Future Thoughts: Skyports’ Duncan Walker on building the first eVTOL vertiport
Jan 22 2021
Duncan Walker, the CEO of Skyports, began his company just over three years ago after assessing the enormous potential of the emerging electric take off and landing (eVTOL) sector. Airspeeder speaks to him regarding being the first vertiport company involved in executing a city-centre flight.
Airspeeder: What is the Skyports mission?
Duncan Walker: Enabling the advanced aeromobility market by providing the interface between the ground and the air. We’re industry enablers. We’re airports. We provide that link between the two and it’s a cool, uncongested space to be in. It allows us to be innovative and really make a difference in how people and cargo move around.
Investors are attracted to this space and want to enable the future of smart cities, autonomy and efficient transportation.Duncan Walker Skyports
What inspired this?
People have been talking about drones, air taxis, and flying cars for a long time. It seemed then that there were the building blocks in play that were making it real. I spent time in the US and continental Europe and identified early that there was nobody doing the infrastructure and building the vertiports which will enable the vehicles to reach their potential in city centres.
You made history in Singapore. What is it about the city-state that made these first flights possible?
It’s a global city and sufficiently visible with a very reputable aviation authority, this is important for building global credibility for the technology. There was proper engagement from the senior people in other aviation authorities. Singapore has an incredibly progressive philosophy of innovation, led by the economic development board. They saw the potential of this technology and worked with us to demonstrate it.
There is an enormous vibrancy and inward investment in eVTOL, what do you think is driving that?
The industry is massively scalable, it solves real-life problems. You can see the transferable technologies and this is what is driving big names from the automotive world to invest and engage.
The autonomy technology in particular is transferable. It was Toyota’s artificial intelligence division that invested in Joby – this underwrites the credibility of the entire industry. Momentum breeds momentum.
This is a clean air technology that responds to the increasing sustainability agenda. Investors are attracted to this space and want to enable the future of smart cities, autonomy and efficient transportation.
There’s a near-termism to it. They’re eyes up – it underwrites the industry that it’s viable and real. Are we missing a trick here that we need to be involved in? You could probably pick through the car manufacturers and find an alignment in some way or another with most of them.
Until you’re out there flying, doing these demonstrations and real life things, you don’t even know some of the questions to ask.Duncan Walker Skyports
How is the eVTOL sector inspiring investors and operators to back the technology?
A great example was with Royal Mail before Christmas – we flew their first delivery by drone ever. They came out to our testing facility and it was the most horrendous weather with wind and rain. We chucked the drones up in the air and had the Chief Commercial Officer of Royal Mail Group. The drone did exactly what it was meant to do. We showed him and he was super excited because it was tangible. If I’d had said ‘here’s a picture of what we’re going to do’, nothing would ever happen. There’s a realism point to it too. If you then get the NHS and Royal Mail flying stuff by drone, everyone else thinks it’s viable, reasonable, safe and underwritten by people that know what they’re talking about.
What are the big challenges for the aviation and eVTOL industry in terms of regulation, safety and public acceptance?
Regulation is the one that’s outside everyone’s control. You can provide safety, you can help write standards but we need a really good baseline against which to judge things. That’s emerging but it’s not yet there.
Establishing the rules of the game are very important; once you’ve got the rules set, you can go and play the game. I don’t think that’s really embedded until you’ve got a couple of points of reference around the world. You can do stuff in academia as much as you like, but until you’re out there flying, doing these demonstrations and real life things, you don’t even know some of the questions to ask.
It’s the start of commercial operations at the point where any of us could go, book a ride and fly.Duncan Walker Skyports
How do you see air racing pushing this? Do you welcome what Airspeeder are doing for the eVTOL world?
It’s amazing for a number of reasons. Clearly the public perception and the profile and the benefits that it brings in technology engineering. If you use electric motorsports as an example, it justifies not only the practicality of using an electric car, it presents it as a socially cool and acceptable thing to do.
These are racing machines that are super fast and it gets TV profiles and public acceptance. When it gets to scale there’ll be bits of R&D that fly out because you’re pushing the boundaries, like you do in Formula One. The trickle down technology that ends up in your car – there’s so many examples out there.
The alternative is going to a city and saying that you’re going to go and fly around. There’ll be so many questions there. Airspeeder is racing in environments that aren’t contentious. Ultimately you want to be doing it on the Singapore F1 circuit – amazing, but you can also do it in the desert and that doesn’t make any difference to your product. I think it’s awesome.
Where do you see Skyports and the eVTOL industry headed over the next decade?
It evolves so quickly, every six months I look back at the business and it’s a different business. It’s still got the same direction and masterplan, but there’s opportunities that pop up all over the place.
I see us being commercially operational at some small scale within two to three years time: Singapore and maybe a few others like Paris for the 2024 Olympics and in the US too. A to B routes and A to C routes but not a dark cloud of drone networks covering the sky. It’s the start of commercial operations at the point where any of us could go, book a ride and fly.
Within 10 years, I see us being in 15 cities with 10-15 vertiports per city and then you’ve got really viable networks. We think about cities but inter city will be a big market too. You look at some of these vehicles, they’ve got fixed wings, and they can go a couple hundred of kilometres. The range is quite dynamic – Oxford to Cambridge – for example. Increasingly people are talking about advanced aeromobility, not just aeromobility.
Read our previous interview with electric off-road series Head of Communications Extreme E Julia Fry.