SKY-PORTS AND WIND-FARMS
In this article we'll be taking a look at 'skyport' infrastructure - the networks of mini-airports being designed to support a new generation of small, electric aircraft. We'll also make some suggestions as to how this clean infrastructure might be financed, taking inspiration from offshore windfarms.
NODAL INFRASTRUCTURE FOR SUSTAINABLE AIR TRANSPORT
Skyports are also known as vertiports (short for 'vertical airports') owing to the ability of the electric air vehicles that will operate from them to take-off and land vertically - like a helicopter they don't need conventional runways, and therefore require a footprint more akin to a helipad than an airport. The electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft that use them will carry cargo and/or passengers, might have a human pilot on-board, someone controlling them remotely or fly autonomously.
Whilst the majority of attention (and capital) to date has focused on the alluring eVTOL aircraft we're starting to see take flight around the world, much less attention has been paid to the supporting infrastructure that will be needed to enable useful networks of these relatively short-range electric aircraft to commercially operate. And that's a shame, because they have the potential to be truly transformative. Peter Shannon of Radius Capital summarises well in this article the key benefit of building nodal rather than linear transportation networks. This slide highlights the key advantages of a nodal skyport network remarkably well:
Think of vertiports as the harbours of the sky and eVTOL aircraft as the ships that bounce between them. The sea and the sky do not need to be maintained, unlike a road or railway. Nor do they permanently connect only the two points they are laid between. The cost of connecting two points by air is largely a function of distance and little else - without the need for tunnels or bridges commercial air travel has transformed the world by largely making the cost to fly between any two points in the world roughly the same, assuming the demand exists to fill the aircraft plying the route to profitable capacity.
The ride-sharing giant has been captivated for some years now by the potential of leveraging their expertise in the provision of data-enabled, high efficiency ground mobility services in the air. Their Elevate team brought the attention of the world to the potential of eVTOL aircraft with their 2016 whitepaper Fast-Forwarding to a Future of On-Demand Urban Air Transportation, Four years on it's still worth looking at what that paper says about vertiport infrastructure:
The greatest operational barrier to deploying a VTOL fleet in cities is a lack of sufficient locations to place landing pads. Even if VTOLs were certified to fly today, cities simply don’t have the necessary takeoff and landing sites for the vehicles to operate at fleet scale.
From harbourside developments inspired by heliports to the repurposing of rooftop car parks or highway-intersection terminals - there's much in the Uber whitepaper that's still very relevant and we'd highly recommend reading it in full.
However, key decisions about vertiport locations are based on data. Planning the most logical routes and seamlessly facilitating complex multi-modal journeys based on terabytes of mobility data is Uber's MO - but there's one big problem at present, that many of us are becoming a little too familiar with...
THE COVID-19 SPANNER IN THE 'URBAN' AIR MOBILITY WORKS
Planning transport infrastructure is always reliant on having an accurate picture of demand, and pretty much every model we had before the cornovarius pandemic hit, is next to useless right now. The way we move about the planet has changed unimaginably in the first half of 2020. The trillion-dollar question for air mobility pioneers is just what the 'new normal' will look like, and frankly - nobody knows if our behaviours will slip back into familiar patterns or will have irrevocably changed.
Developing a city’s required VTOL infrastructure will require a data-driven understanding of current transport demand and modelled future patterns of commuting.
We're going to need a lot of data to interpret what new habits are formed as the world works through and emerges from the impacts of Covid-19. One thing's for sure - the pre-pandemic driver for eVTOL networks of avoiding urban congestion is not a powerful selling point when there is...no urban congestion. We're already seeing a shift in language away from 'Urban' and towards 'Advanced' or 'Regional Air Mobility' from the industry.
Still, the advantages of a nodal air transport network remain unchanged, the impact is likely to be limited to re-planning where the most viable routes might be. We might in fact see that non-contiguous commuting patterns and a reluctance to cram into mass transit systems make inter-city air taxi operations more attractive a proposition than they had been previously. Regardless, we hope that by the time the first eVTOL vehicles are certified for commercial passenger transport operations in 2023-25, that the changes to our travel behaviours will have become fairly clear and there'll be new patterns in mobility data to support vertiport location selection.
