A ‘Pop-Up' Airport for Electric Aircraft Could Transform the Way We Think About Urban Travel

  • To some, the idea of electric, airborne delivery drones and air taxis becoming crucial cogs in urban mobility seems outlandish.
  • As attitudes change and technology develops, however, new innovations and transport options could have a big role to play.

From bike sharing schemes and hydrogen buses to app-based ride hailing services booked using a smartphone, urban mobility is changing. 

With governments around the world attempting to phase out diesel and gasoline vehicles in favor of low and zero emission options, the infrastructure required to keep our towns and cities moving will also need to change.

New plug-in charging networks, for instance, will be a crucial tool to dispel fears about range anxiety and ensure electric vehicle users can charge up as and when needed.

Roads, long the preserve of cars, will need to be adapted and modified to account for any increase in cycling, while people who walk to and from their destination will also need to be catered for, whether that be through wider sidewalks or pedestrianized zones. 

Other ideas about the future of urban transport are focused on the skies above our streets.

Toward the end of January, it was announced that a project centered around urban air mobility had been granted £1.2 million ($1.65 million) from U.K. Research and Innovation's Future Flight Challenge, a government backed program.

The idea behind Urban Air Port's concept, dubbed Air One, is to develop a "pop-up" airport and charging hub that would be used by electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft, or eVTOL. This refers to vehicles such as delivery drones and air taxis. 

According to Urban Air Port, the development will be launched in the English city of Coventry this year. The firm wants to roll out 200 similar sites around the world in the next five years.

Other organizations involved in the initiative planned for Coventry include the city's council and Hyundai Motor Group. Alongside its involvement in the Coventry project, Hyundai is also developing its own eVTOL and is looking to commercialize the tech by 2028.

Elsewhere, smaller companies such as Lilium are working on similar offerings. The German-based firm said last month that it had signed an agreement with infrastructure giant Ferrovial to develop at least ten "vertiports" in the U.S.

In a statement at the time, Lilium stressed the importance of these hubs, noting they provided "infrastructure for landing, recharging, and taking off with passengers."

Big changes coming, but challenges ahead

To some, the idea of electric, airborne delivery drones and air taxis becoming crucial cogs in future transportation systems may seem outlandish. Just how big a role could they play?

"In the long term, they will eventually form an important part of the overall mobility eco-system, as they have the potential to address the congestion pains created by our currently 2-dimensional transportation network," Andrew Hart, a director at SBD Automotive, told CNBC via email.

Hart said such vehicles would remain "relatively niche" in the next 10 to 20 years, catering to specific segments like luxury or specific uses cases such as agriculture and logistics.

The big challenges early movers would face, he explained, related to infrastructure and what he described as a "nascent legal structure" that was likely to delay homologation, a term which refers to formal approval.

On the subject of the infrastructure required to make vehicles such as air taxis viable in towns and cities, Hart said they would need "well-planned mobility hubs" that allowed for "efficient arrivals and departures" to prevent congestion on the ground.

"Various proposals have been put forward for different types of inner-city and rural sites, including re-purposing the top floor of multi-story car parks and using small airfields located on the outskirts of cities," he added, noting that issues surrounding charging infrastructure would also pose a "major headache" in the short-term.

The proof of concept project in Coventry, Hart said, would "be an interesting activity to help highlight and begin addressing many of the practical challenges of rolling out air taxis."

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