Electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft and the new urban air mobility (UAM) business model that they are designed to support have the potential to make a lot of people very happy. Passengers stand to benefit from gridlock-busting alternatives to being trapped in ever-worsening road traffic. Investors expect to be rewarded for their faith in the pioneering startups driving new products to market. And those with mounting concerns about aviation’s environmental impact see the electric aviation revolution as a prime opportunity for the industry to get more sustainable.
Last year, Nexa Advisors and the Vertical Flight Society published a forecast that the UAM market across 74 cities worldwide will be worth around $318 billion between 2020 and 2040. The study estimated that as many as 1.3 billion passengers could be carried in and around these cities in that 20-year period, generating demand for 28,000 eVTOL aircraft. Spending on infrastructure alone (ground facilities and air traffic management) was estimated at $32 billion.
By the same token, the optimism surrounding this much-hyped new sector of aviation often seems ill-founded to seasoned industry watchers. The pioneers face multiple challenges to viably deliver the scale of change they promise, and the next three or four years seem likely to make a mockery of some of the more inflated claims and unrealistically ambitious timeframes for delivery.
According to some assessments, there could be as many as 200 new eVTOL and electrically powered fixed-wing aircraft in the works worldwide. Some of these are intended to be operated autonomously, although most will at least begin operations with a pilot on board. It’s a safe bet that many of these will never feel the wind beneath their rotors, but it’s hard not to be impressed by the energy, imagination and, yes, vast amounts of cash, that are fueling the dream.
Asia-Pacific Early Adopters
The Asia-Pacific region is fast emerging as a key source of momentum for this exciting new sector. Several cities in the region are expected to be early adopters of urban air mobility and a number of leading companies in this part of the world are among providing significant financial backing for eVTOL programs.
Here in Singapore, back in October 2019, Germany’s Volocopter and the UK’s Skyport unveiled a mockup of the VoloPort in the city’s Marina Bay district. With the agreement of the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (Chalet C512), they also conducted a short demonstration flight with the prototype of the VoloCity aircraft, which Volocopter says will achieve European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) type certification in time for service entry by the end of 2022.
In September 2019, Chinese automobile group Geely announced an investment of around $55 million in Volocopter and signaled its intention to bring UAM operations to China. Geely, which also owns a stake in German carmaker Daimler, is in discussions to mass-produce the VoloCity and bring down the cost of operating it.
Geely is not the only Asian automobile group making a big move into electric aviation. In recent months, South Korea’s Hyundai and Japan’s Toyota have each made significant investments in the fast-emerging eVTOL sector.
At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January, Hyundai Motor Company and Uber announced plans to work together to develop a new eVTOL aircraft to be used for the planned Uber Air air-taxi service. Rideshare giant Uber now has eight prospective manufacturing partners, which also include Boeing, Embraer (Chalet CD37), Bell (Chalet Q01), Pipistrel Aircraft, as well as three start-ups: Karem Aircraft, Joby Aviation, and Jaunt Air Mobility. It has identified Melbourne in Australia as a possible early adoption city for eVTOL flights.
Hyundai’s planned all-electric S-A1 aircraft is projected to offer range of 60 miles, speeds of up to 180 mph and a cruising altitude of between 1,000 and 2,000 feet. The aircraft, which features four sets of rotors for vertical lift and four propellers for cruise flight, will seat four passengers. Hyundai says the aircraft’s batteries will need between five and seven minutes to recharge.
Also last month, Toyota Motor Corp. was announced as the lead investor in a $590 million Series C financing round for Joby Aviation. The Japanese company has invested $394 million in the California-based start-up and will provide manufacturing and quality control support of its S4 eVTOL, which Joby says will be ready to enter service in 2023.
The all-electric S4 features six sets of propellers—four mounted on the wings and two aft—with a cabin optimized for ridesharing operations. Capable of reaching a speed of 200 mph, it will have a range of 150 miles on a single charge.
