On The Radar
An airport master plan update being drafted for Florida’s Tampa International Airport (KTPA) has brought to light a Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority (TBARTA) Innovative Transit Technologies Feasibility Study that explored urban air mobility options and other cutting-edge alternatives such as air gondolas and hyperloop. The updated master plan seeks to provide a 20-year horizon for the airport and will include provisions for “new or emerging trends and technologies,” with autonomous vehicles and eVTOLs specifically mentioned.
For the urban air mobility (UAM) portion, the master plan update will rely heavily on the TBARTA study, which was completed in July 2020, as well as a follow-on geographic information systems (GIS) model conducted by NASA that employed “heat mapping” to determine the best locations for air taxi vertiports. The heat map of Hillsborough County, where KTPA is located, identified 11 places for analysis, including the airport itself, Amalie Arena, and the Tampa Convention Center.
Notably, the TBARTA study gives an inside look at what city planners need to consider when seeking transportation alternatives that would sidestep already crowded roads. In early 2019, the Florida state legislature appropriated $1 million for the study, with the aim of developing innovative transit opportunities to support regional transit service and/or infrastructure within Hernando, Hillsborough, Pasco, Pinellas, and Manatee counties.
TBARTA began the study in November 2019 as the first step in evaluating what the authority identified as three emerging technologies: aerial gondolas, air taxis, and hyperloop. The study “endeavored to understand where each of the technologies are in the development process, the intended operational and service capabilities of each of the technologies, and how they can support potential transit connectivity within the Tampa Bay region.”
However, these technologies are not being pitted against each other in the study; instead, they are viewed as complementary and each is used only where it makes the most sense to do so. In the study, air gondolas were viewed as already technologically feasible, while air taxis are envisioned to begin operations in medium-density areas in 2030 and the hyperloop is not projected to be available until at least 2035.
But the study shows air taxis as having the greatest potential to improve regional transit due to their flexibility—providing “point-to-point connectivity where fixed-guideway cannot”—despite this option having the lowest infrastructure cost. Air gondolas and hyperloop require much more expensive infrastructure and serve only fixed routes—short routes for the former and much longer ones for the latter, including a proposed Tampa-Orlando-Melbourne-Miami-Jacksonville hyperloop network.
Study researchers identified 28 airports (17 private and 11 public) and 49 helipads (34 private and 15 public) in the Tampa Bay region that could be employed for eVTOL vertiports. The study said that early deployment of air taxis could take advantage of existing infrastructure to test the service with little additional cost. Once the air taxi concept is proven, planners could retrofit or build new vertiports.
While researchers identified the three eVTOL propulsion designs being developed—lift and cruise, vertical thrust, and multirotor—the study was largely agnostic about which would best serve the region. That said, the study did note that lift-and-cruise and vertical-thrust eVTOLs have ranges (50 to 70 miles) that are longer than the “typical distance between locations within the TBARTA region with the greatest travel demand.” But, it added, “It is assumed that some of these use cases may change as technology progresses and developers begin to define refined business cases for trip types.”
According to the study, piloted air taxi demonstration projects are expected to begin by 2025. In the meantime, it said, “Air taxi developers will continue to work on flight testing and aircraft certification, and testing specific use cases for air taxi mobility.”
According to the study’s recommendations, TBARTA could invite air taxi developers to present their aircraft’s capabilities and the status of their testing in a public forum, including at board meetings or even at a larger industry summit. “This would put the Tampa Bay region on the UAM industry’s radar as the industry continues development,” it noted.
Another suggestion was for TBARTA to work with air taxi developers to conduct test flights in the Tampa Bay region, in close coordination and collaboration with Tampa International Airport. Local media reports that city officials have been talking to Lilium and other undisclosed eVTOL developers, but nothing yet has materialized on this front.
The final recommendation was for TBARTA to collaborate with NASA on its work with local communities to evaluate potential vertiport locations. And this is what led to the aforementioned heat-mapping study that is now “99.9 percent” complete, TBARTA officials said at a recent board meeting.
TBARTA and the Hillsborough Transportation Planning Organization (TPO) worked with Dr. Kapil Sheth, an aerospace engineer at NASA Ames Research Center, on customizing the agency’s GIS model for Hillsborough County. Now that this work is pretty much complete, the Hillsborough TPO “has taken ownership of the model.”
NASA’s modeling tool considers regional parameters, zoning, environmental impact, intermodal systems, location suggestions, and vertiport selection. In addition, the agency also has a regional simulation tool—called vertiport assessment, and mobility operations system (VAMOS!)—that can simulate vehicle flight and assess the feasibility of flights, route structure between locations, and environmental impact.
Through data provided by the TPO, NASA was able to create the vertiport heat map of the surrounding Hillsborough County.