Your taxi is about to land

January 25, 2023

Don’t expect one parked in your driveway anytime soon, but the promise of flying cars is finally arriving.

Whether for commuting, providing emergency services, or cargo delivery, eVTOL (electric vertical takeoff and landing) vehicles are a promising low-altitude, short-and-medium-haul transportation solution. For decades, the pursuit of creating personal flying vehicles, as ubiquitous as cars, has been a dream shared by the world’s largest aircraft manufacturers, inventors, and even backyard hobbyists cobbling together spare lawnmower parts.

Sure, we’ve heard it plenty of times before, “flying cars are coming soon!” just to have years go by with no real development, leaving us to continue our mundane freeway commutes. So, what’s different this time? In short, dramatic advances in battery technology, innovations in drone technology allowing for quieter, safer flight, and tremendous developments in AI and computer learning. In a recent 60 Minutes interview, Acting Administrator of the FAA, Billy Nolan stated, “we want to be very careful, we want to be very measured, …. but this is real, this is happening. We’ve come a long way from where we were just a mere decade ago.”

Prepare for take off

The future market for autonomous urban aircraft is predicted to reach $1.5 trillion by 2040, according to a Morgan Stanly report.  With that kind of potential, and billions being invested already, dozens of eVTOL aircraft manufacturers are in a race to corner the next big leap in transportation and mobility. From startups to giants such as Boeing, Airbus, Toyota, Uber, Hyundai, GM, Fiat Chrysler, Google, and many, many more, we’re witnessing the transformation of urban air mobility. With investors pumping billions of dollars into research and development, some very pioneering approaches have emerged in this battle for the skies. But ultimately, they have essentially the same goal: making personal flight efficient, safe, cost-effective, and accessible to the broader population.

In most of the leading designs there is a reliance on distributed electric propulsion (DEP) which simply means multiple electric engines, and the related air flows, are distributed over the aerodynamic surfaces of the eVTOL vehicle. Using DEP improves performance from the aircraft, increases safety and reliability, uses less energy, and decreases noise. Additionally, electric engines and blades are comparatively light weight and compact, and they are scalable.

Achieving vertical takeoff and landing as well as forward flight has led to some of the most advanced engineering and aesthetically interesting aircraft ever seen. Most aircraft fall into one of three types of lift and propulsion categories:

·         Tilt-thrust – depending on its design, a varying number of blades will change position from providing the lift for launching and landing the vehicle vertically, to then shifting forward to generate propulsion.

·         Lift-Cruise – several blades provide lift while another (larger) propeller provides the propulsion, creating high-efficiency fixed-wing flight.

·         Multi-rotor – a system of multiple fixed rotors provides upward lift and then generate forward thrust by tilting the aircraft forward, much like a standard drone.

And yet, despite their differences, some industry-wide commonalities seem to have become apparent:

·         First, there is fairly unanimous consent that zero-operating emissions will be the presumed standard for short-and medium-flight VTOL aircraft. Even a number of developers currently employing hybrid technology anticipate converting to all-electric models in the future.

·         With an obvious eye to safety, and certification by agencies such as the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) or the EASA (European Union Aviation Safety Agency), the key word is redundancy, redundancy, redundancy. With multi-battery management systems, multiple rotor configurations, and flight system backups, the vehicle will maintain safe flight, stability, and landing, even if losing a motor or navigation.

·         With low altitude flying, noise is certainly a concern. Nearly every prototype competing for use over urban environments is being engineered to meet ultra-low noise specifications. There are competing strategies on how to achieve lower noise levels, such as:

         o Co-rotating blades- a set of two blades, stacked one on top of the other, both turning in the same direction.

        o Ducted blades – the blades operate inside a cylindrical housing, with acoustic liners which helps dampen noise  and directs it either out the back or front of the housing.

·         And certainly, there is an understanding that nobody really gets off the ground until the infrastructure, such as “vertiports” and charging points are integrated into city and airport transportation networks. Not to mention the urban air mobility ecosystem that will be required to ensure easy and coordinated access to aircraft, and safe flight management.

Piloted flight could lead to earlier market entry

Among some eVTOL leaders, having their aircraft piloted by a professional, on-board pilot achieves full FAA certification sooner which means earlier entry into the market. They can begin commercial operations while government agencies and air traffic control systems prepare for large numbers of flying vehicles, piloted or autonomous. It also helps encourage ridership as consumers become more familiar with, and accepting of, flying taxis.  Then, when sufficient infrastructure and regulatory policies are in place, they anticipate moving to autonomous flight which can be remotely monitored or piloted from control centers.

Joby Aviation, based in Santa Cruz, and backed by Toyota to the tune of nearly $400 million, is developing the Joby S4. It has six propellers, four batteries, can carry four passengers plus a pilot, and has 150-mile range with a top speed of 200mph. In a press release from 2020 announcing the investment, Toyota President and CEO, Akio Toyoda, stated, “Air transportation has been a long-term goal for Toyota, and while we continue our work in the automobile business, this agreement sets our sights to the sky.” He added, “Through this new and exciting endeavor, we hope to deliver freedom of movement and enjoyment to customers everywhere, on land, and now, in the sky.”