We won't get into the technical detail of skyports in this article, but instead focus on who's going to pay for them. It's a tricky one because not only are the aircraft and network all unproven at present, but there's no business model nor guarantee of returns. This all makes raising capital for developing unproven transport infrastructure, challenging.
If we look at the nascent air mobility industry itself first - eVTOL aircraft manufacturers have a capital intensive task on their hands already - designing and building never-before-seen aircraft of an entirely exotic type. This, along with the perhaps greater challenge of doing so to the satisfaction of regulators defining the rules on-the-fly, looks set to drain even the healthiest of balance sheets (which is Joby Aviation's, in case you're wondering). Consider also that there's probably no revenue in sight for vehicle developers until commercial operations begin.
With aircraft certification set to cost in the region of $1bn+ per aircraft, not even Joby's $720m pot of Venture Capital cash is likely to have much 'spare' for building-out the infrastructure without which their aircraft will be pretty useless.
Uber might have the balance sheet for it, with some $24.7B behind them, if they decided to bet the farm on air taxis, and could persuade their shareholders that it was better business than their ground-based ground taxi empire. Whilst they're certainly very engaged in defining vertiport design and specifications, it's still unclear as to whether they intend to directly fund their development.
If we assume that a viable vertiport network might reasonably need to consist of a minimum of 10 locations and that these might cost an average of say $10m each all told (based on Lilium's projected price range of €1-15m), we're talking about investments in the region of $100m plus for a small network that might for example cover California's Bay Area, London and the South-East of England or a slice of Central Europe. For larger networks with mainly urban deployments we might easily be looking at investments in the hundreds of millions of dollars for a viable sub-regional network.
WHALE HUNTING IN THE SKIES
Hence we're talking about big-ticket infrastructure-scale investments, and the industry will have to approach the sorts of heavyweight funds whose pockets are deep enough to entertain such investments. Governments, private equity, infrastructure and pension funds seem like immediately relevant candidates. And here's where the wind farm analogy (finally) comes in.
In the early 2000s offshore wind farms were a nascent technology, albeit one (unlike eVTOL aircraft) based largely on a proven technology - megawatt scale wind turbines - with which at least some investors were starting to become familiar. The problem for leading offshore wind developers like Denmark's Orsted was that they understood the technology enough to be sure large offshore wind farm projects were commercially viable. There was an immediate opportunity (helped by generous government subsidies), but as the projects grew to a size which justified the development of 5MW+ scale turbines, the capital requirements for a single project *phase* might easily come in north of €1bn+. With large transmission assets being required that were as big as offshore oil platforms on their own, huge onshore and offshore AC-DC converters only amped up (excuse the pun) the risk, and Capex requirements.
PROVE THE MODEL YOURSELF, FIRST
Offshore wind developers had modelled energy requirements and wind resource, had a pipeline of viable projects but lacked the balance sheets to realise them. So they began a process by which they'd convene project consortia, initially taking on large chunks of the financial risk themselves. They would build a wind farm - prove the technology and business model - and then divest the assets to pension funds, infrastructure funds and other financial institutions.
Some innovative regulatory instruments helped, such as the UK's 'OFTO regime' that allowed transmission assets like cables and transformer stations to be unbundled and owned by a separate operating company. For the developers this meant investment could be recouped and they could start to recycle capital and move on to the next project. Over time as financial investors became more familiar with the technology and able to understand the risks involved in building and operating these complex infrastructure projects (and more importantly the stable returns they were getting on their investments), the institutional capital started to flow to them.
Each project helped the technology and industry mature at the same time, so the risks and associated costs reduced. Developers found themselves more able to fund larger projects with less impact on their own balance sheet - instead focusing on optimisation of the projects and progressing the technology - new foundations, bigger turbines even floating wind farms far out in the open ocean.
PACKAGING UP VERTIPORT NETWORKS INTO PROJECTS
We suspect that if vertiport infrastructure is to really be built at scale within the next decade, a similar model might need to emerge. Early on, whilst eVTOL aircraft are unproven, technological and regulatory risks high and the money 'dumb' (or smart, depending on your perspective) - the industry will have to finance or at least co-finance projects until they're operational. If they can then divest assets from an operational air taxi network and recycle that capital into new projects, we could see vertiport networks get built quickly, and the associated technologies mature fast enough that the cost per passenger mile can quickly reduce down to the levels that enable running the sorts of high throughput networks envisaged.
