licence, our inspectors may visit each aerodrome periodically as part of their audit/inspection programme. The inspectors will assess compliance with requirements, audit the management of safety, and assess the competence of those responsible for safety.”
An application for an aerodrome licence must be accompanied by an aerodrome manual produced in accordance with CAP 168 Licensing of Aerodromes, to enable the CAA to assess the suitability of licence holders and their organisations against safety-related requirements.
The CAA explained further, saying: “The licence holder is required to maintain the manual and ensure it fully reflects the operations and is kept up to date. The manual should contain all the relevant information needed to describe this structure satisfactorily. It is how all aerodrome operating staff are fully informed as to their duties and safety responsibilities.”
Volocopter’s work at Cergy-Pontoise is intended to feed into preparations for the launch of operational vertiports in Paris and Rome from 2024
In CAP 2538 the CAA outlines roles and responsibilities for various AAM sector stakeholders. There is an extensive list of considerations for aerodromes and vertiport developers specifically.
The CAA instructs: “If the aerodrome is not currently licensed, with permission of the land-owner, apply for an aerodrome licence from the CAA in accordance with CAP 168. If the aerodrome is already licensed, contact your Aerodromes Inspector to discuss requirements for amending your licence to include VTOL operations.”
The CAA wants vertiport facilities to be what it calls “aircraft agnostic” to “allow consumer flexibility and choice, multiple revenue streams and future proofing” because eVTOL designs vary from multi-copters to lift-and-cruise and vectored thrust.
It says: “Wingtip clearance, main landing gear width, ground taxi vs hover taxi and blade configuration all need to be considered. The aerodrome should be aware of aircraft performance capabilities (for example battery life, holding time, crosswinds, turbulence, downwash, approach and departure profiles, G-forces for passenger comfort) from the VTOL operator/OEM.”
CAP 2538 outlines considerations for handling eVTOLs. Vertiports should be designed to be operationally diverse, taking in various use-cases across passenger, cargo and training operations, the document says.
Parking areas, including stands and remote parking, must be appropriately sized and suitable for the ground handling operations and necessary equipment: “They should be an appropriate size for easy manoeuvring of all VTOL aircraft, including both ground and hover taxi movements.”
The document notes: “If the operation will service interconnecting passenger traffic and transiting services, there should be considerations for easy and secure access between terminals and other airport facilities for passenger flow and efficiency.”
Guidelines for vertiports on top of existing structures
CAP 2538 advises vertiports to work with OEMs and VTOL operators to understand requirements for electric-charging infrastructure eVTOLs will require and have “conversations with power companies where additional power and/or outlets are required”.
It says: “Batteries stored on-site should be stored safely away from safety critical areas. The personnel who will handle/replace the batteries vs charging the aircraft need to be considered. As some VTOLs are being developed to be fuelled alternatively by hydrogen, conventional aviation fuels (Jet A1/SAFs or Avgas), or in a hybrid capacity, considerations need to be extended to cater for the diversity of aircraft operating at aerodromes and vertiports.” Adaptations to on-site fuel storage and utilisation may be required.
CAP 2538 says vertiports must have a Safety Management System (SMS) detailing organisational structures, accountabilities, policies and procedures to provide identifiable, easily-auditable and systematic safety management. Existing SMS will require updating, or writing in the case of a new vertiport.
The SMS will detail safety governance, identify hazards, analyse, assess and mitigate safety risks, and outline a safety training programme. There should be, according to the CAP 2538 document, “a clear internal oversight programme including accountable individuals, procedures, audits, inspections, non-compliance, corrective actions, and incident reporting”.
An emergency response plan developed in conjunction with emergency response departments to include events that may occur with eVTOLs is essential. Current licensed aerodromes seeking to integrate eVTOLs into their operations should update their existing plans accordingly.
Skyports Infrastructure is part of the consortium that will see the Vertical Aerospace X4 eVTOL fly into and within London testing future AAM infrastructure
Safety plans must be reviewed and tested on a regular basis. Agreements with external agencies that will respond in the event of emergencies must be created and appropriate equipment and PPE provided. Emergency responders must be given adequate information, instruction and training for eVTOLs.
