Malaysia Airports vertiport study: will UAM get off the ground?

Malaysia Airports has announced that it will carry out a feasibility study examining suitable vertiport solutions for Sultan Abdul Aziz Shah Airport. Luke Christou examines whether this investment marks a more widespread introduction of vertiports making flying taxis feasible for airport connectivity.

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No vision of the future is complete without a skyline full of flying cars, zipping around our busy urban environments and transforming the way we travel. In the past decade, great strides have been made towards making this vision a reality. 

Helicopter designer and manufacturer AgustaWestland first introduced the world to electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft at the 2013 Paris Air Show.

These aircraft, made possible by significant advances in electric propulsion, can allow for take-off, hover, and landing vertically using electric power, and offer significant progress towards widespread urban air mobility services, such as flying taxis.

Since the AgustaWestland Project One helped to pioneer the eVTOL concept, hundreds more have followed. According to the Vertical Flight Society, more than 300 hybrid and eVTOL vehicles have been designed so far, as numerous players – from leading automotive manufacturer Hyundai to startups such as Volocopter – seek to capture the future UAM market.

Preparing airports for UAM

eVTOL technology has grabbed the airport industry’s attention, due to its potential to shuttle passengers back and forth between city centres. With airports typically located on the outskirts, taking to the skies would provide a speedier connection to the city than via road or rail.

To gather insight on demand, customer expectations, and deployment in the airport environment, Malaysia Airports has signed a tripartite memorandum of understanding (MoU) with vertiport infrastructure startup Skyports, and eVTOL manufacturer Volocopter.

Launched as part of the five-year regeneration of Sultan Abdul Aziz Shah Airport in Selangor, Malaysia, the collaboration will explore the potential deployment of electric air taxi services to shuttle passengers to and from the airport, as well as other locations throughout the region. 

First, the three parties will combine their expertise to conduct a feasibility study to explore suitable vertiport solutions. The study will consider factors such as demand, customer flow, and how to integrate urban air mobility (UAM) operations.

Skyports and Volocopter previously collaborated on the VoloPort, a prototype vertiport built in Singapore’s Marina Bay area in 2019. Credit: Voloport

“Malaysia Airports’ ambitions for future-proofing Sultan Abdul Aziz Shah Airport and implementing electric air taxi services throughout Malaysia align with Skyports’ ambitions to deliver UAM in the Asia Pacific market,” Duncan Walker, CEO of Skyports, said following the announcement of the MoU.

“The feasibility study will allow us to explore all the elements needed to create a future air mobility model that could be deployed across the region.”

Sultan Abdul Aziz Shah is one of many airports hoping to lead the way in eVTOL deployment. Nuremberg Airport in Germany has set itself the target of becoming an eVTOL hub in the next few years, while a consortium of companies – including Skyports – hope to establish an operational airport nearby Ireland’s Shannon Airport in 2022.

UAM deployment won’t be an easy ride

Deploying UAM services at major airports is the “holy grail”, according to Dr James Wang, Director of eVTOL Research and Innovation Center at Nanyang Technological University. However, those involved in the deployment of these services are in for a bumpy ride.

Wang, formerly vice president of R&D at AgustaWestland and the brains behind the Project One project, has watched the industry emerge over the past decade. Having worked with various companies in the eVTOL space through his consultancy business, Vtolwerke LLC, he believes we’re still some way away from the widespread deployment of air taxi services.

Current eVTOLs, such as Volocopter’s VoloCity, are typically only capable of flying for a maximum of 20 minutes, and only a handful have demonstrated the ability to do so, according to Wang. Even fewer have demonstrated the ability to fly with a human on board, while only a handful have produced full-scale models.

Then there’s the issue of certification. Before the vision of widespread air taxi services can be realised, any eVTOL aircraft must first undergo flight authorities’ stringent regulatory processes to verify their safety. While various industry leaders have taken steps towards certification, none have yet been approved for commercial flight.

You’re going to add these little electric vehicles in with the bigger aircraft. Managing air traffic is the hardest part.

Industry leaders believe certification could come within the next two years – US-based Joby Aviation expects to receive Part 135 air carrier certification from the Federal Aviation Administration by mid-2022, for instance – but there’s still a long way to go.

“Electric motor, battery… The technology has been proven to work in the electric car already. Now, we simply need to learn enough about them – Can we make them extremely reliable for flying? You still need a few more years to have them prove themselves,” Wang explains.

Deploying UAM services in and around the airport environment only adds to the challenge. While Covid-19 has cleared out skies somewhat, concerns have been raised in the past about our overcrowded airspace, which eVTOL deployment will only intensify.

“There are five terminals at Heathrow. That’s a lot of planes landing and taking off… Then you’re going to add these little electric vehicles in with the bigger aircraft. Managing air traffic is the hardest part, so I think it will take slightly longer for any country to be able to have UAM to fly to airports,” Wang says.

A step towards UAM deployment

The widespread introduction of vertiports still seems some way away. According to Wang, we might see limited flights offering sightseeing rather than transport by 2025, with small-scale passenger services in a select few cities certainly possible by 2030, but we’re unlikely to see a more widespread introduction of vertiports for at least another decade.

However, the Malaysia Airports study, and others like it, can certainly begin to answer some of the concerns that regulators and the general public have, and map out what will be required to successfully deploy vertiports and UAM services.

“You have to start somewhere,” Wang says. “By doing this, it could help to map out the route and test it to make sure it's safe.” 

As well as how flying taxi services might fare in the skies, the study will also provide further insight into how such services might work on the ground, such as check-in and departure, or battery charging processes, following on from Skyports’ successful vertiport prototype in Singapore in 2019.

Volocopter hopes to launch air taxi services in Singapore within the next three years. Credit: Volocopter

Given Southeast Asia’s dense population centres, it is also expected to be among the leading markets for UAM services. “The Southeast Asian market is one of the largest and more interesting ones for UAM due to its geographical layout and dense population,” according to Christian Bauer, CCO of Volocopter. 

Fortunately, the Asian market also provides the perfect testbed for these studies to take place, given the region’s status as an early adopter and the willingness of governments to encourage innovation.

The support of a major airport operator in the region certainly won’t harm the UAM market’s chances of getting off the ground either. Malaysia Airports’ interest in UAM, as well as the likes of United Airlines, American Airlines, and Virgin Atlantic (who between them have pre-ordered up to 600 eVTOL aircraft), serves as a vote of confidence that UAM services will eventually come to fruition.

“This shows confidence, or hope that this will work,” Wang says. “You need these people to believe in it.”