Vertiport builders plan for minimal, automated security

Airport-style checkpoints would render air taxi services ineffective, experts agree

In many ways, the emerging advanced air mobility market hopes to operate much like today’s commercial airlines: hundreds of passengers traveling every day aboard dozens of small, electric aircraft. But if this rapid, frequent service is to be achieved, the vertiports from which these air taxis would take off and land must have a lower level of security than today’s airports, according to industry experts. 

“Ultimately governments will dictate the level of security required at new vertiports but ideally we will want minimum impediments to a fast flow of passengers so a vertiport can operate like a taxi stand,” Clem Newton-Brown, CEO of Australia-based Skyportz, told me in an email. 

Skyportz is among the handful of companies focusing on construction of vertiports, rather than the electric air taxis. The company has an agreement to buy up to 100 hybrid-electric aircraft from Virginia-based for transporting cargo and passengers. Other air taxi companies, including Joby Aviation of California, plan to operate their own aircraft and vertiports. FAA granted Joby Aviation its Part 135 Air Carrier Certificate in May, one of three FAA certifications the California company needs to begin passenger flights with its electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft.

In addition to placing their vertiports in easily accessible locations, operators need to guarantee passenger safety without making the booking and boarding process unduly burdensome, Newton-Brown said. 

Although the U.S. greatly increased passenger screening at commercial airports after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he pointed out that light planes remained available for charter with some form of private screening that didn’t involve passengers going through  U.S. Transportation Security Administration security checkpoints. Additionally, other forms of mass transportation are not subject to intense screening, despite the potential for hijacking. 

“Our bus and taxi systems would not work if there was a screening requirement before riding,” Newton-Brown said. “We balance the risk against the functionality — with buses and taxis our community is prepared to accept the risk in return for a functional service.”

Governments and private companies will likely modify security protocols as the air taxi industry grows, he added, especially if initial piloted aircraft give way to autonomous, self-flying aircraft, as the majority of air taxi builders plan.

But even then, Newton-Brown considers the risk of someone taking over an air taxi slim. 

“It is likely that there will be limited capacity to hijack such a high-tech aircraft,” Newton-Brown said. “Anyone who owns a high-end drone knows that the machine takes over and returns to safely land when it is unsafe due to wind or battery power is low. I would expect similar responses to be built into aircraft if they are taken over by a rogue passenger.”

In the meantime, industry analysts have been trying to ascertain how much security may be required of vertiports initially, John Coykendall, leader of Deloitte’s aerospace and defense practice, told me in a phone interview.

“We haven’t seen anything concrete in terms of what the regulators are going to require or what the companies are thinking about regarding security,” Coykendall said. “I suspect it’ll look closer to what general aviation looks like, where there are no passenger screening requirements to get into a jet that you’re piloting yourself or a small plane with a couple other people.”

He said he also believes most air taxis will be able to be controlled remotely.

For now, safety of the aircraft themselves, rather than security at the vertiports, is the most prominent issue the AAM industry needs to address, said Sheldon Jacobson, professor of computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“These vehicles are not going to get off the ground unless one can achieve a level of safety that is commensurate with commercial flight, and that is a high bar to meet,” Jacobson told me. “If such vehicles are unpiloted, physical security is less of an issue than cybersecurity to ensure the integrity of the unmanned systems.”

Jacobson noted that aspiring air taxi operators including Uber Elevate, Uber’s air taxi division which was bought by Joby in 2020, have shown videos depicting rapid passage of passengers through vertiports via facial or fingerprint recognition and scales that would weight passengers and their luggage as they climbed stairs.

“There may be another type of security and we don’t even know what it will look like yet because we still don’t know the full model of operations,” he said. “I think the manufacturers and the developers are thinking about it, but it’s not even in their top five issues because they know they have so many other obstacles.”

Autonomous transport via self-driving vehicles remains a difficult challenge even for the automotive industry, he said, and aircraft autonomy will be even more challenging. 

“It’s not a matter of having no risk, it’s a matter of reducing the risk to a level that is acceptable, where people are willing to accept and tolerate,” Jacobson said. “My own view is that the autonomous approach is probably going to win out at the end of the day, but I don’t know how long it will take to get there.” 

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Vertiport builders plan for minimal, automated security