Meanwhile, in late December, China’s EHang raised around $46 million in an initial public offering on New York’s Nasdaq Global Market. This was a bit less than half the $100 million the company had targeted from the IPO, but the new cash will boost efforts to complete the development of EHang’s all-electric, autonomous 216 and 116 aircraft.
Takeoff in China
In 2019, with the approval of the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), EHang began some demonstration flights in its home city of Guangzhou and various other locations in China. It has also conducted demonstration flights in the Netherlands, North Carolina, and Austria, where its Chinese-owned partner FACC is based.
In February, it filed an application with CAAC for operations in support of a customer’s logistics business under the Pilot Operations Rules (Interim) for Specific Unmanned Aircraft. The company also holds an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) safety certificate from the China Academy of Civil Aviation Science and Technology (CAST). The level II certificate vouches for the safe performance of the 216 and EHang’s Falcon drone in a UAS ‘fence’ in Guangzhou that the company has developed to avoid autonomous aircraft from operating in restricted areas.
The 216 can carry a payload of 485 pounds on flights of up to 22 miles and at speeds of up to 81 mph. Its single-seat sister aircraft, the 116, has the same range and speed limits.
The company has not yet published dates for anticipated type certification of its first two autonomous aircraft, but it has already started making deliveries to various partner companies who are expected to act as distributors. It claims to hold “orders” for around 1,000 aircraft.
The eVTOL sector has also attracted more established aerospace players. Several of these are at the Singapore Air Show this week.
In December, Boeing (Chalet WN93) formalized an existing partnership with eVTOL start-up Kitty Hawk by creating a new joint venture called Wisk. The new company will focus on bringing Kitty Hawk’s two-seat, electric Cora aircraft, which has now completed more than 1,000 test flights in New Zealand, where California-based Wisk has taken over Kitty Hawk’s Zephyr Airworks subsidiary.
Boeing has not disclosed the size of its financial investment in Wisk, but it appears to be the majority partner. Gary Gysin, formerly president and CEO of Boeing autonomous marine vehicle subsidiary Liquid Robotics, is head of the joint venture. In addition to Kitty Hawk founder and CEO Sebastian Thrun, Wisk’s board of directors includes Boeing NeXt vice president and general manager Steve Nordlund and Boeing Horizon X vice president Logan Jones.
Gysin told AIN that New Zealand will continue to be the hub for development work on the Cora, which is being designed to operate autonomously. Wisk has an established cooperation with Air New Zealand and is building on Kitty Hawk’s outreach work to the country’s aviation and civic authorities. It expects to see the first passenger-carrying flights conducted there and in October 2019 New Zealand officials announced plans for airspace integration trials with unmanned aircraft. Cora is expected to provide a range of up to 60 miles and is being specifically developed for UAM applications.
Wisk is just part of Boeing’s wider involvement in this sector. Through its Aurora Flight Sciences subsidiary, the aerospace giant is working on a larger Passenger Air Vehicle eVTOL, which is expected to resume test flights this year (after an interruption following a crash in June 2019).
Meanwhile, the Boeing NeXt team is developing an autonomous Cargo Air Vehicle intended for freight deliveries. In October 2019, the company announced a partnership with German sports car maker Porsche to work on new designs for a luxury eVTOL model.
Nordlund told AIN that Boeing views “the future mobility space” as a big, long-term project that requires the development of a sophisticated eco-system, of which aircraft are only one part. “It takes a very broad approach and is a very long journey,” he explained. “They [the Passenger Air Vehicle and Cargo Air Vehicle] are at the research and development stage and provide great platforms for technology maturation. Cora is a very mature vehicle, and, although there is still work to do, our goal is to make this part of our portfolio. Boeing’s exact role will be defined over time. The issue now is solving passengers’ problems and it is still to be defined what the end products will look like. None of the vehicles underway today have hit all the requirements.”
Boeing Plays the Long Game
Quizzed as to whether the Boeing group’s wider financial and business challenges might reduce its appetite for investing in the new UAM sector, Nordlund gave no reason to believe this would shift its focus. “We’re looking to provide the safest solution,” he said. “Speed to market is irrelevant to us and we try not to talk about timelines and dates. Boeing has paralleled this history of aviation and we will be there.”
