Electric Air Mobility ready for lift off
Twenty years ago industrial designer Stephen Tibbitts wrote a proposal to NASA for a grant to develop an electric-powered vertical take-off and landing aircraft. Nobody wanted to listen and without funding he was forced to park his idea. Now the space and aeronautics agency is a prime mover in the bid to develop eVTOLs and Tibbitts’ company Zeva Aero is one of a handful to have successfully flown a full-scale craft.
The Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) sector is poised for take off. Morgan Stanley Research believes that such aircraft could be common by 2040 projecting a total addressable market of $1.5 trillion. Venture capital and public money is pouring into eVTOL projects to fund start-ups like Zeva Aero and ‘flying taxi’ prototypes of automotive giants like Hyundai. Morgan Stanley’s more bullish forecast places the market at $2.9tn.
Tibbitts thinks even this is conservative. “If you project out, AAM could be bigger than automotive. It is no longer science fiction.”
“Essentially, we’re seeing a convergence of macro factors like decarbonisation and increasing urbanisation with the maturity of technology that enables Advanced Air Mobility,” explains James Richmond, head of AAM for design and consultancy Atkins.
“We’ve talked about the idea of these new types of aircraft for a long time, but the technology is now maturing to make it a reality – and the fact that these aircrafts are zero emission, electric-powered vehicles that can play a role in tackling some of these big societal challenges like the need for more sustainable aviation. Now is the time there is both a ‘push’ and a ‘pull’ in terms of technology and market demand respectively.”
Electric technology advances
The vertical take-off and landing concept has been around for decades mainly in military use. Like those, an eVTOL takes off and lands vertically, but when at cruising altitude flies similarly to a plane. The vertical launch means the eVTOL doesn’t require a long runway and it offers carbon-free air travel. Flights would launch from special ‘Vertiports’ of which hundreds of thousands will be needed to facilitate point to point journeys.
“At a foundational level, the technologies that enable successful eVTOL operations, such as batteries, are at a place today fit to build an economically viable business,” says Adam Goldstein, CEO and founder at eVTOL maker Archer Aviation. “VCs who are attuned to the space understand this timeline, as well as the promise of the eVTOL industry, and the many benefits this next generation of transportation will bring.”
While the end goal is mass market consumer transport, the two initial target markets are business oriented.
In a 2021 paper NASA states that “eVTOL aircraft will have the potential to become an essential tool to Public Service agencies around the world in applications such as firefighting, public safety, search and rescue, disaster relief and law enforcement.”
In 2018 NASA funded an industry contest aimed at accelerating UAM development. It has since teamed with Elroy Air to develop the world’s first automated VTOL aerial cargo system (VTOL is a hybrid EV and conventionally-fuelled craft which will have the longer ranges and greater payload before electric technology catches up).
“Fire departments are responsible for regions that are very wide spread and they want vehicles that can carry a medic with a full life saving kit,” Tibbitts says. “They want 120 miles range to fly out and return. Our target is a vehicle that will fulfil that need.”
Zeva has a ship-to-shore model in development called Z2 with interest from the US Navy. “The Navy has an RFP out for a compact VTOL that doesn’t require a launch or capture system and can haul 200lb ship to shore,” he explains. “The other category is rich people. Our compact design can land on almost any boat without modification. It doesn’t have to be mega yachts.”
UAM for business travellers
The pitch to the business traveller is about time, speed and efficiency.
“From JFK to Manhattan by road can take two-three hours,” says James Bircumshaw, UK and EMEA infrastructure manager, at AAM infrastructure group Skyports. “By air it’s six minutes. Traditionally the only other way is by helicopter and these are prohibitively expensive to the mass market including most business travellers.”
Skyports is a recipient of the UK Government’s Future Flight Challenge providing grants to help accelerate AAM. This includes building a new test vertiport outside London. Separately, the company last year acquired a public heliport close to Canary Wharf and plans to develop it as a potential vertiport for eVTOL aircraft.