It's notable that the best funded eVTOL vehicle manufacturer, Joby Aviation, doesn't appear even to want to operate their own vehicles - preferring instead to partner with Uber and push this operational risk to others. They certainly haven't been vocal (in public at least) about wanting to stump up billions of dollars to build out a proof-of-concept skyport network in the Bay Area.
Similarly Lilium, fresh from a Series C fundraise that's rumoured to have seen the company raise about half of the c. $500m they were rumoured to be seeking in Q1 '20, just published their own view on vertiports and they're explicit that they expect third parties to pay for them - at an estimated €1-15m each. It's unclear as to whether they'd insist on stations they operate from being Lilium-branded or whether the company would be happy to operate alongside other company's vehicles. To date they're notable by their absence from the Uber Elevate programme and for a vertically integrated strategy - aiming to design, build, manufacture, own and operate their Lilium Jet aircraft. They're even creating their own digital platform, including an app for passengers to book flights, that will presumably compete directly with Uber Air.
Beta Technologies have a vastly different vision however, and can boast something as rare as hen's teeth for an eVTOL developer - a paying customer. In United Therapeutics they have a cargo-carrying use case and (though details are not publicly disclosed) a deal that would appear to include funding for vertiport infrastructure to support their stunning Alia aircraft. They're vastly different to the heady architect's renderings you'll see in a Lilium presentation or Uber Elevate concept video - essentially being a collection of shipping containers with some scaffolding on top that supports something that looks remarkably like a conventional helipad. You can see the company's Founder Kyle Clark take us on a tour of a prototype facility in the video below:
The charging from used electric vehicle batteries could be a particularly smart idea, negating the need for high bandwidth connections to an electricity distribution network. Making off-grid, rural nodes in an aerial transport network viable could really help scale an eVTOL network across locations that might require intermediate stops to reach and recharge, but that might not otherwise supply sufficient demand to justify several million dollars worth of shiny skyport investment.
SKYPORTS, PLAIN AND 'SIMPLE'
There's one (almost) pure-play company in this nascent market - London headquartered Skyports - who have already raised a £6m Series A round of VC funding and opened satellite offices in Singapore and Los Angeles since being founded in 2017.
Investors in the round included Deutsche Bahn Digital Ventures, whose parent company are the largest railway operator and infrastructure owner in Europe, and the second-largest transport company in the world - carrying some two billion passengers annually. Co-investors in the round were Groupe ADP who operate Europe's second busiest international airport, Charles de Gaulle, and 25 others. Specialist air mobility fund Levitate Capital and the investment arm behind Ryanair Irelandia Aviation complete the very well qualified list of participants.
The company's plan is to design, build, own and operate networks of vertiports for air taxi and cargo drone operations worldwide, and they're rumoured to already have snapped up several prime rooftop locations in London, Los Angeles and Singapore.
The team stole a march on the entire industry by unveiling a physical vertiport in Marina Bay last year (pictured above) in partnership with Volocopter. The pop-up prototype coincided with flight trials of the VoloCity aircraft. Feedback on the structure has been fed in to a second prototype that's reported to be under construction and en route to somewhere in North America later this year. More will follow in Europe and Asia within 12 months. Rollout is expected in Los Angeles first, followed by Singapore and potentially other sites in Asia all by 2023, with Europe following in 2024.
So £6m looks like enough to build something like four prototypes and build a lean team to do so - that's looking like a pretty efficient use of capital given all we've looked at. We'd expect a much larger funding round, perhaps as early as H1 '21 to support their next crop of skyports.
Skyports want to offer an end-to-end solution and are undertaking to do everything from site selection and acquisition, through design and build of vehicle agnostic facilities to running all the airside and landside ground operations.
Their pitch is to go to eg. public authorities together with vehicle developers, as they've done in Singapore in a joint-venture with Volocopter, and provide an end-to-end transport solution. That's a true nodal network transport system proposition - and if put alongside investments in high speed rail or new road infrastructure - could well prove a very attractive proposition to public and private money.