In this in-depth interview from her Drones at Dawn podcast series, Rex Alexander of Five-Alpha discusses what it will take to build out vertiport infrastructure to enable urban air mobility.
By: Dawn Zoldi
As infrastructure bills flow through the halls of Congress, many different groups vie for funds. For advanced air mobility (AAM), money is but one piece of the puzzle. Regulations, building and operational standards, and public acceptance all must fall into place before AAM can become a reality. This is a two-part series in Q&A format with some of the most formidable experts in the AAM space. Here, we interview Rex Alexander, President of Five-Alpha, world-renowned heliport – now vertiport- expert, about what we need to enable AAM, from the ground up.
Q: Can you each tell us about your background?
A: I have been involved in aviation in one way or another since about 1976 when I first started flying at the age of 14. While I fly both airplanes and helicopters, I’ve spent most of my career in the helicopter world. I started out in helicopters in the U.S. Army where I was a Warrant Officer and an aeroscout pilot and instructor pilot. I then went to the offshore oil and gas world for a short time. However, I spent the majority of my career, nearly 20 years, in the Helicopter Air Ambulance industry. It was in the early days in that arena that I got involved in designing heliports for a living. I got tired of well meaning architects and engineers trying to kill me every time I turned around, so I started educating them on what a heliport was supposed to look like and the next thing you know a business was born! Along the way, I became passionately involved as a volunteer in a number of safety groups such as the National EMS Pilots Association, the U.S. Helicopter Safety Team, the International Helicopter Safety Foundation and the National Fire Protection Association to name a few. This is where I met Mike Hirschberg of the Vertical Flight Society who first introduced me to the whole eVTOL and AAM world. Mike then introduced me to Mark Moore of NASA and then later Uber Elevate. It was Mark that brought me onboard to work with Uber-Elevate for two years, first as a consultant then as the head of infrastructure. He is also the one that introduced me to the folks at NASA Ames with whom I now do R&D work.
Q: Rex, tell us about Five Alpha
A: Five-Alpha is a global aeronautical consultancy that specializes in the development of vertical lift infrastructure. Our firm works with clients in the private, public and government sectors in designing and developing heliports. These include personal-use, private-use, and public-use for individuals, corporations, healthcare institutions, the department of defense and many other organizations with specialized operations. Our firm is also heavily involved in standards and code development and works closely with the FAA, NASA, National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), and ASTM International in that space. Five-Alpha is an advisor to the Vertical Flight Society, formerly the American Helicopter Association International, as their infrastructure advisor. In 2017 the company became involved in AAM through our work with Uber Elevate and have since become involved in research and development in this space with multiple government and academic institutions. We recently forged a strategic partnership with Varon Vehicles to advance AAM in Columbia to provide aviation insight for the purposes of developing a Disruptive Mobility Infrastructure to support a functional AAM network in Columbia. (For previous DroneLife coverage of Varon and Columbian AAM, see here).
Q: Rex, you are the renowned expert on heliports and now vertiports. What do you perceive as the greatest challenges in AAM and vertiport infrastructure?
A: Public Acceptance will more than likely be one of the biggest challenges moving forward. While a lot of people may want to fly on an eVTOL aircraft at some point, many of those same people are not too keen on having a vertiport hub built in their neighbourhood. Heliports are one of those “NIMBY” (Not In My Backyard) items that neighborhoods and communities have been shown to come together to block. Moving forward in this new AAM space will require a significant amount of public outreach which will entail a proactive educational approach targeted to community members as well as community policy makers and leaders. At the local level the key elements that will need to be addressed by policy makers will be:
- Safety – How safe is it? Is it as safe as driving in my car? Flying on an airliner?
- Noise – Can I hear it? How loud is it? How much noise will 10 aircraft make vs. just one? Is the frequency of the sound annoying?
- Property Values – How will a vertiport impact my property values? Will they go up or will they go down?
- Visual Clutter – What will this look like? Will there be so many aircraft in the sky that it will block out the sun? Will I have shadows on my house all day long?
- Environmental Impact – How will wildlife react to these aircraft? Will we see animals and birds being negatively impacted? Will my pets freak out?
- Electrical Grid Capacity – Will the charging stations that are required to support this technology have a negative impact on the availability of power for me?
