eVTOL Interview: Damian Kysely; Infrastructure manager at SkyPorts, and co-founder of The Aviary Project

See below for my interview with Damian Kysely; a subect matter expert on eVTOL and Urban Air Mobility (UAM). Damian is Infrastructure manager at SkyPorts skyports.net, a new business focused on developing the infrastructure required to support UAM. Damian is also co-founder of The Aviary Project medium.com/aviaryproject which was set up to facilitate collaboration in the emerging UAM and eVTOL sectors.

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Nick: Hi Damian, Many thanks for taking the time for me to tap into your knowledge!

First off, I have read that Skyports have partnered up with Volocopter, this strikes me as a partnership with huge potential for you guys. Volocopter are one of the more ambitious players in the market to date, and they are even working with the innovation arm of the CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) in order to define the new regulations required for UAM.

Further to this, Volocopter have published some very eye-catching ideas of how they see UAM transport hubs of the future. They look like giant ski lift stations that can handle several hundreds of people.

Are you guys at Skyports actively involved with the conceptual architectural work that Volocopter has done to create this promotional material?

Damian: Skyports have worked with Volocopter to design and develop the first prototype ‘Volo-Port’ which will be built up in Singapore. This is effectively a qualification model that will test that we can meet many of the requirements for an eVTOL vertiport. Including managing the flow of passengers, getting them checked-in, and also the recharging of the vehicle itself, in this case battery swap.

We were not involved in the initial conceptualisation of the VoloHub, but of course we look to incorporate some of the high-throughput components into our future work with Volocopter. Skyports’ goal is to be the preferred infrastructure provider to Volocopter and other vehicle manufacturers and operators as the industry scales up.

Nick: Thanks for clarifying. With regards to Volocopter’s grand plans for their transport hubs, these look like they will need to be made on top of purpose-built buildings. Are Skyports currently in negotiations with companies so that they can incorporate new features into buildings that they are yet to start?

Damian: Skyports have secured several sites on top of existing buildings that have sufficient structural capacity to be retrofit with a vertiport of certain size. In parallel, it is very important that property developers incorporate vertiport requirements into their plans from day 1, otherwise we will end up with loads of buildings that are useless for this purpose. This is something we’re doing at Skyports as well and it is increasingly sought after. And yes, in the future purpose-built towers with Skyport provisions are very likely. For example, Uber aims to convert entire buildings (car parks) into Uber Hubs for UberAir services.

Nick: With regards to the legislation and regulation, which body creates and upholds this?

Damian: In the UK this will be CAA again. All of our vertiport designs comply with existing ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) heliport standards and CAA adopts them. Therefore CAA will be the one giving us a stamp from a regulatory point of view.  On a local level, it will be the city authorities and planners giving us a permission to construct them and operate them.

Nick: I also note that Lilium, a potential future competitor to Volocopter, is also looking to create their own infrastructure. This will enable them to offer a complete service offering, rather than just an eVTOL product. Do you see the different eVTOL companies collaborating with one another to share transport hubs, or do you think that they will seek to create their own unique hubs?

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Damian: I think that each organisation will seek to create it’s own individual hubs to start with, for example, I can’t see Volocopter and Lilium wanting to work together at this early stage when they are likely to be in competition with one another.

Skyports are already very close to most of the leading vehicle manufacturers alongside Volocopter. Our main principle is that all of our vertiports will be vehicle agnostic in the long term and everyone we have spoken with, including Volocopter and Lilium, agrees on this.

Nick: Looking at the established airline industry of today, most groundside operations and interfaces are standardised. These include refuelling, food and beverage logistics, as well as safety checks. Is work being done in order to standardise these and other items in the UAM sector?

Damian: There is some work being done in the U.S. looking at what should be standardised, however this is not the current priority of the eVTOL manufacturers. They are still very much looking at the overall systems design and how they can maximise the efficiency (cost / range / speed etc.) of their products.

Nick: I note also on the Skyports website that it is predicting drone deliveries over London by 2021. This statement was released almost a year ago. With the progress made since then, do you think that a 2021 date is still achievable?

Damian: Anything is achievable with enough resources! Joking aside, I think the way things are progressing, 2021 could be achievable for a point to point route, say for instance from one hospital to another. I think also that the route will need to run along the river. Once something like this has been fully proven then we may see an over land equivalent.

