As news broke that Melbourne was selected as Uber’s first international flying taxi test city, Victorian treasurer Tim Pallas declared that the “future of transport” had arrived.
And Clem Newton-Brown agrees. The director of Skyportz — a start-up aimed at establishing landing infrastructure for VTOLs (vertical take-off and landing aircraft) — Newton-Brown played a supporting role in Melbourne’s bid.
The former deputy lord mayor and member of parliament is working with property developers, government regulators and global consultancy Arup to establish a network of “Skyportz” around the country.
As one of the key figures behind the urban air mobility revolution in Australia, Newton-Brown will be joining us at Urbanity ’19.
In the lead up to Urbanity, we spoke with Newton-Brown about Melbourne’s win, the urban air mobility market and how to convert any flying car skeptic.
You can catch Clem Newton-Brown, and a host of other speakers at Urbanity, 23-24 October 2019.
TUD: We last spoke after Melbourne was announced as Uber’s first international test city, why do you think Melbourne’s bid was successful?
CNB: Uber Air had the choice of any city in the world to launch as its first international test city. We were up against a shortlist of Mumbai, Paris, Sao Paolo, Tokyo and Sydney (sorry Sydney!)
In the end I think it was probably a range of factors that caused them to choose Melbourne:
the enthusiasm and support offered by the Victorian state government to remove regulatory barriers;
the fact that Melbourne has the only central city helipad in Australia which can be used for initial flights prior to the network of Skyportz being established;
the support of CASA which has already facilitated drone deliveries for Google’s Wing project in Canberra.
TUD: You were in Washington D.C. for Uber’s Elevate Summit, what were the highlights?
CNB: It was awesome to be invited by Uber to attend the summit after we had met their team while they were scoping out Melbourne.
The two-day summit spanned a range of issues and meeting some of the very clever people who are developing prototype aircraft was a highlight. Coming from a legal, political and property background it was a real eye opener to enter the world of cutting-edge technology experts.
When they announced Melbourne as the first international test city, I know how Sydneysiders must have felt when they got the Olympics!
TUD: Your company, Skyportz, has partnered with Microflite Helicopters to utilise existing helicopter infrastructure for eVTOLS. Outside of Uber, what is your timeline for the introduction of passenger eVTOLS in Australia?
CNB: Skyportz is focused on providing a network of landing sites over the next five years so that when we have eVTOLs certified to fly commercially they will have somewhere to land.
We are collaborating with Microflite which owns the lease on the only central city helipad in Australia. Microflite will likely end up being involved in operations of these new aircraft as eVTOLs become more efficient than helicopters for some flights.
We will not be producing our own aircraft but we will make our network available for Uber Air and other eVTOL operators. I would anticipate that over the next few years Uber Air will be testing a range of aircraft using existing airports and helipads.
Within 5 years I would expect commercial operations to commence.
TUD: The air mobility market is very competitive, what other players in this space should we keep an eye on?
CNB: There are literally dozens of companies in this race to build a commercially certified eVTOL. From major aviation players such as Bell, Airbus and Boeing right down to small tech startups.
You can check out the full list of prototypes and their stage of development at Transport Up.
A quick look through this list will convert any sceptic who thinks air taxis are just a fantasy.
TUD: How can architects and developers future-proof their buildings for eVTOLs?
CNB: You have to remember that while Uber Air will be providing a seamless booking service which will turn this potential into a real aerial ride sharing service, they will not be producing aircraft or managing Skyportz.
Uber will initially be building major transport hubs in locations that their data says will be in demand, but there will be opportunities for individual building owners to become part of the aerial network by signing up to Skyportz in the early stages.
TUD: Where do you see opportunity for investment in the air mobility market?
CNB: You would be crazy not to incorporate both drone delivery and eVTOL landing infrastructure into any new build.
You won’t get a permit to use it just yet but simply the fact that you have a Skyportz in your development will provide an added attraction to tenants and investors. Skyportz is working with Arup as partners who have already designed several Skyportz around the world.
For existing buildings I would recommend simply registering an interest with Skyportz so that you will be in the loop as things progress.
It may be that a large investor will build and own Skyportz and individual building owners will simply offer a long term commercial lease.
For building owners there is nothing to lose — rooftop space which currently produces no income could become very valuable in the future.
TUD: What’s next for Skyportz?
CNB: We are locking in some really key sites in Melbourne at the moment and we are also taking expressions of interest from building owners in other capital cities (as well as regional tourism destinations).
We will be providing a “set and forget” service for building owners to register and leave it to us to ensure that their buildings are in the mix when the urban aerial mobility revolution arrives.
Uber Air and other VTOL operators are not interested in scoping individual buildings, but for anyone in the Skyportz network we will provide the critical mass to get a seat at the table when the flying taxi services commence.
TUD: And finally, a few ‘parlour game’ questions.
A recent book you enjoyed?
CNB: As a former member of parliament I enjoy all the political “insider” books by authors such as Niki Savva (“Plots and Prayers”) for the fascinating behind-the-scenes stories.
A recent streaming series you enjoyed?
CNB: Last Man on Earth, streaming on SBS on demand. Very quirky and funny.
Someone that inspires you.
CNB: The Wright brothers. These bicycle shop owners laboured for years to produce the first powered flight. What must have seemed a fantasy, they were able to make a reality. And of course very gutsy to strap themselves in to their contraption and take off!
Up to three buildings or projects that inspire you.
CNB: Picnic Island in Tasmania. Urban renewal projects such as the Highline in New York and Cheonggyecheon in Seoul.
The low-rise art deco buildings which have survived in Melbourne such as Alkira House, Yule house and the Majorca building.
Who are you looking forward to meeting at Urbanity?
CNB: Urbanity will be a great opportunity to catch up with people in the industry to discuss urban aerial mobility.
The property industry can’t help much with the background work now going on to develop aircraft but once they start flying the property industry is the missing piece of the puzzle. Without us there can be no aerial ride sharing service.
I will also be looking forward to chatting with Sam Tarascio about the potential for delivery drones in his transport, logistics and property businesses.
Over two days in October, Urbanity will bring together the leading creators of cities in the Asia Pacific to learn, connect and be inspired.