Advanced Air Mobility: Why vertiports could be valuable to UK shopping centres

The future of retail is going to be about continued innovation and investment in game-changing technology. Whilst they might not seem like an obvious next step, Sophie Henwood & Navpreet Atwal of law firm Boodle Hatfield and James Bircumshaw from urban aviation innovators, Skyports, believe that vertiports – a type of ‘airport’ for aircrafts which can land and take of vertically, such as drones – could be the next big investment for retail destinations.

To give some background on the sector: a $3bn cash injection recently entered the advanced air mobility sector via special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) transactions for air taxi manufacturers, Joby and Archer, with value  for the two firms coming in at over $10bn. 

This year, Volocopter, the first manned, fully electric helicopter, secured €200m of private funding putting it in line to be one of the first electric air-taxi manufacturers to fly commercially worldwide. They plan to take to the skies in Singapore with JV partner Skyports in the next two years. Now, Henwood, Atwal and Bircumshaw think that could the UK be next landing spot

The UK government has invested significantly in Advanced Air Mobility, committing £125m in innovation funding.  With this form of transportation on track to launch in the UK by 2024, UK-based Skyports, a leading owner and operator of vertiports throughout the world, has begun securing landing locations at shopping centres throughout the UK. 

Electric air-taxis are environmentally friendly. They reduce congestion on roads; provide connectivity to areas poorly served by public transport; and save passengers time. The industry hopes that in time, travel by electric air-taxi will be affordable to the mass market. The use case for electric air-taxis has, by all accounts, been firmly established.

“For the industry to be successful, the UK needs to develop the infrastructure required for electric air-taxis,” say the trio. “Vertiports are the air-taxi’s landing pads. These need to be strategically located to connect into existing transport networks and to serve major destinations such as shopping centres.”

They predict that owners who are successful in securing vertiports for their shopping centres, stand to profit in the future: “Not only are they likely to benefit from rental income from the operator of the vertiport, but they could see an increased footfall to the shopping centre as it becomes more readily accessible to those living further afield or in poorly connected areas.”

Design will play a key role in ensuring the success of a vertiport: it should be readily accessible to customers but it should also enable the air-taxis to take flight at a safe distance from congested areas. Consideration will also need to be given to how the air-taxis will recharge – which is why the trio are predicting that vertiports located on prime-location shopping centre rooftops and in their car parks could be an asset.

The big barrier they anticipate will be winning the support of stakeholders to install a vertiport. “Shopping centre owners will need planning permission for the vertiport,” they explain. “They will also need the buy-in of their tenants and neighbours; whose concerns will likely include the safety of air-taxis; the noise caused by them; and whether they compromise the neighbours’ privacy. The air-taxis may need to fly through airspace owned by neighbouring landowners and in such circumstances, the neighbours’ consent will be critical.”

They add that shopping centres will also need to engage with their insurers to ensure building insurers approve and provide coverage for risk posed by the vertiport, and obtain additional insurance to cover the liabilities arising from their use: “Early discussions with insurers will be key to ensuring that the design of the vertiport factors in any of their specific requirements.”

This story was originally published in Retail Destination Fortnightly. Subscribe here.

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