Joby has publicly declared its goal to provide commercial on-demand air taxi operations by 2024 in the United States. To that end, the company made headlines in May when it announced it received a Part 135 Air Carrier Certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration, ahead of its original schedule. It is one of three certificates required before their 2024 deadline.

Bonny Simi, Head of Air Operations and People at Joby, stated in their announcement, “Over the coming months, we will use our Part 135 certificate to exercise the operations and customer technology platforms that will underpin our multi-modal ridesharing service, while also refining our procedures to ensure seamless journeys for our customers."

Straight to advanced autonomous flight

Other developers are all but skipping the onboard human pilot phase and focusing on self-flying vehicles coupled with ground-based human oversite. Kittyhawk, out of Palo Alto, is going with a “smaller is better” approach, developing the H2, a single-passenger air taxi remotely piloted from a ground control center. The smaller design allows for longer flight times, less noise, less energy consumption, and access to more locations for takeoff and landing. The firm was founded in 2010 by Sebastian Thrun and backed by Google co-founder, Larry Page. Kittyhawk was awarded an airworthiness approval by the U.S. Air Force in 2020 and has been conducting flight testing under Air Force direction.

Once part of Kittyhawk but now power player in its own right, Wisk announced this past January it secured $450 million in funding from the Boeing Company. Based in northern California, Wisk proudly touts its advances in the industry stating, “In 2017, we became the first company in the U.S. to successfully fly an autonomous, eVTOL aircraft designed for passenger use.”  Wisk is now developing its 6th generation eVTOL which is a four-passenger self-flying aircraft with 12 rotors along a fixed wing for lift, and a single, rear propeller for flight.

Now taking orders

Having deep-pocket backers, or going public isn’t going to ensure success, of course. Sales will ultimately determine who stays in business, who gets acquired, and who becomes a footnote. While many conditional pre-orders have been placed with several major contenders, Ireland’s Vertical Aerospace recently captured the spotlight when it announced in March that it secured pre-orders of its VA-X4 eVTOL, and that it now has a “market-leading pre-order book (by value) for a total of up to 1,350 aircraft,” including pre-orders from airlines such as American Airlines, Iberojet, Gol, Japan Airlines, the helicopter transportation company, Bristow, and conditional pre-order options from Virgin Atlantic and the Japanese trading company, Marubeni.

Sharing the friendly skies

But air taxi services won’t be flying the low-altitude skies alone. In fact, we will likely first see more eVTOL aircraft carrying cargo than passengers.

Just as your eVTOL will be taking you to your next destination, other autonomous arial vehicles (AAV) will be transporting cargo, ferrying emergency supplies, or even battling burning buildings.

The Chinese firm, EHang has been showcasing eVTOLs as safety and rescue craft. The EHang 216F autonomous arial vehicle (AAV) has made significant news with its high-rise firefighting and emergency rescue exercises. In a drill conducted with Emergency Command Bureau of Laixi City, EHang “dispatched to successfully complete tasks such as fire detection, aerial broadcasting, airdropping emergency firefighting supplies, breaking high-rise windows and extinguishing fires, and rescuing trapped persons...”  EHang is also in talks with the Spanish National Police to explore using their AAVs for “emergency and security missions, such as firefighting, accessing contaminated areas with nuclear, radiological, bacteriological or chemical risks, landing in confined areas, transporting material, and other police services that may require agile mobility.” 

Sometimes, you just need some speed!

And some eVTOL manufacturers are just in it for the thrill! Jetson Aero out of Sweden has created a single passenger “ultralight” personal electric aircraft for the sports enthusiast, akin to jet skis, ATVs, or motorcycles. An ultralight designation allows it to avoid FAA certification, but also restricts use to unpopulated areas.  It’s eight motor design allows for 20 minutes of adrenaline-pumping flight time at speeds up to 63mph and charges in one hour. Even with a price tag of $92,000, the company has sold out for 2022 but is taking orders for 2023 delivery.

Upping the ante, is the Airspeeder Alauda MK3 billing itself as the world’s first flying racing car. Airspeeder’s mission is to make electric flying car racing a reality and to build the “Formula 1 of the skies.” Its sleek design and high performance are already attracting professional racers and a fan base ready to see pilots take on electronically governed “tracks” over varying terrain around the world.

The eVTOLs are here – but how soon can we be ready for them?

Once the skies do begin to see ride hailing flights, at least over urban areas, it may be some time before such flights go beyond very established and fixed routes. However, we are seeing advances in the high-speed and ultra-long-distance transmission wireless network technology required for an autonomous traffic management system which would provide real-time risk assessment, crash avoidance systems, and nearly instant rerouting and approvals. And the ground infrastructure such as vertiports, charging stations, control centers, and integration into first mile/last mile ride hailing apps and micromobility options are already very far along.

In fact, in an upcoming article, we’ll dive into the infrastructure, regulatory framework, and traffic management advances being made.

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