Elisabeth Bernitt, Alastair Macgregor, Suzanne Murtha, and John Sulsona AECOM
Ready for takeoff: preparing electric aircraft for launch
March 16, 2022
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  • Powered solely by electricity, electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing (eVTOL) aircraft represent the next frontier in aviation innovation. Experts Beth Bernitt, Alastair MacGregor, Suzanne Murtha and John Sulsona discuss this next wave in aviation and what it could mean for travel, equity, climate change and our power grid.

    In just over 100 years, we’ve made great advances in aviation — from flying people around the world to sending astronauts to the moon. However, those advances come at a cost: aviation is responsible for introducing an average of 7.3 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere each year and contributing to climate change. Fully electric aircraft known as electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing (eVTOLs) is the next great aviation leap and could help blunt this impact. These new aircraft take off horizontally like helicopters and fly vertically like traditional airplanes and hold the potential to transform the aviation industry.

    With the speed of a race car, eVTOLs are fully electric aircraft that can quickly connect travelers to their destinations without harmful greenhouse gas emissions. Considered a possible alternative for automobile, rail or regional airplane travel, eVTOLs have the potential to reduce roadway congestion and advance economic development, since they can take off from untraditional locations, easing connections between rural and urban locations.

    However, before we can fly off into the future, we need infrastructure and regulatory adjustments to help speed adoption. This includes specific maintenance facilities for these aircraft equipped with the required power for rapid charge batteries as well as hubs for passenger accessibility. Federal, state and local regulatory changes will be necessary to incorporate eVTOLs into the transportation network and for safety. Given the cost, climate and connectivity benefits, such efforts have the potential to reap significant rewards.

    We’re highlighting the opportunities created by eVTOLs and address some of the measures needed to help this innovation take flight.

    What makes eVTOLs different from airplanes and helicopters?

    Initially known as tiltrotors in the military, eVTOLs are a cross between an airplane and a helicopter. Constructed using the latest aviation technology including highly sophisticated single-pilot avionics and advanced lithium battery technology and in some instances tiltrotor type powerplants, there are major differences between eVTOLs and traditional aircraft.

    Most notably eVTOLs are battery powered and can be charged from clean energy sources, providing the potential to reduce carbon emissions resulting from flight. While eVTOL have a shorter range than traditional aircraft, they can effectively provide intercity and intracity transportation — recently, an eVTOL flew 150 miles on a single battery charge.

    Nimbler than an aircraft, eVTOLs are cheaper than a helicopter and are being designed for widespread public use. At operational maturity, eVOTLs could cut a typical one-hour train or car commute to a 10-minute “hop” for around the same price as an UberXL or Lyft, while reducing roadway congestion. The aircraft will also improve connections for rural communities making it a faster and easier commute to larger cities for work opportunities, shopping or to have goods delivered.

    eVTOLs and traditional aircraft are similar in one key aspect: adherence to safety. Before going into service eVTOLs must pass the same rigorous aircraft certification process as every other public transport aircraft. While this process can take years, it ensures each aircraft component meets or exceeds the safety standards needed for safe flight and that the thorough certification process is in place for the pilots and mechanics that fly and maintain the aircraft.

    Are new air terminals required?

    In short, yes. Two passenger transportation models are currently under consideration: one based on so-called vertistops, designed for short trips in urban locations; another designed for longer, intracity trips with vertiports.

    Some manufacturers and infrastructure developers are considering developing freestanding terminals, while others would place these facilities atop existing infrastructure like parking garages, where structures allow. Developing standardized vertistop and vertiport models for multiple eVTOLs aircraft would reduce costs and enable rapid market development. Standardization would also enable state-specific adaptation, for example, seismic retrofitting in California or hurricane fortification in Florida.

    Our team has created a prototype that is lightweight and replicable, delivered as a kit of parts that can be enlarged are needed by simply adding another bay.

    What demands will eVTOLs place on our energy grid?

    With each charging eVTOL’s airframe potentially consuming more power in 20 minutes than 10 homes on a summer day, these aircraft require substantial power draws from the energy grid. Similar to the broader electric vehicle sector, with the introduction of the International Electrotechnical Commission 61851 standard for electric vehicle conductive charging systems, the advanced air mobility industry must consider measures that allow the utility companies and potential hosts to plan for evolving market needs, including battery type and proprietary charging methods on the energy grid.

    For long-term economic viability, we should also plan for new energy sources such as fuel cells, which could reduce peak demand on utilities. The system could also be designed to support wider communities’ energy needs. For example, making use of the onsite energy system as a grid asset when eVTOL demand is low.

    How will we integrate eVTOLs into our existing transportation regulatory network?

    Like all modes of transport, the eVTOL network must connect into the wider transportation system. While the regulatory process is multi-layered and complex, the first step toward integration is establishing national flight and safety standards.

    NASA is taking the lead on this process, developing harmonization guidelines that will be administered by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Cities and states are also considering their own eVTOL flight standards and regulations. Our specialists are currently helping to develop national standards, and this combined with our experience serving local markets will help municipalities, manufacturers and developers understand and incorporate the unfolding national, state and city regulations.

    Vertistops and vertiports will require their own permits, with reference to FAA regulations as well as state and local rezoning and permitting requirements. Recognizing this, we’ve developed a unique tool to concurrently track permits across all sites, expediting the approval process and enabling infrastructure to be completed when the eVTOLs are ready to fly.

    Seizing the potential

    Advancing this new means of flight and ensuring the process unfolds in a safe, strategic and sustainable manner will require collective work from the industry — manufacturers, developers and designers, partnering with all levels of government. Done correctly, eVTOLs will connect rural communities, decrease greenhouse gas emissions and democratize fast and efficient air travel, transforming how we travel and move goods and potentially even how our economy grows.