CAP 2538 says risk assessments should consider the number and frequency of movements, the type of eVTOL movements, passenger numbers, the size and complexity of the response area, terrain and the local environment, emergency services availability and response time, and storing/handling hazardous materials for eVTOLs such as lithium-ion batteries and hydrogen fuel.
CAP 2538 advises that aerodromes/vertiports should engage with environmental health specialists to understand the impacts of noise, light and vibration on a local area: “Understanding this will be key to inform discussions on local spatial planning, local transport planning and with local communities. Development schemes may be required to undertake an Environmental Impact Assessment.”
A Volocopter 2X landing in front of the Cergy-Pontoise vertiport in November 2022
It adds: “Aerodromes and vertiport developers need to consider spatial planning processes. [They – the developers] should familiarise themselves with the planning process to identify how they can become involved and engaged or make representation should they wish. The success of many development proposals relies on thorough and positive collaboration between developers and local planning authorities. Planning consent is granted based on the proposed development’s compliance with national planning policies developed by central government, and local planning policies.”
Guidelines on markings, lighting and visual aids that identify the facility as a vertiport
CAP 2538 advises airports and vertiport developers “to set a vision of connectivity to and from the site which includes desired modal splits prioritising active and sustainable transport modes”.
It says: “Early engagement with the local transport authority should ensure that surface access prioritises and integrates well with surrounding walking and cycling networks as well as public transport services. This should include sharing provisional counts of forecast VTOL flights to understand consumer demand.”
It continues: “Developing a local transport plan with local transport authorities will set out connectivity priorities for areas. Stakeholders should share evidence with plan-makers and respond to consultations to ensure that these are formulated with adequate evidence on the potential for VTOL and vice-versa.”
Around the world
The pace of vertiport developments has accelerated globally. Singapore was an early adopter in 2019 with the German eVTOL developer Volocopter and UK company Skyports Infrastructure creating the world’s first working vertiport in Marina Bay.
Skyports has since worked in partnership with eVTOL developer Joby Aviation to test and define technology and procedures, signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Corporación América Airports and worked with Groupe ADP at a testbed vertiport north of Paris. In March 2023 Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum of Dubai approved the design for Skyports Infrastructure’s vertiport for the emirate.
Skyports London Heliport, just over a mile south of Canary Wharf, is an active test centre for vertiports
Given all the efforts under way globally, there is potential for different regulators to work together to achieve global consistency on regulations, processes and standards.
Mark von Motschelnitz, acting deputy chief executive of system practice and design at the New Zealand Civil Aviation Authority, told Airports International: “Vertiports are not currently specifically regulated in New Zealand, however we are participating in ICAO, FAA and other international engagement around this topic and have recently launched an Emerging Aviation Technologies Forum regarding aviation technologies that are likely to enter the New Zealand aviation system in the next decade.”
A November 2022 EASA and Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) includes collaboration on eVTOL regulations and safety. More such partnerships are possible as advanced air mobility matures.
A vision of future air transport in Dubai
Further reading: NASA Advanced Air Mobility
NASA’s Advanced Air Mobility mission aims to map out a safe, accessible, and affordable new air transportation system. The agency’s AAM Ecosystem Working Group is centred on understanding how vertiports might impact communities. This group has hosted online information sessions to support awareness. One of these, in December 2022, presented findings on public/community acceptance from a Government Accountability Office (GAO) study.
Alex Fedell, a GAO senior analyst, said: “[Respondents] told us that in order for the air mobility industry to be successful, it will need to convince the public that operations are safe, reliable, quiet and equitable.”
He continued: “This includes acceptance of new aircraft themselves, which involves proving the safety of the technologies as well as demonstrating an appropriate level of noise from the aircraft. It also involves the acceptance of new types of aviation services.
“According to the stakeholders we spoke with, acceptance of these services will require integrating them with existing transportation options, special consideration for the close proximity of some proposed services, and ensuring the public feels services benefit entire communities,” Fedell added.
On noise, the GAO research found respondents said the close-proximity operations of eVTOLs mean aircraft will need to be much quieter overall. Fedell said stakeholders reported the exact noise profile and its location are both important. New types of operations due to advanced air mobility may expose new people to aircraft noise, he added.
Fedell said stakeholders feel “it is important to avoid a public perception of AAM as a luxury item for the wealthy” which could undermine community acceptance.