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eVTOLs: Plug In, Charge Up, Take Off

Urban Air Mobility Will Be All About the Infrastructure

woman peers at an electric grid
The U.S. Office of Electricity is already hard at work developing the smart grid capabilities eVTOLs will require. [SOURCE: Grid Modernization and the Smart Grid | Department of Energy US Government, Office of Electricity]

Lithium-ion batteries: check; regulatory certifications: check; revolutionary lift designs: check; qualified pilot pipeline: check. This revolution will not only be televised, it will be electrified. But before all the pieces of the urban air mobility (UAM) puzzle can connect to facilitate vertical flight, one more critical piece must be put in place—infrastructure.

The question at the moment is, “Will the electric utility providers around the globe be prepared to power up when and where tens of thousands, and ultimately hundreds of thousands, of eVTOLs need them?”

Energy Needs of eVTOL Charging Stations

Electric vehicles (EVs) may already be setting the stage for just that scenario as electric charging stations pop up at shopping centers, parking garages, and along highways.

On the high side, some eVTOLs could draw as much as 600 kWh or more while charging. That may simulate the megawatt-capable charging standards currently under development for electric semi-trucks.

Given that gargantuan power generation and consumption need, researchers at NASA’s National Institute of Aerospace prepared a report in conjunction with Black & Veatch that developed a model that assumes eight eVTOL charging stations at a regional vertiport. To service charging needs, the researchers concluded an eight-pod vertiport would require approximately 50 MWh—or 50,000 kWh—of energy per day. Compare that to the U.S. Federal Highway Administration estimates that the average person driving an EV 13,500 miles per year would require 4,000 kWh of energy for the entire year.

Keeping Lighting in a Bottle—Sort of

The type of electric power infrastructure necessary to support urban air mobility is, in a way, similar to the power needs of today’s data centers. Utility service providers will need to consider grid-scale storage facilities near vertiports, account for the ebbs and flows of commercial air traffic resulting in times of peak demand, and perhaps also draw on solar power to generate sufficient electricity to meet the increased demand.

EV Public-Private Partnerships Get a Big Boost

On 14 September 2022, in the U.S., the Biden Administration introduced approval for US$5 bn to build EV charging infrastructure in 35 U.S. states covering 53,000 miles (approximately 85,300 kilometers) of the federal Interstate Highway System.

In the United Kingdom, “The Future Flight Challenge at UK Research and Innovation (UKRI)” granted £10.1 million (about US$10.8 million) in funding to CAELUS (Care & Equity – Healthcare Logistics UAS Scotland) and its consortium partners. In conjunction with the National Health Service (NHS) Scotland, the UK-based drone service firm flew dangerous and medicinal cargo to some of the farthest-flung reaches of Great Britain in 2020 and 2021.

A Complex System of Systems

Other key elements of the infrastructure necessary to facilitate UAM include advanced ground-to-air and air-to-air telecommunications systems. Beefed up GPS, radar, and LiDAR will need to handle the increase in traffic. Much of this increased air traffic will rely on artificial intelligence (AI) with support from staff overseeing a multitude of operations at altitudes far more extensive than current commercial operations. Thousands of drones dropping off packages at central pickup points or even in people’s front yard is not as far-fetched—or far off—as consumers and travelers think.

Building an advanced air mobility (AAM) infrastructure takes time, capital, and cooperation. Some of it is in the planning stages now. Keep your feet on the ground and your eyes on the horizon as this new generation of air transportation takes shape.

Dave Clarke

Dave Clarke is a California-based writer who is fascinated by the way technology changes our lives.