Last year, Boeing and Safran (Chalet G18) announced a joint investment in energy storage specialist Electric Power Systems (EPS). The undisclosed investment during a Series A funding round has boosted the Utah-based company’s efforts to develop a highly automated industrial base capable of producing aviation-grade batteries at far higher rates than is possible today. The aim is that this will reduce the cost of the batteries, making them more viable for electric aircraft.
France-based Safran is actively involved in a number of electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft developments, including Bell’s Nexus (see below), for which it is providing a new turboshaft to support its hybrid-electric powerplant. It has also been involved in Zunum’s ZA-10 fixed-wing program, which appears to be stalled due to a lack of funds, and, reportedly with MetroSkyways’ City Hawk.
Safran views the eVTOL sector as a launchpad for introducing electrical power to larger aircraft, and, in its view, improving the efficiency of energy storage is a key factor in achieving this. “We think that eVTOL is a significant business opportunity that still faces a lot of uncertainty,” Hervé Blanc, vice president of the group’s Electrical & Power division told AIN. “The eVTOL aircraft are perfect for demonstrating the benefits of electric and hybrid power solutions and we expect them to drive other opportunities with larger aircraft.
According to Safran, weight constraints for energy storage units are a far greater challenge for aviation than they are in the automotive sector. So too, are the ability to meet safety standards and to produce large numbers of batteries at an acceptable cost. The company also is working on algorithms to ensure that operators will know with a high degree of accuracy how much charge is left in batteries so that they can be sure of landing safely.
Safran also has invested in Oxis Energy, which is developing new lithium-sulfur batteries. In July 2019, it acquired Neelogy, a France-based specialist in electrical current sensors.
Further ahead, the group believes electrical power will prove viable for regional airliners. At the Paris Air Show in June 2019, it announced a partnership with Daher and Airbus through which they will seek to improve the aerodynamics of hybrid power solutions on larger aircraft through development work on one of Daher’s TBM single-engine turboprop aircraft.
Meanwhile, Embraer, which is in the process of merging with Boeing, has its own ambitions in the UAM sector. In early January, the Brazilian aircraft manufacturer’s EmbraerX division announced a partnership with Elroy Air to develop a cargo-carrying eVTOL aircraft called the Chaparral. The companies said the autonomously operated aircraft, which will have a hybrid-electric propulsion system, will be able to deliver payloads of up to 300 pounds over distances of up to 300 miles.
Elroy said it intends to complete type aircraft certification in 2022 under the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)’s Special Class 21.17 (b) rules. According to the California-based company, Embraer will be involved in the program in an advisory capacity “in the areas of engineering, business, and certification.”
The Chaparral’s propulsion system consists of a forward propeller and vertical flight rotors driven by electric motors, with a turboshaft engine and electrical generator. “The system features unique and patented cargo-handling systems enabling unattended pickup and drop-off of cargo pods, which will unlock high-throughput logistics with very little down-time compared to today’s air cargo [operations] in which assets are utilized at lower daily levels,” Elroy co-founder and CEO David Merrill told AIN.
EmbraerX president and CEO Antonio Campello told AIN that Embraer’s experience in providing aftermarket support once the Chaparral enters service could be very valuable and that it is investing in developing an “ecosystem” to support eVTOL aircraft entering service.
Separately, Campello said EmbraerX will announce further new partnerships in the UAM sector during the first half of this year. The company has been working on plans for a passenger-carrying eVTOL aircraft but has steadfastly declined to say how advanced this program may be. Campello declined to comment as to whether the future of these plans might change once Embraer’s merger with Boeing is complete.