London is lagging some other locations. For instance, drone deliveries as I have just described are already happening in Switzerland and other parts of the world.

Nick: Are there any pertinent reasons why London is lagging behind?

Damian: Legislation and regulation are the biggest barriers to progress. This is not helped by the fact that London is notoriously ‘anti-helicopter’. In relative terms, London is a quiet city considering its size, and so helicopter noise pollution tends to be all the more noticeable, and therefore also unwelcome. This makes public percpetion and adoption of drones and other flying vehicles all the more challenging.

Nick: Well as a resident of London, I love the idea of flying taxis, but if it means I will have hundreds of helicopters flying above my head, I may quickly change my mind! Just how noisy are these eVTOL likely to be?

Damian: Volocopter and Uber Elevate have released white papers that hint on the estimated noise levels, which claim they are significantly quieter than traditional helicopters. But none of the other companies have. There seems to be quite a lot of secrecy surrounding this area. Without knowing the respective noise levels, it will be very difficult to get the legislation issues resolved.

Nick: Well Damian, I’d like to thank you once again for your time, this has been a very informative and enjoyable conversation.

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For those of you who would like to learn more about the industry, I encourage you to check out their excellent blog at The Aviary Project: https://medium.com/aviaryproject. As mentioned above, this was set up by Damian and others with the prime purpose of promoting eVTOL and UAM.

eVTOL, interview: Simon Scott. Founder and Owner of Esprit Aeronautics

As a first for my blog, see below for my interview with Simon Scott; owner of Esprit Aeronautics espritaero.com a business focused on developing a manned vertical take-off aircraft. Simon has been active within this sector since the 1990’s, long before eVTOL and drones became media trendy.

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This interview follows on from yesterday’s eVTOL blog entry: So are we finally going to live like the Jetson’s?? 

Nick: Hello Simon, firstly thank you for agreeing to the interview.

Nick: First off, please could you give a little detail upon your background, and how you became interested in the eVTOL sector?

Simon: Both my grandparents had served in or supporting the Royal Air Force and my youth was spent either making model aircraft or visiting air shows and museums in Europe. After leaving school at 15 I studied engineering before becoming an assistant metallurgist for a specialist castings company that supplied the aerospace industry.  At 19 years of age I joined the military as a guided weapon’s controller before working closely with the Army Air Corp on several operations. On leaving the military in the late 90’s my fascination had not diminished and I started to look at the research being done by Mark D. Moore (currently UBER Engineering Director of Vehicle Systems) when he was at NASA Langley Research Centre and following several email exchanges I started my own research into Personal Air Vehicles which led me towards hybrid propulsion and electric aircraft in the early 2000’s.

Nick: So this is not a recent venture for you, this is an area that you have been working upon for many years. You also have significant experience in the creation of drones. Does your ePAV carry a lot of design heritage from Esprit Aero’s drones? What are the key differences?

Simon: I’ve always been a believer in building something, not just a nice 3D CAD rendering. It is also better to build and test a real platform in nature as CFD (Computational fluid dynamics – used for aerodynamic analysis) may be a very useful tool but nature is unpredictable in many cases. I’ve also carried out testing at higher elevations, usually starting at 500m ASL unlike many which tend to test at scale and at sea level.

You learn a great deal from failure and I have experienced plenty in the early years with drone flight controllers and sensors far less capable than current versions, but I have also seen my designs carry out flights lifting payloads far greater than even some of the well-known drones of today cannot handle.

As far as heritage goes, if you can fly a conventional quad copter drone competently today you could fly one of our eVTOL platforms, it is that simple to fly.

Finally there are many differences between drones and manned vehicles, most notably, safety is of utmost importance, when carrying a “Live” cargo.

Nick: I think most will agree that public awareness of the future eVTOL market has rapidly increased in recent times. This awareness has been amplified due to the concept designs shown at this year’s Paris Airshow, and claims that cities such as London will be serviced by air taxis as early as 2025. Do you think that these 2025 claims are realistic?

Simon: I will say I am very sceptical of timelines as I have first-hand experience of just how long it takes to turn ideas and concepts into reality. There are far more barriers to market for eVTOL air taxis in the Urban Air Mobility sector than many openly admit to.

