With the rise of passenger drones gaining momentum globally as some of the biggest aviation companies join start-ups to create the first commercially viable electlric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) vehicle, an Australian company has been working behind the scenes to lay the groundwork for a network of ‘vertiports’ to accommodate what is expected to be a personal transport revolution.
Skyportz, a company founded and led by Clem Newton-Brown, earlier this month revealed the design for the first vertiport in Australia to service the emerging electric air taxi industry, identifying Caribbean Park, an office precinct located in Melbourne’s east, as one of the frontrunners in the new race to conquer the skies.
Skyportz has collaborated with Contreras Earl Architecture, a company with a flair for futuristic design, and others including aviation consultancy to70, future-focused global planning consultancy ARUP and Melbourne-based helicopter services operator Microflite to create a concept design for the proposed Caribbean Park facility.
Melbourne may have heard all this before, with Uber Air announcing in 2019 that it had chosen the Victorian capital as its first international market outside of the US with plans for 1,000 commercial flying taxies to be in the air and ferrying passengers across the city by 2023. Those plans were abandoned when Uber sold its loss-making aviation division Elevate at the end of 2020.
However, Newton-Brown, the Skyportz CEO, says the concept remains viable with hundreds of passenger drones currently in development around the world.
“These aircraft are not science fiction,” Newton-Brown tells Business News Australia. “There are 300 currently in development, including some of the biggest aviation companies in the world Boeing and Airbus working on prototypes. The frontrunners are likely to get certified for commercial use in the next couple of years.”
Australia is at the forefront of these developments, with Sydney-based start-up AMSL Aero last week announcing a $23 million investment from institutional investors, including St Baker Energy Investment Fund, backing the company’s hydrogen-powered Vertiia prototype to bring it to closer to commercial production.
Skyportz has identified about 400 potential sites for vertiports across Australia, securing option agreements with property owners that Newton-Brown says will make Australia development-ready to deliver the necessary infrastructure once the regulatory framework for air taxis is in place.
“I am working on the basis that the aircraft are coming,” says Newton-Brown. “Initially these aircraft will replace helicopters and land at heliports, but to fulfil their potential they will need lots of new landing sites that we could theoretically achieve because the aircraft are quieter, smaller and less intrusive than helicopters.
“I am working on the basis that governments will want to encourage this clean green revolution in aviation and mobility. To do that, they will be setting up new rules and regulations for vertiports as opposed to heliports and we’ll be able to put a vertiport in more places than a heliport.”
Skyportz is anticipating the first eVTOL aircraft will be commercially certified to take passengers internationally by 2024.
“Electric air taxis will be a new era in aviation where clean, green and quiet small aircraft can take people to places they want to go, be it work or leisure,” says Newton-Brown.
“The question is whether we can get the first aircraft to Australia and that will depend on policy support. I am trying to put together the ecosystem to attract the aircraft here because there are lots of cities around the world that may be better-use cases that manufacturers are focusing on.”
The autonomous future
Among the new developments in the eVTOL space is Google’s Wisk, which will be a completely autonomous craft.
“These will have an added issue of navigating air traffic management which needs to be quite mature to handle autonomous flights,” says Newton-Brown.
“Most of the current prototypes are designed to be piloted because of the perception of safety and because they can fly just like a helicopter does at the moment. They will be first but certainly most of them are being designed to remove the pilot at some stage and it could take a bit of time for that to happen.”
Skyportz is initially eyeing city fringe sites for the early-stage development of its vertiport network.
“These include industrial land and shopping centre rooftops and carparks because the clearer the air space around them, the easier it is,” says Newton-Brown.
“What will happen though is that once we start operating from those types of sites, the community will start calling for vertiports to be located in more convenient locations.”
Newton-Brown describes signing up to Spkyportz network as a ‘no brainer’ for the property market, although he concedes not all sites currently on its books are not guaranteed to become a vertiport.
“We generally don’t pay to take an option on properties because we are helping property owners unlock a potential new source of income for their sites. It is just a mutually beneficial relationship and that’s why we have so many people already signed up.”
Skyportz is not anticipating a capital raising at present, but Newton-Brown says this will come later as the industry edges closer to launch.
“We’re not a capital-intensive business at the moment, but at some point, when the time is right to build a network, we will be seeking a major investment to activate the sites, and that could come from the likes of major infrastructure investors,” he says.
Skyportz is buoyed by preliminary interest at government level to establish a framework for the industry. The company has also held talks with south-east Queensland regional councils including Brisbane, Gold Coast and Moreton Bay for the potential to have a network operating for the 2032 Olympic Games.
“We see great potential for a network of sites in south-east Queensland,” says Newton-Brown. “The Olympics is a two-week sporting event in 10 years’ time, so it’s not the basis for a business, but with investment in infrastructure ahead of the Games there is an opportunity for governments to get on board and showcase the technology.”
The Civil Aviation Safety Authority in Australia has already approved a number of drone delivery services in Australia.
“From a policy perspective, there is no doubt this is coming,” says Newton-Brown. “A lot of people think this it is a fantasy – the Jetstons with flying cars. But the aircraft are coming, there is policy support, and the property industry is currently the missing piece of the puzzle.”
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