No Rush for eVTOL
Boeing’s rival Airbus (Chalet CD23-35) shares its belief that success in the UAM sector requires a more gradual approach than many of the eVTOL start-ups racing to be first to market. Two separate Airbus group entities—the Silicon Valley-based A3 by Airbus (known as A-cubed) advanced technology subsidiary and Airbus Helicopters—are leading efforts to launch Airbus's entry to the eVTOL market with a pair of technology demonstrators being used to define the planned design. A3 was responsible for flight testing the single-seat Vahana model, which concluded in 2019, and Airbus Helicopters is working on the four-seat CityAirbus aircraft, which made its first flight in 2019. Neither of these aircraft is intended to become production models, but the lessons learned from the programs will guide Airbus’s plans for a passenger eVTOL that is now understood to be at the early stages of product definition work that could be complete by the end of 2020.
On October 2, 2019, Airbus Helicopters signed a memorandum of understanding with EASA to cooperate in the field of VTOL aircraft. The agreement will cover work such as the European manufacturer's Racer demonstrator, the certification of new piloting assistance systems such as Airbus's EAGLE technology, and thermal/electrical hybridization of rotorcraft (including new eVTOL designs).
“Having lived and worked in Silicon Valley, I’m well aware of the fail-safe-fail-cheap philosophy of many tech start-ups there, but this approach doesn’t work when you are planning to fly people over people,” Eduardo Dominguez-Puerta, Airbus’ senior v-p for urban mobility, told AIN. “We have a strong safety brand and because of our track record, the regulators know we are serious about this. So, we don’t want to take a short-term approach.”
Airbus believes more progress is required to establish a clear legal, environmental, and social policy foundation for operating these aircraft in urban environments. Like Boeing, the European group is committing significant resources to work with all stakeholders to resolve these issues. It also sees significant challenges in terms of integrating the new category of aviation into the air traffic management system and believes that its in-house expertise in this area will give it an edge over new market entrants with shallow aviation roots.
“One key difference between us and the start-ups is that we don’t need to raise money from venture capitalists,” he commented. “The people who have to do that tend to over-communicate what their plans are and, in our view, some of the vehicles that come from this process will not be optimal. They don’t have the chance to test different configurations and so they have to take a chance on one configuration.”
Also, at last month’s CES show, Bell (Chalet Q01) displayed a smaller version of its Nexus eVTOL aircraft, with four rotors instead of six. The Nexus is designed for all-electric or hybrid-electric power, but is “propulsion-agnostic,” according to Bell, “depending on customer needs.” The four-rotor Nexus 4EX model will have initially a 60-mile electric range, but that could be greater with hybrid-electric power.
The latest design is a tilting four-duct vehicle configurable in an electric or hybrid-electric platform that features a central wing, integrated landing skids, and a conventional vertical tail but without a horizontal stabilizer. When announced at CES 2019 as a six-ducted design, first flight for Nexus was projected in 2020, with aircraft certification to follow in 2023. Bell has not yet provided an updated plan for the 4EX, which is now the final configuration for the Nexus.
Bell also has unveiled what it calls its AerOS urban air mobility operating system, which president and CEO Mitch Snyder described a “smart city ecosystem.” The Bell demonstration at CES highlighted how “mobility as a service” software like AerOS can manage a metropolitan area’s UAM activities. Bell intends to offer AerOS, which runs on Microsoft’s Azure platform, to cities to speed up their adoption of UAM capabilities.
The AerOS demo showed how the system takes into account problems that inevitably come up during passenger and cargo flying operations, for example, weather events that might require all vehicles to land immediately. AerOS also creates an optimal flight schedule based on goal-seeking optimization algorithms and artificial intelligence to anticipate passenger behavior and desires and the vehicle’s needs for battery recharging to meet the schedule.
Last October, hybrid-electric propulsion developer Ampaire (Chalet W87) announced a partnership with fellow U.S. company Ikhana Aircraft to modify Twin Otter airframes to fly with that technology. Ikhana is known for engineering modifications for Twin Otters, including having received a supplemental type certificate for its DHC-6-300HG with a maximum gross weight increase to 14,000 pounds, from 12,500 pounds.
