This July Volocopter and ADP will start flight testing the aircraft and routes that will see the launch of the urban air mobility industry (UAM) in Paris at the 2023 Summer Olympics and Para Olympic Games. Jean-Christophe Dral, Commercial Lead France, Volocopter, speaking at the Paris Air Show, said certification of its aircrat by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) was on course for this year and five vertiports will be built at Charles de Gaulle and Le Bourget Airports, Austerlitz - on a river barge - the current Paris Heliport at Issy-les-Moulineaux and Saint-Cyr- l’École (Versailles).
According to a statement from both companies:
“Vertiport construction will start over the course of the summer, and by September at the latest, and be in full swing at the end of 2024. The five vertiports in Paris have a development schedule that allows for commercial launch in summer 2024….This month, an environmental impact study was submitted to the Environmental Authority, and will be followed by a public acceptance survey in the second half of 2023. These will form the basis for starting construction of the vertiport early next year.” Each vertiport will feature passenger terminals, with one to three takeoff and landing areas.”
While the Paris Olympics will be the effective global launch pad for the UAM industry and the issue of aircraft, route and infrastructure certification remains the largest short-term hurdle it was clear from all sectors of the industry at the Air Show that the looming issue of scaling-up, from a few experimental routes to full commercialisation, is now recognised as the next outstanding challenge.
The Volocopter/Group ADP trial services will not be one-offs, they will be a launch-pad for full-blown commercial services in Paris. And Volocopter will soon have competition. Another eVTOL manufacturer AutoFlight and Groupe ADP signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) at the show to allow for eVTOL “Prosperity I” flights from Pontoise Vertiport during the 2024 Games.
It is the speed of this scaling-up which is perhaps the biggest challenge for infrastructure and UTM service suppliers. As eVTOL manufacturers and operators seek to give their shareholders a return on their investment and take a dominant share of the early market stages, the ambitions of some manufacturers are almost unprecedented in aviation history. Archer, for example, laid out its plans for move from 650 aircraft produced in the first year of commercialisation to 2,300 a year, per year, after that, following its manufacturing agreement with Stellantis, one of the world’s largest car manufacturers.
The first UAM routes – in Paris, Rome, Osaka and Seoul – are being carefully developed by consortia comprising a range of government agencies and private companies, closely choreographed to allow the first services to scale in a structured way.
Just before the Paris Air Show opened, the South Korean government announced air taxi test flights will be trialled between Gimpo International Airport to the western district of Yeouido and an 8-km route between the southern districts of Jamsil and Suseo, both in Seoul, as well as two routes each in Gyeonggi Province and Incheon, a city west of Seoul. At the show, Hanwha Systems, Korea Airports Corporation and Urban-Air Port Ltd signed a Letter of Intent to develop integrated vertiport, UTM and eVTOL technology developments, as a further step towards full commercialisation.
But industry’s push to get certified aircraft up in the air earning money will increase the pressure on regulators and standards agencies to develop regulations and standards to support commercial operations at scale. Developing operational regulations in enough granular detail to allow for the rapid scaling up of eVTOL manufacturer’s business plans remains a huge challenge for regulators.
For over four years, FAA made limited progress in determining which certification path to use, “ according a June 2023 report by the US Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) during the Air Show. “….The Agency will likely continue to face challenges as it progresses through the certification process for AAM aircraft, including reviewing novel features and establishing new operational regulations.”
For regulators the big elephant in the room is certifying autonomy.
At the 2023 Paris Air Show Boeing’s eVTOL subsidiary Wisk launched its Generation 6 eVTOL, an autonomous four-seat aircraft it plans to have certified in 2030. And this, perhaps, was the biggest news of the show. If regulators do manage to certify this autonomous eVTOL within the next seven years that will open the door to certifying much larger autonomous airliners, providing air traffic management and airport organisations with a series of new exciting technical challenges and a timescale which is daunting.
Philip Butterworth-Hayes reporting from Paris Air Show 23.
Main Photo credit: Paris Air Show 23