As far as regulations, as it pertains to veriports at least, there are none in place today. Everything the FAA has on the books here in the U.S. centers around airports, heliports, seaplane bases, balloon ports, glider ports, and Ultralight Parks. Vertiports are not defined by the FAA as of yet. The only official place the FAA uses the term Vertiport is in the U.S. Title 14 CFR § 157, “Notice of Construction, Alteration, Activation, And Deactivation of Airports” where they indicate that a Vertiport is officially an Airport but they do not define the term. The FAA is currently in development of a vertiport Advisory Circular which is supposed to speak to how a vertiport’s geometry and airspace are to be designed in the same way they do now for heliports and airports. As a company, Five-Alpha is working with the FAA in this effort as well. Additionally, ASTM International has been developing consensus based standards for vertiports for the past four years, which are efforts that Five-Alpha has been leading as well.
Other key elements that municipalities will have to have in place for reference purposes to meet legal, regulatory and insurance requirements down the road will be the building and fire code standards for vertiports. The National Fire Protection Association, for which Five-Alpha is a committee member and represents the Vertical Flight Society, is currently working on vertiport fire safety codes. The goal is to publish a vertiport standard in the next revision cycle of NFPA-418, Standards for Heliports, which is set to be released in the first quarter of 2024. The public comment period for NFPA-418 is now open and will remain open until January 5, 2022. Anyone who is interested in providing their recommendations or comments on veritport infrastructure log into the NFPA website and complete the public input form.
Finally, how we categorize these vertiports will play a major role in their ultimate success or failure. In the U.S. we currently only have two categories that an airport can fit in from a use case standpoint, “Public-Use” or “Private-Use.” I do not see many of these vertiports being categorized as “Public-Use”, i.e. available to anyone in the general public to operate at, without a requirement for prior approval of the owner or operator. That being said, for what most people envision these locations supporting, i.e., high volume commercial passenger transport operations, “Private-Use” does not fit all that well either given that the FAA has no oversight authority over “Private-Use” facilities in the U.S. I foresee a potential rule change taking place that speaks to increased oversight which would allow the FAA to hold infrastructure developers and owners accountable for meeting “required” standards. This will more than likely be driven by public opinion as it relates to overall safety expectations for this new transportation model and system.
Q: Rex, tell us about your recent report on heliport safety that translates to vertiport infrastructure.
A: We are very proud of the recent white paper that we published at the Vertical Flight Society’s Forum-77 last May entitled “A Retrospective & Historical Analysis of Vertical Lift Infrastructure Accidents for the Purpose of Operational Risk Identification and Accident.” This paper represents a significant effort between Five-Alpha, HeliExperts International, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Transportation Safety Institute in identifying caustational factors for accidents occurring at helicopter infrastructure. While there were a number of items that we expected to find there were several that we discovered that were unexpected. The fact that the FAA Helicopter Flying Handbook does not mention the term Heliport even once was a little disconcerting. A lack of pilot training as to what constitutes good or bad infrastructure was a major finding and recommendation of the study. Overall, the majority of accidents that we evaluated were predictable and sadly preventable. It is our hope that this information will be beneficial in developing future eVTOL/AAM infrastructure standards and best practices.
Q: What resources do you recommend to learn about what you are doing or AAM in general?
A: I highly recommend everyone check out the Vertical Flight Society at www.vtol.org. I don’t know of any other organization that is as plugged into this space as the VFS. I would also recommend anyone interested in following this burgeoning industry and learning more subscribe to the online web news outlet evtol.com at https://evtol.com.
Q: How can people reach you?
A: You can find me and Five-Alpha on Linkedin, Twitter, YouTube, or Clubhouse. Or you can email Five-Alpha at firstname.lastname@example.org (*email here to receive my heliport safety paper). Additionally, be on the lookout for our new website. This site will host a full service heliport and vertiport training and education program for architects, engineers, fire inspectors, investors, attorneys, policy makers, AAM operators and numerous other interested parties.
Dawn M.K. Zoldi (Colonel, USAF, Retired) is a licensed attorney with 28 years of combined active duty military and federal civil service to the Department of the Air Force. She is an intIernationally recognized expert on unmanned aircraft system law and policy, a columnist for several magazines,recipient of the Woman to Watch in UAS (Leadership) Award 2019, President and CEO of UAS Colorado and the CEO of P3 Tech Consulting LLC. For more information, visit her website at: https://www.p3techconsulting.com.
Miriam McNabb is the Editor-in-Chief of DRONELIFE and CEO of JobForDrones, a professional drone services marketplace, and a fascinated observer of the emerging drone industry and the regulatory environment for drones. Miriam has penned over 3,000 articles focused on the commercial drone space and is an international speaker and recognized figure in the industry. Miriam has a degree from the University of Chicago and over 20 years of experience in high tech sales and marketing for new technologies.
For drone industry consulting or writing, Email Miriam.
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