A prototype of an urban airport for delivery drones and potentially, one day, flying taxis, saw a crate of prosecco rise in the British sky on Monday for a test flight hailed as historic.
Air-One, an ephemeral "vertiport" for drones and future electric vehicles with vertical landing and take-off, is presented by its promoters as the first of its kind and hailed as opening a new era of air transport.
Located in Coventry (central England), long renowned for its automotive industry, the "vertiport" will be used for a month to showcase this emerging sector.
The maiden flight symbolically lifted six bottles of sparkling wine weighing about 12 kilos into the air from the launch pad.
The drone, a Malloy Aeronautics T150 usually used for logistics by the British army, is the largest to fly in an urban environment, according to Ricky Sandhu, founder, and chief executive of Urban-Air Port, the British company of the origin of the project.
A model of a prototype electric aerial vehicle presented at the "vertiport" in Coventry, on April 25, 2022, in England (ADRIAN DENNIS / AFP)
"You are in the world's first fully operational vertiport," he told hundreds of people, including the company's 25 employees and government supporters.
"It's an industry that's taking off, sure, but it's really starting to pick up speed," added the business leader.
"We're all used to change...but it's the importance of change that is always underestimated, and things change really fast," he added.
Urban-Port is developing ground infrastructure for delivery drones and the air taxis expected this decade and has spent the past year preparing for the Coventry demonstration.
The temporary site near the city's train station aims to show how an integrated hub for aircraft can function in the density of an urban environment while illustrating how it can serve as a vertical mini-airport.
Further demonstrations are planned in the UK and beyond in the coming months, with a target of 200 sites worldwide.
The sites are designed to be easily set up and taken down and use hydrogen fuel cells to provide "zero emissions" energy according to the company.
This one claims 65 million pounds sterling (77M EUR) of orders, and projects are planned in the United States, Australia, France, Germany, Scandinavia, and Southeast Asia.
Supernal, the American subsidiary of South Korean car manufacturer Hyundai, which is developing an autonomous flying electric vehicle that can carry passengers, is one of its partners.
"We are focused on building an ecosystem that allows this technology to thrive," commercial director Michael Whitaker told AFP, because "without vertiports, without a place to land, it won't work."
Supernal hopes to have its vehicle certified by 2024 before mass production.
“You will see operations this decade, but I believe the 2030s will really be the decade of advanced air mobility, and from there it will be more pervasive,” Mr. Whitaker said.
Alongside the private sector, Urban-Air Port was one of 48 projects funded by a £300m (EUR356m) government fund for promising projects for green transport.
The company points out that these vertiports could be used by local authorities, including emergency services, as well as logistics operators, or even the army.
West Midlands Police, the country's second-largest force, which covers Coventry and the surrounding area, launched some of its dozen drones from Air-One on Monday.
Mark Colwell, its drone manager, notes that their use has increased "dramatically", from one device in 2017 to 12 today used by specialist officers.
They are launched from patrol vehicles for various operations, research, crowd management, and current legislation requires that they remain within sight.
Such infrastructure "would be very useful", underlined the policeman, "not only for the police" but also for the emergency services.