“The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty—a fad.”
That was a bank president’s short-sighted advice to Henry Ford’s lawyer, Horace Rackam, who was offered a stake in his client’s automobile manufacturing start-up back in 1903.
Fast-forward—there are now 1.45 billion cars being driven around more than 64 million kilometres of roads across the planet. Few inventions have revolutionised our lives and cities as much as the motor vehicle.
Almost 120 years later, however, a new Jetsons-like era of transportation now beckons that has the potential to again reshape the urban landscape as we know it.
But as Skyportz founder and former Victorian state MP and Deputy Mayor of Melbourne Clem Newton-Brown is well aware, when it comes to big changes, history has a habit of repeating itself.
He has copped his share of innovation sceptics scoffing at the sky-high leap of technology and faith underpinning his Melbourne-based start-up business.
That is, the notion of a future where—as imagined in numerous sci-fi movies, and foretold by a memorable line from a 1980s Hollywood blockbuster— “we don’t need roads”. At least, not as much as we do now.
“One of the richest people in Australia offered me a $10,000 bet that it wouldn't happen in his lifetime,” Newton-Brown says. “I should have sprung up and shaken his hand but I didn’t. I was so taken aback. But I have no doubt I would have won the bet.
“It’s a bit of a moonshot that we're taking and it has been a hard slog to convince people this was real … but it’s happening and it’s going to be huge.
“We're going to see the biggest shake-up in aviation the world has ever seen and Australia is at the forefront of it. It's going to totally revolutionise the world in terms of moving people and goods and there's going to be lots of opportunities. It's a no-brainer for the property industry.”
Newton-Brown’s vision is to create a nationwide network of so-called vertiports to commercially enable an urban air mobility ecosystem of zero-emissions flying vehicles or “air taxis” otherwise known as eVOTLs—electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft.
Of the more than 300 eVOTLs in development worldwide—by tech start-up companies as well as major aircraft and automobile manufacturers like Boeing, Bell, Airbus, Embraer, Porsche and Hyundai—several are in the final stages of testing and on the cusp of securing certification.
Not designed as a mode of mass transport, most can only carry a handful of passengers but at least one US-based eVTOL innovator is thinking bigger with an “air minibus” concept engineered for up to 40 passengers or a 4500kg cargo payload.
“It’s like the Wright brothers’ days with all sorts of contraptions being developed, and most of them will fail but some of the well-funded ones will get there,” Newton-Brown says.
With the first eVTOLs almost ready to spread their commercial wings and aviation regulators looking to pave a safe road map for the rapidly-emerging new transport era, investment in the fledgling industry—with $10 billion thrown in the caps of the sector’s frontrunners last year alone—has soared along with orders, mostly from commercial airlines.
It is widely expected the first air taxis will enter commercial service overseas as early as 2024, most likely initially taking to the skies with payloads rather than passengers—and flown by a pilot but with a future view to autonomous flights.
Some companies are also designing eVOTLs for personal use, including luxury “flying sportscars” capable of speeds of more than 200km/h that are predicted to become the 21 Century's new status symbol.
Cutting edge eVOTL racing series Airspeeder recently staged what was spruiked as “the world's first flying car race” with uncrewed remotely piloted aircraft navigating a sky-track above South Australia's salt flats.
A fully-crewed Grand Prix series is scheduled to start in two years.
But while much of the focus on eVOTLs looks skyward, Newton-Brown is keeping his feet firmly on the ground in a bid to capitalise on the nascent sector’s untapped opportunities from a real estate perspective.
He initially set up Skyportz in 2018 to support Melbourne's successful bid to become the first international launch city for Uber’s proposed aerial ridesharing service Uber Air. But after much hype Uber eventually shelved its plans.
“This whole thing was always going to be bigger than Uber,” Newton-Brown says.
Since then, Skyportz has secured “first options” on hundreds of strategic sites—largely in major centres across Australia's eastern seaboard—that will be potentially built out into an eVTOL infrastructure network.
“The investment that has gone into the aircraft will have to be doubled down into the infrastructure,” he says.
“But the actual operational model is still largely unknown because it depends very much on the property industry being part of the puzzle.
“The real potential for the industry is wholly dependent on breaking the nexus between aviation and the airports.
“And that’s where the property industry comes in … but it is going to have to pull its finger out and realise that this is actually real and there’s significant money to be made.
“Whoever owns the vertiport networks will own the skies.
“So, what I’m doing with Skyportz is trying to make these incredible new aircraft fulfil their potential … to be truly revolutionary we need to be landing them in a multitude of new locations.
“Because, otherwise, all you’ve created is a greener and quieter replacement for the helicopter and you’re not really solving any new problems.”
Newton-Brown says with some degree of uncertainty still shrouding the new frontier of flying vehicles, he has endeavoured to provide a clear flight path for property owners to be ready when the aircraft are commercially certified and available.
“I don’t charge them anything to represent them as part of the Skyportz stable and all I ask for is that I have first option to activate their site for aviation purposes. There’s no obligation on them should they choose not to have a vertiport.”