The two companies have launched a NASA-funded study to explore the “electrification” of the Twin Otter. Under NASA’s Electric Aircraft Propulsion program, the two companies are evaluating various options and produce plans to assess the cost, schedule and risk mitigation for the planned development. The partners’ goal is to be able to put a hybrid-electric version of Ikhana’s 19-seat RWMI DHC-6 300HG Twin Otter. The 1,500 hp/1 MW power specifications of the current aircraft’s Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6 engines meet the criteria for the NASA program.
Since the partnership announcement, California-based Ampaire has made no comment on progress with the prospective Twin Otter re-engining program or its other plans to develop electrically powered versions of other existing aircraft.
Ampaire’s first project has been to produce a hybrid-electric version of the Cessna 337 Skymaster piston single called the EEL. Hawaii-based operator Mokulele Airlines is supposed to begin flight trials with the aircraft this year and reportedly has placed orders for the model.
The EEL aircraft first flew in June 2019 and since then Ampaire has relocated its electric motor from the rear of the aircraft to the front. Both aviation gasoline and electric motors are rated at 210hp (160 kW). The electric motor is throttled via software so that the stock engine can keep up with it.
At the EAA AirVenture show in July 2019, Ampaire announced plans to bring hybrid-electric power to the Cessna 208B Grand Caravan and Viking Twin Otter, as well as offering a diesel-hybrid retrofit option for piston-powered aircraft. Company CEO Kevin Noertker said his company’s engine conversions cut fuel consumption by between 70 and 90 percent, reduce maintenance expense by 20 to 50 percent, and produce significantly quieter aircraft.
Two variants of the Twin Otter will be offered: one with a 310-hp Continental IO-550 piston engine and a 215-hp (160-kW) electric propulsion system and the other with a 300-hp Continental CD-300 diesel engine and the same 215-hp electric system. Customers will have a choice of selecting a pressurized or unpressurized cabin, as well as four or six seats. Winglets and a STOL kit will be standard. Type certification is expected in 2021.
Supply Chain Steps Up
The UAM and electric aircraft sector also has attracted investment from across the aerospace supply chain. Several other exhibitors here at the Singapore Air Show already have skin in the game.
In December, aircraft controls systems specialist Moog (Chalet N87) completed its acquisition of Workhorse’s SureFly eVTOL program for $4 million. Workhorse and Moog also have established a 50:50 joint venture to complete the development of the HorseFly unmanned cargo delivery drone.
Moog has yet to publish a timeline for completing the development of SureFly. In October, the HorseFly began trial operations delivering medical supplies in San Diego, California, under a pilot program approved by the FAA.
The hybrid SureFly is powered by a turbine generator with battery backup and has eight props driven by electric motors. It also has a whole-aircraft ballistic parachute for emergencies. In June 2018, Workhorse said it applied to the FAA to begin the certification process for the vehicle, which made a first flight earlier that year.
The HorseFly multicopter has a maximum takeoff weight of just 30 pounds, a 10-pound payload capacity, and a top speed of 50 mph.
Collins Aerospace (Chalet V01) is making a major investment in its new electrical power development facility in Rockford, Illinois. The Grid facility, which is due to be fully operational by 2021, with initial operations to begin later this year. The new facility will harness expertise from across the group, including UTC Aerospace Systems, which United Technologies merged with Rockwell Collins when it acquired the company.
The group is looking to harness its extensive experience of systems integration capability as part of the “more electric aircraft” trend to replace hydraulic systems with electrical systems. Its engineers are engaged in research and development work with multiple component suppliers to work out the best combinations of technology.
In Project 804, Collins is working with Pratt & Whitney to develop a hybrid-electric propulsion system that would be capable of powering a regional airliner. The team is preparing for a 2022 first flight by a re-engined Bombardier Dash 8 Q100 twin turboprop with a 2MW powerplant, consisting of a 1MW thermal engine and a 1MW motor controller battery system.
“Power management is necessary for [electric aircraft] engines to make them safe and manageable in flight,” said Stan Kottke, Collins’ v-p for electrical power systems. “Following all the mergers and acquisitions, we can move power all the way from the engine to the load equipment of the aircraft.”
