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On Vertiports, Navigation Data and Facilities Planning

“Infrastructure should not try to kill you if you blink. They should be forgiving.”

Rex Alexander, Five-Alpha LLC

As part of a VFS panel at Heli-Expo 2019, Rex Alexander of Five-Alpha LLC extrapolated from his 40 years of piloting experiences, including as an emergency medical service pilot, to highlight some key points about the infrastructure to support (or dare we say, hinder) eVTOL operations. In particular the lack of data critical for autonomous operations.

Vertiflite has a fuller report on all the speakers including SAFRAN, Bell, Airbus and others, but Alexander’s comments (about half-way down) on infrastructure stand out. Most draw on the example of the USA, but similar issues will exist in other countries.

  • UAV and aircraft developers must understand the regulatory environment surrounding vertiports, and where gaps exist when it comes to data, regulations and standards.
  • Key organisations having oversight of vertiports include the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and, in the US, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the departments of transportation in each state, local municipalities and local fire marshals.
  • Local authorities often have more oversight than national government as the vast majority of heliports (certainly in the US) are privately owned and the number of public use heliports is quite small, especially away from airports.
  • Currently there are no vertiport design standards in the US, but the FAA is showing a willingness to work with industry groups and the standards association, ASTM International, to develop a suitable standard. ICAO is also looking at ASTM standards.
  • Any new vertiport facility should be designed with growth in mind so it can accommodate eVTOL aircraft of various sizes and performance characteristics, as well as support strong traffic growth in 5 – 15 years.
  • In the US, air carriers flying scheduled services can only land at a FAR certified airport, but companies flying charter operations can land at any adequate facilities, which don’t need to comply with FAA regulations.
  • National databases of aviation facilities are incomplete and out of date. E.g. in the US, there are 5,869 heliports in the FAA database, with 664 of them public-owned and only 60 of them public-use. In addition, the FAA has authority over only one US heliport not at a major airport. Consequently, “The FAA cannot protect private airspace. Period.”
  • There are an estimated 1,900 hospital heliports in the US that don’t appear in the FAA database, and so there is no official FAA record of their location: “If you don’t know where these heliports are … how do you know what to avoid?”
  • Reference aircraft models are required to help facility designers size facilities – heliports are generally designed to meet the flight performance of the aircraft that are going to be using them; performance characteristics for the currently 170+ electric aircraft projects in development are unknown.
  • Costs to convert existing infrastructure (e.g. buildings or sky-scraper rooftops) to vertiports by adding charging infrastructure, and fuel and fire protection systems to meet fire code may be prohibitive. It may be far cheaper to build new facilities.
Urban structures modify airflow around it causing eddying of vortices on the lee side and forcing airflow upward and around the buildings. – leonardthegeographer
  • Aircraft operating in built-up areas will be subject to probably chaotic winds and turbulence. Aircraft designers must therefore address power management, maneuverability, pilot workload, and ride quality in the disturbed airflows of urban canyons.