Officially, Skyportz has a property database of 400 “air taxi-ready” sites but the list is growing rapidly and Newton-Brown says “it’s now probably closer to 1000”. It recently added the rooftops of car park operator Secure Parking's inner-city and CBD properties to that list.
Calls are being fielded by Newton-Brown from near and far—one of the latest ones from the Cairns Chamber of Commerce wanting to discuss creating an eVTOL launch network in the popular tropical Queensland tourism destination.
“The penny is starting to drop,” he says. “It has taken a long time but now people are sniffing the breeze.”
Never afraid of big ideas, the Spooner family—owner of the sprawling 200ha Caribbean Park estate at Scoresby in Melbourne’s south-east—ealier this year became the first Australian business park to sign a vertiport partnership with Skyportz.
In the hands of its third generation, the park is continuing to diversify its development mix, which currently includes a large industrial estate, six office buildings, a Hyatt hotel and, in the future, potentially a build-to-rent residential component.
“It's always been about forward thinking for us and what the world will look like in another 20, 30, 40 or 50 years from now,” managing director Ben Spooner tells The Urban Developer.
“Having that flexibility to look at all sorts of things. And one day, most will come to fruition. It's just a matter of timing.”
Spooner says developers who turns a blind eye to the future and “grand ideas” like Skyportz envisioned network of vertiports does so at their own peril.
“It’s really no different to Henry Ford when he started out … these things are coming, they won’t never happen and we must always keep our eyes open to things that will continue our growth.
“You know, we all look at the real estate that we’ve got in a two-dimensional way at the moment. We drive on roads and freeways on land and we live in a very single plane.
“But look at the air space above all that. It’s almost infinite and we can fit a lot more in the sky than we are now … it makes great sense.
“And as a developer, I think the true value for us comes in the fact that it is another great bit of amenity. It's like if you’ve got a train station next to an office development or a warehouse development—it adds value to the tenants and the rents that they pay.”
Newton-Brown concedes the business models are still largely unclear but he says for both property owners and developers there will be value in terms of attracting higher rents and the premium people will pay for a property with access to an air taxi pad.
“While the specific business cases are hard to pin down at this early stage I liken owning a vertiport to owning a toll road except you don't need to build the road."
Existing infrastructure players that see the value in “owning the whole journey” of a multimodal network as well as major aviation and transport companies looking for a competitive edge, he expects, will help drive the hundreds of millions of dollars of investment needed to build out the nation's vertiport network.
Tourism will be an early adopter of eVOTLs simply because it already has a business model that works with helicopters, he says.
“But I also think there's going to be a real market for mini airports in suburban locations like Caribbean Park and that's where we'll see private vertiports initially springing up.”
Newton-Brown considers the Spooner Family's site—on a large landholding with existing helicopter use rights—as the ideal location for a prototype Skyportz vertiport and has recently launched an equity crowdfunding campaign.
“Caribbean Park know we’re trailblazing here,” he says. “It puts them at the cutting edge of business parks in the world … and, if we can raise the funds, I think a whole new precinct could develop around the vertiport.”
Last month, Skyportz unveiled a futuristic modular vertiport design by leading architectural firm Contreras Earl Architecture at the World Air Taxi Congress in Istanbul, Turkey.
Created after a site specific assessment at Caribbean Park with input from Arup and To70 Aviation, it features a prefabricated aluminium-skinned monocoque structure that can be packed into containers and shipped anywhere in the world.
“We believe that architecture should evolve parallel with technology and that’s our main kind of ethos,” says the design firm’s director Rafael Contreras.
But he says that while it looks futuristic the shape of the modular vertiport was actually inspired by something that has been around for millions of years—the shell.
“The shell is the perfect organic structure and we are looking at nature as the most intelligent way for design. Like the shell, the vertiport is a continuous structure. The roof becomes the walls and the walls become the floor.”
Contreras says designs also are now in the works for smaller vertiport modules using the same shape and structure that can be installed on buildings.
“There's going to be different scenarios, some with very limited space where we are looking at a module that the aircraft can land on the roof … it’s all very challenging and exciting at the same time.”
He anticipates that within a few years Skyportz will take on a major equity partner and have the funds available to activate sites—albeit when the rules and regulations enable the construction of a vertiport network. And therein lies the biggest challenge.
Currently, there is no jurisdiction in the world where definitive rules, regulations and standards for new vertiports have been established.
“That’s where the real opportunities are is in getting the planning regimes changed to allow this new vertical mobility use.
“Because as soon as that happens, particualrly if we're one of the first jurisdictions in the world to enable it, I've got no doubt there'll be investors knocking on our door to build out a network of take-off and landing infrastructure.
“There is already published government documents saying this is coming ... now it's just a matter of convincing governments this is something they should be bold and act on by changing the rules and regulations.
“The background I’ve got is perfect for the task at hand … but also, as a former politician, I find it incredibly frustrating.
“For no or very little money just a tweak to the planning policies could unlock a huge amount of investment and development opportunity.
“It's really just a small step now that's needed to enable property owners to activate these sites as vertiports so that an advanced air mobility network can become a reality.”
Of course, if all else fails, there are still more than 60 million horses in the world.
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