Collins says it is working with several eVTOL aircraft developers but is not able to confirm which ones for now. It is also expanding partnerships with battery specialists to explore applications for new power storage technology.
Honeywell Aerospace (Chalet CS30) is to supply Vertical Aerospace with fly-by-wire control systems for its as-yet unnamed eVTOL aircraft that the UK manufacturer says will enter service by 2023. Under a strategic-partnership agreement announced last July, Honeywell will provide systems including triplex fly-by-wire computers for a prototype that is due to fly in 2020.
Vertical's eVTOL is expected to have room for around four passengers and could have sufficient range to fly between cities. The new design will feature a wing, with changes having been made as a result of lessons learned from flight testing of the earlier Seraph technology demonstrator. The production model is expected to deliver greater range and speed.
Honeywell is expanding its involvement in the emerging electric aircraft sector and is already partnered in at least three other programs. These include Eviation Aircraft’s Alice (flight control systems), the Pipistrel 801 (fly-by-wire control system, navigation systems, and avionics displays) and Joint Air Mobility’s ROSA (avionics, navigation systems, electric propulsion, and connectivity solutions).
Last November, the U.S. aerospace group further advanced its ambitions in the UAM sector with an investment in artificial intelligence specialist Daedalean. Honeywell is working with the Swiss-based start-up to develop an AI-based system that will support autonomous takeoff and landings, as well as a vision-based navigation and collision avoidance capability for light fixed-wing and eVTOL aircraft that does not depend on GPS.
BAE Systems (Chalet N74) is developing the energy management system for Jaunt Air Mobility’s ROSA eVTOL aircraft. Under an agreement signed in December, BAE's Controls and Avionics Solutions division is handling this part of the program.
BAE Systems has 20-plus years of experience in developing and integrating electric propulsion systems. The company has more than 10,000 electric-hybrid systems on transit buses and marine vessels around the globe, including major cities such as Paris, London, New York, and San Francisco. The UK-based group also has more than 40 years of experience in controls and avionics for military and commercial aircraft.
Last year, aircraft engine maker Rolls-Royce (Chalet N23) took steps to strengthen its ability to capitalize on the demand for electric aircraft. First, in June, it announced the planned (and now completed) acquisition of Siemens’s electric and hybrid-electric “eAircraft” business. Then, in July, it reached an agreement with the German state of Brandenburg to establish a new facility for developing and manufacturing hybrid-electric drive systems for aircraft.
The initiative aims to pioneer the development of hybrid-electric 400 to 1,000 kW propulsion systems and builds on Rolls-Royce’s existing cooperation with the Brandenburg Technical University (BTU) in Cottbus-Senftenberg. The state of Brandenburg and Rolls-Royce committed to co-fund the initiative over the next six years.
In December, Rolls-Royce unveiled the design of its first electric race plane under its ACCEL (Accelerating the Electrification of Flight) program. The company is looking to beat the world speed record for an electric aircraft by flying the aircraft at more than 300 miles per hour ahead of this summer’s Farnborough Air Show.
According to Rolls-Royce, ACCEL will have the most power-dense battery pack ever assembled for an aircraft, enabling it to fly 200 miles (London to Paris) on a single charge of its 6,000 cells. The propeller is driven by three electric motors delivering more than 500 hp. Rolls said that “even during the record run, the all-electric powertrain will deliver power with 90 percent energy efficiency and, of course, zero emissions.”
Rolls-Royce is also partnered with Airbus on the E-Fan X technology demonstrator project and with Norwegian airline Widerøe on a program that could replace its regional fleet of airliners with electric aircraft by 2030.
Thales (Chalet F23) is partnered with Bell in the development of its Nexus eVTOL aircraft, for which it is providing the flight control system. The France-based group is also developing other technologies for the UAM sector, including datalinks to allow aircraft to communicate with each other, sense and avoid systems, cybersecurity applications, and its Soarizon mission planning software.