The exploration of airborne transportation and advanced air mobility (AAM) is the focus of a new partnership between the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and Supernal—an advanced air mobility company from Hyundai Motor Group (earlier post). Supernal is developing electric, autonomous air vehicles capable of accommodating four to five passengers with the intent to launch commercial flights as early as 2028.
These electronic vertical takeoff and landing vehicles (eVTOL) will integrate with existing transportation networks and move passengers more quickly around high-density city centers—saving people time and offering more transit options.
To inform the plans for a first-of-its-kind public eVTOL network, Supernal and NREL are collaborating with the city of Los Angeles to study this innovative aerial transit mode.
The new project will take a holistic look at AAM, concentrating on the feasibility, opportunities, and challenges of building eVTOL stations—known as vertiports—for future autonomous air vehicles. NREL researchers are evaluating potential locations, travel destinations, and energy demand that will shape the development of this innovative network. The analysis will answer critical questions to determine energy costs, market viability, public acceptance, station distribution, accessibility, and environmental sustainability of the vertiport program.
Our research will compare AAM flight options with the existing and emerging mobility infrastructure within Los Angeles. In identifying vertiport candidate locations, NREL will inform the network map and business plan for Supernal’s airborne passenger vehicles.—NREL’s Keith Ropchock, partnership manager for the project
Throughout this research partnership, NREL will thoroughly evaluate existing and emerging mobility technologies and transportation hotspots and conduct market analysis within the greater Los Angeles area. NREL will use existing and historical travel data to develop a travel heatmap that incorporates travel time, costs, and demand for vertiport candidate locations.
Researchers will then leverage NREL’s Mobility Energy Productivity (MEP) metric to characterize, measure, and inform movement to and from vertiports. This metric will highlight the feasibility of the AAM network by quantifying the accessibility of each vertiport location. An accompanying visualization tool will compile NREL’s research data to allow the team to easily view and compare network options in Los Angeles and beyond.
Our team created the MEP metric to holistically measure mobility and ease of access provided to any traveler at any location. We are excited to apply MEP to eVTOL to provide insights in the trade-off of travel time, cost, and energy.—NREL Transportation Data Analytics Researcher and Project Leader Venu Garikapati
Another element of the project will investigate the market share for emerging modal options such as AAM. Researchers will implement a fundamental influencing factors model to compare service variables such as travel time, price, and vertiport access with sociodemographic characteristics to analyze the travel demand across passenger segments. Altogether, this extensive behavior analysis will help identify the optimal locations for vertiports.
As the AAM passenger network grows in popularity, the vertiports will rely on harmonious grid integration to power the airborne passenger vehicles. A significant focus of the NREL research will include evaluating the high-power energy requirements of eVTOLs and cost and operational implications to the electric grid. Researchers will determine energy supply and charging costs at each potential vertiport location to lay a foundation for well-coordinated integration with the grid. Future AAM research will leverage NREL’s Advanced Research on Integrated Energy Systems (ARIES) platform capabilities to identify system-level opportunities and risks of this emerging technology area.
Extensive research into the energy implications of these airborne passenger vehicles is integral to the success of innovative AAM technologies. Our research will emphasize utility capabilities to determine the impacts of these high-load, fast-charging electric vehicles. Future collaboration with ARIES will allow researchers to evaluate and validate infrastructure components to ensure a smooth introduction of this new technology.—Keith Ropchock
AAM systems of the future can transform the future of mobility by providing more public options, complimenting existing transit, and moving people to their destinations more quickly. The ground-level emphasis on using renewable energy to power eVTOLs paves the way toward decarbonization for short-haul aviation.