“This will not replace the bus or train. Paddington Express is going to be the quickest route from Heathrow to central London. But Heathrow to Canary Wharf? That’s 90 minutes on public transport or two hours by car. eVTOL will start with premium customers and eventually get to a price point that is mass transportation.”
The lead times for craft certification take years and building an operational aviation grade infrastructure even longer but with the first eVOTLs on track to be certified by 2024-25 developers like Skyports says they need to invest now or risk missing out.
This business case is being backed by concrete orders. California-based Archer has a $1 billion order with an option for an additional $500 million of aircraft from United Airlines as part of the airline’s “commitment to decarbonisation” according to Goldstein.
“The partnership will enable United customers to travel to and from airports in a sustainable manner,” while helping Archer accelerate its own development roadmap.
Last month, Archer received the first $10m pre-delivery payment from United, one of the first of its kind in the industry.
The four year-old company listed on the NY stock exchange in February 2021 valued at $3.8bn. It is focused on urban air mobility (UAM) where VCs are convinced that eVTOL aircraft can overcome the overcrowding, pollution, and aging transportation infrastructure. The developer has already signed partnerships with Los Angeles and Miami, “two cities in the heart of the overcrowding crisis.”
“We’re focused on improving urban mobility, easing commuter congestion, and making it possible for passengers to experience new parts of their surroundings made accessible by the speed and range of eVTOL travel.”
Archer’s ‘Midnight’ craft has 12 rotors, with six tilting rotors in front of the wing and six fixed rotors used for the transition phase of flight that are only used for hover and cruise.
“This design is key to our production aircraft’s ability to fly at 150mph for distances of up to 100 miles, enabling intra-city mobility as well as longer range trips to the areas surrounding cities,” Goldstein explains. “It will have a payload of over 1,000 pounds and carry four passengers, plus a pilot.”
Remote region connectivity
Other eVTOL companies that are working on UAM are building wingless multirotors with ranges of 10-15 miles, with design differences emphasising the aircrafts’ varying purposes. Zeva’s Zero craft for instance is uniquely saucer shaped and will fly one passenger/pilot over 50 miles at 160mph.
Tibbitts thinks the urban-first approach is fraught with difficulty. “The hurdles to clearing regulation in any city is horrendous. I think the FAA [Federal Aviation Authority] is very open to discussion and to getting the rules in place but I don’t see this as short term.”
He points instead to use cases for eVTOL in remote parts of the world “that are never going to have infrastructure like roads. Indonesia comprises 18000 islands. Norway has a similar disperse geography, or the Amazon basin. That is where eVOTL shines.”
Bircumshaw disagrees and says the focus of most of the industry is on UAM. “eVOTL companies have raised millions if not billions of dollars and they are not going to return that investment by operating a fleet of five vehicles for search and rescue work. They have to be operating in LA or Dubai, markets where they can get thousands of movements through every day.”
Aviation tests, safety and certification
eVTOL manufacturers are currently accruing the thousands of hours of flight testing necessary for certification.
According to Richmond, aviation authorities are already developing regulation in their jurisdiction – “in the UK, the CAA has already established a route to certification – as are the likes of the FAA in America and the EASA for the EU.”
Tibbetts says Zeva is certified to fly today as an experimental aircraft and provided the pilot has a licence and flies over nonpopulated areas during the day.
Bircumshaw concedes there are ‘massive safety concerns’ which is why eVOTL are undergoing rigorous tests.
“These vehicles are being certified to the same safety level as an Airbus A320 commercial jet. There are no shortcuts. They will be safer than helicopters.”
Archer says it is on track to certify Midnight for commercial use by the end of 2024. Once FAA Type Certification has been obtained, it plans to launch the first [business consumer] flights in 2025.
By 2026 up to half a dozen different eVTOL crafts could be certified for use, predicts Bircumshaw. “We need to be ready,” he says.
Skyports’ main European test site at the Cergy Pontoise Airfield, Paris, is timed to open for the Olympics 2024.
“We want to do very advanced demos from Charles de Gualle to the Olympics village. To do that we are spending the next two years in extensive tests with vehicle manufacturers and a number of other partners to make the ecosystem viable.”
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