Obviously there are some exceptions when it comes to platforms we are already seeing in test videos online but we have yet to see any fly in an urban environment never mind carry a fare paying passenger between two vertiports in a city.

Nick: What do you think are the main barriers to achieving this 2025 target?

Simon: Obviously legislation requirements, not only for vehicle certification but also flight restrictions, noise levels and flight corridors over populated areas.

Social acceptance is key so safety requirements need to be much higher and the costs associated with using such means of transportation needs to be cost effective for passengers. Most people would enjoy saving an hour a day travelling but not if it costs them twice as much as using conventional means, which reduces the potential passenger numbers willing to pay for that time saving.

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Nick: So legislation and regulation will be key, unsurprisingly, but you also consider that there is high risk of the short to mid-term business case being unviable. With such significant barriers remaining before city air taxis are accepted for use, and with the recent rapid increase in eVTOL businesses across the world, it looks like at least some of these ventures will not end with success. Considering this, what is Esprit Aero’s planned product and service offering?

Simon: We are targeting Rural Air Mobility (RAM) and at first, we are looking at the use of single and dual seat platforms for first responders. Many rural areas are receiving very little support from emergency services due to budget cuts and low staffing numbers. Smaller ePAV solutions are force multipliers and allow a greatly increased response time.

Nick: So, you are looking to provide highly mobile transport solutions for emergency services in remote locations where there is a high need. In affect you are proposing to offer a smaller, quieter, more cost-effective and easier (safer) to fly, alternative to a helicopter? If the eVTOL consumer taxi market is delayed, do you see this space being targeted by the eVTOLs taxi companies, while we wait for the certification and regulation hurdles to be overcome?

Simon: Most of the air taxi designs could be modified but the focus by the main player’s remains air taxis. Would a local authority pay £4,000,000 GBP for an eVTOL air taxi platform when they could purchase a dual seat ePAV for less than £200,000 GBP? There is also the platform footprint to consider as some of the eVTOL designs being developed are nearly as large as conventional helicopters.

Nick: Regarding the seemingly booming eVTOL industry, have you found that this has helped or hindered your business development strategy? Are you finding it easier to find both customers and suppliers now than say two years ago?

Simon: We tend to get far more suppliers interested in us now as many read the analysis & market predictions believing it to be a good opportunity for them at an early stage. Customer interest is growing but many are “tyre kickers” and are wisely waiting until they see the real platforms working before committing.

Nick: With so many different types of eVTOL being developed, do you think that there will be key areas where parts will become homogeneous? Are there any of these products that you plan to specialise in, or in fact outsource to a specialist supplier, rather than create yourselves?

Simon: We have a plan and that has to be flexible as nobody can predict the future so we will keep a keen eye on the industry & market and react accordingly.

Nick: What do you see as your key objectives in the mid-term, once you have achieved certification and the ePAV is in use in the UK? Do you plan to develop business overseas? Also, are you planning to develop any additional vehicles to the ePAV in the future? If you were to develop an additional product offering to the ePAV, what differences would it have (eg. What do you see as a strong second market)?

Simon: At this stage we are focused on finding the right investment for us and our plans to get our designs into the air safely and legally.

Obviously there is international interest and due to our experience with international suppliers and the wider aerospace industry we can visualise dealerships across the globe in the future as well as the international support infrastructure that will be needed.

We are aware that certain clients require bespoke solutions that will need to be built “in-house” for security reasons.

Nick: So it sounds like you will need at least a small manufacturing facility, with the option of outsourcing high volume orders on build to print licences as and when customer demand deems it necessary.

Many thanks for your time Simon, it has been very interesting to speak with you. I think considering the current market, your business development strategy is smart; offering a product with low unit cost that offers clear advantages over existing products (e.g. helicopters), and will also open the market to users who may not have previously considered flying vehicles as a viable option. I look forward to hear about further developments!

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For those who are reading this blog, if you would like to learn more about what Simon and Esprit Aeronautics are developing, please check the links below:

The business case for Rural vs Urban air mobility: https://www.espritaero.com/ram-rural-air-mobility

The ‘barriers’ to Urban air mobility: https://www.espritaero.com/are-evtol-air-taxi-s-the-only-solution