EASA has just issued the world’s first “VTOL Vertiport” Design Guidance. This is a massive step, and will help to keep up with the rapid development of the Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) industry and the various aircraft (or in English: flying autonomous vehicles carrying people).
There are a lot of variables going into this, and there are a lot of people in aviation industry who have strong feelings for and against this development, often quoting safety statistics and the vulnerably of occupants inside electric / autonomous flying vehicles that often lack autorotation capabilities (more on this later).
The Executive Director of EASA, Patrick Ky commented:
“Urban air mobility is a completely new field of aviation and we therefore have a unique opportunity to develop a set of infrastructure requirements from scratch,”
“With the world’s first guidance for safe vertiport operations, EASA’s ambition is to provide our stakeholders with the ‘gold standard’ when it comes to safe vertiport design and operational frameworks. By harmonising design and operational standards for vertiports we will support European industry, who are already starting to embark on exciting projects in Europe and around the world to make new urban air mobility a reality.”
So what does this mean exactly, and what has EASA specified inside the document? Are there going to be flying cars everywhere tomorrow?
Not quite – let’s have a look!
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Note: Some schematics used in this article are from the guidance material attached at the bottom of this article, full credit to EASA for the production of this guidance material and schematics.
What is a Vertiport
EASA defines a Vertiport as:
“A Vertiport is an area of land, water, or structure that is used or intended to be used for the landing, take-off, and movement of VTOL-capable aircraft.”
Hmm, doesn’t clear it up much if you’re unaware of what a VTOL-capable aircraft is, so while we’re talking about definitions, might as well make sure we’re all on the same page:
“A VTOL-capable aircraft means a heavier-than-air aircraft, other than aeroplane or helicopter, capable of performing vertical take-off and landing by means of more than two lift/thrust units that are used to provide lift during the take-off and landing.”
So… An electric helicopter? Yes and no. Just sticking an electric engine in a helicopter does not tend to work very well (so far), due to power to weight ratios and other factors that we will cover in the future.
VTOL aircraft tend to be extremely light and have low endurance and range, but are aimed to be fully autonomous or at least extremely easy to manoeuvre with minimal required training.
Again, there are a lot of people with strong feelings for this type of aircraft. There is a lot of excitement and hype on one side, for people who envision a future where you can just hope into the nearest vehicle, which will bring you exactly where you want to go.
This is also why companies like Tesla and others are becoming so popular, with stock prices going through the roof as people see so much potential in not just the electrification of our global infrastructure, but also the AI component and autonomous vehicles.
On the other hand, safety concerns, aircraft limitations and tricky regulations are quoted by the people who are very against the development of autonomous flying electric vehicles.
Is it really sustainable to have everyone and their mother flying around in autonomous vehicles within already complex global airspace? Only time will tell. But one thing is for sure: we need proper regulatory boundaries, and that’s exactly what EASA’s vision is as well.
What does the EASA Vertiport guidance look like?
Good question. The document they have published goes over 9 main chapters:
- Vertiport Data
- Physical Characteristics
- Obstacle Environment
- Obstalcle Limitation Surfaces
- Obstacle-Free Volume
- Visual Aids
- En-route Alternate Vertiport for Continued Safe Flight
- Emergency Procedures
As you can see, there’s a lot of critical points that perhaps otherwise wouldn’t be obvious to non-aviators. We won’t cover everything here (as we’ll be here for weeks), but we’ll highlight some of the more important items.
The first thing that is quite different compared to helicopter is the way the required space and all other dimensions are calculated. With helicopters, the ‘D Value’ is the largest dimension of the helicopter. With VTOL capable aircraft, EASA defines it as:
‘D’, for VTOL aircraft, means the diameter of the smallest circle enclosing the VTOL aircraft projection on a horizontal plane, while the aircraft is in the take-off or landing configuration, with rotor(s) turning, if applicable
Which looks like this:
So basically the smallest circle that includes the entire aircraft.
They then go over the required landing space, Final Approach and Take-Off areas (FATO), and required obstacle clearances. The structure is very comparable to the way helicopter regulation is written, but the content itself is obviously different.
The minimum required space is defined as follows:
The size needs to be at least 1.5 times the D value of the VTOL aircraft, with 0.25D available as a safety area (at least 3m). For reference, within HEMS, to land in congested areas we need at least 2D during official daytime, and 2Dx4D during official nighttime (although keep in mind the D value is calculated slightly differently).
You could argue this is more comparable to helipad regulations than HEMS, but the point of this entire development is to have these Vertiports at a lot of different locations, they could eventually be way more common than the occasional hospital or hotel with a helipad, which is currently the norm.
It is not clear yet what a VTOL approach would look like exactly for some of these aircraft, as it’s currently still very much in development. But for downwash, noise abatement, obstacle clearance, and FATO requirements, it will probably be steeper than most of us are used to in helicopters.
While the exact approaches can’t be known just yet, EASA now published an obstacle free volume specification as well, which basically dictates what amount of air needs to be completely free of obstacles based on aircraft performance.
The pads themselves have similarities to helicopter helipads, just with slightly different markings:
The take off and landing profiles are defined based on obstacle clearances and speeds such as Vtoss (another carry-over from the helicopter industry). For take-off:
And for the approach:
For the helicopter pilots here it will look very familiar to the path 1 and path 2 calculations described by EASA, except the multi engine philosophy won’t really transfer over here, due to the different nature of VTOL aircraft.
Then finally, the document provides proposals for the required fire and crash protection facilities at the Vertiport, but risk assessments are likely to yield different requirements based on if it’s built in the middle of a big city or in the countryside.
While this is a big step for the VTOL industry, a lot still has to be researched and risk assessed for global adoption. This document provides a lot of guidance to companies who will be introducing these in the coming years.
We’ll have to see how the FAA and other regulators will keep up, but for now this is one of the first pieces of content written specifically for this market.
Note: The regulations presented are not binding yet according to the document.
You can find the press release here.