Rethink of Aviation's Future Boosts the Case for Electric Aircraft

 - July 22, 2020, 5:00 AM
South Korean automotive group has committed to spend $1.5 billion to bring an eVTOL aircraft into service with Uber's planned air taxi network. (Photo: Hyundai)

The clear and continued damage being done to the air travel sector by the Covid-19 pandemic has prompted calls for a fundamental re-evaluation of the industry’s business model. When, how, and whether airlines will be able to safely carry passengers in commercially sustainable numbers is very much in question. So too is the extent to which private aviation might play a larger and different role in the public transportation equation.

But the questions have run deeper, with amplified calls for a reassessment of aviation’s longer-term environmental sustainability as part of public policy discussions headlined by slogans like “Green New Deal.” In the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has gone on record in committing government support for the industry to make the move toward carbon-neutrality a key plank of its long-term survival strategy. On June 30, he pledged that the UK will lead efforts to get a long-haul, zero-emissions airliner in service by 2050 under an ill-defined project dubbed JetZero.

Electric aircraft, starting with hybrid-powered models, are viewed as a key element in fulfilling such ambitions. At the same time, some pioneers are advancing the case for hydrogen fuel cells as an alternative foundation for new generation propulsion systems since they overcome the limitations of today’s battery technology.

Much of the high-octane excitement around aviation’s electric new age is focused on the potential for eVTOL aircraft to vastly expand the potential for what has become known as urban air mobility (UAM)–a vertical-lift niche in the air transportation sector that is already as old as the helicopter. Ride-hailing giant Uber has sought to lead the charge to make this a reality with its plans to launch app-based Uber Elevate networks in cities such as Dallas and Los Angeles from around 2023. The company insists that it is sticking with the plans, despite its well-documented loss of revenues from car services.

At last count, about 250 companies have plans to develop eVTOL aircraft of various shapes and sizes. Others seek early adoption of electric aviation through new fixed-wing models that would offer greater range than the short hops promised by the eVTOL crowd.

Of course, no one seriously believes that 250 eVTOL aircraft will make it to the market. On close inspection, many of those programs have wildly insufficient funding and are led by people who made a small fortune in unrelated technology ventures and who now seemed hell-bent on risking the loss of those fortunes to the aviation bug.

Some have asked whether the surge of investment seen in this sector between 2017 and 2019 would continue this year, and especially in the wake of the Covid crisis. Some more money has come into the sector, with new fundraising completed by companies such as Lilium and even some more startups, such as California-based Archer Aviation.

There are possibly at most about a dozen other eVTOL pioneers who appear best set to make it to market—based on their sufficient funding, credible leadership, and a realistic timeline for achieving type certification. Given the limited payload of many of the eVTOL designs, autonomous (i.e. pilotless) operations are a key aspiration for many of the programs, which adds to the degree of difficulty for service entry. In the short- to medium-term, it seems that aircraft able to harness hybrid propulsion and enter service with pilots are most likely to prove the initial viability of urban air mobility and wider applications, such as providing connectivity on longer routes not well served by traditional airlines.

Since about the end of the first quarter of 2020 the pace has certainly not matched the Gold Rush-like atmosphere of the past couple of years. It would now appear that the financial fallout from Covid might accelerate the natural selection process that seems likely to thin the herd more quickly than expected. This has made the availability of government support all the more welcome, and the U.S. Air Force’s Agility Prime newly released proposals to work with companies to develop dual-use civil-military technology appears particularly timely.

Despite current uncertainties, progress is being made on many fronts and the 2020s still show promise to go down as the decade of electric aviation. Quite apart from the influx of hype-fueled startups, the sector has drawn the more measured, but nonetheless focused, attention of some leading aerospace groups, including Airbus, Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Safran, BAE Systems, and Honeywell (which in June formed a new division specifically to address the needs of the market).

On July 23, France’s VoltAero plans to fly for the first time its 800-hp hybrid electric powertrain being developed for its Cassio fixed-wing aircraft. The company is working on a family of aircraft, including a four-seat Cassio 330, a six-seat Cassio 480, and a 10-seat Cassio 600. It says production could start in 2022 and estimates it will make an $80 million investment to get to that point.

At Cranfield University in the UK, ZeroAvia last month flew a hydrogen-powered six-seat Piper M-Class light aircraft as part of the UK’s HyFlyer program to advance zero-emissions aviation. The California-based company says it will have a 10- to 20-seat certified with hydrogen propulsion by the end of 2023, and 50- to 100-seat model by 2030. By 2040, it believes it could be possible for aircraft carrying 200 passengers to make flights of more than 3,000 miles­.

In late June, Airbus completed a two-year schedule of flight testing for its Autonomous, Taxi, Take-off and Landing (ATTOL) project. That culminated in a fully automatic, vision-based flight of an A350-1000 widebody airliner, achieved using on-board image-recognition technology.

Several Airbus divisions have been involved in the work and the company appears to envision multiple applications for the technology. The work could include incremental efforts to increase the degree of autonomy in the operation of existing fixed-wing aircraft. One of the Airbus subsidiaries contributing to ATTOL was Acubed, which was behind the Vahana eVTOL technology demonstrator. Meanwhile, Airbus Helicopters is this year due to complete flight testing of the CityAirbus demonstrator. The lessons learned from those programs are expected to shape the European group’s longer-term plans for the eVTOL market, which it sees taking another full decade to come to fruition. Even after announcing unprecedented financial cutbacks on June 30, with the loss of around 15,000 jobs, Airbus indicated that it remains committed to making advances in electric aviation as part of its longer-term aspirations in carbon neutrality.

That said, in late April, Airbus and Rolls-Royce announced that they are abandoning their joint program to develop the E-Fan X hybrid-electric airliner based on a BAE RJ100 aircraft as part of a reassessment of priorities in the wake of Covid-19 disruption. As recently as February, the partners had said they planned to achieve first flight during 2021.

Boeing also has plans for the eVTOL sector. Over the past couple of years, it has been working on both a Cargo Air Vehicle and a Passenger Air Vehicle (the latter being a project of its Aurora Flight Sciences subsidiary). Last year, it partnered with startup Kitty Hawk to form a new venture called Wisk, which is developing the Cora two-seat eVTOL.

The all-electric Cora has completed more than 1,300 flight tests in New Zealand and California, offering a range of just over 60 miles and at speeds of about 112 mph. Wisk has yet to publish a timeline for service entry but indicated last month that it already has plans for larger versions of the aircraft.

There are currently eight partners in the Uber Elevate program, which is supposed to be laying the foundations for the ride-hailing group’s planned Uber Air network. They include Jaunt Air Mobility, Boeing’s Aurora subsidiary, Karem Aircraft, Joby Aviation, Hyundai, Pipistrel, Bell, and Embraer.

Jaunt Air Mobility is working on a “compound helicopter” design featuring a main rotor and a fixed-wing with propellers for cruise flight. The privately-owned U.S. company is partnered with Honeywell, Triumph Aerospace Structures, and BAE Systems and aims to get an aircraft certified under FAA Part 29 rules for commercial rotorcraft by the end of 2025, followed by an autonomous version by the end of 2029. Jaunt envisions several different applications for the all-electric eVTOL, including air taxi, emergency medical, freight deliveries, and military support.

In January 2020, Joby Aviation received a major boost for its eVTOL plans by raising a further $590 million in capital, of which $394 million came from the Japanese automotive group Toyota. The California-based company claims it will be able to have its initial four-seat aircraft certified to start air taxi operations with Uber by the end of 2023.

Less than three months later, in April, South Korean car maker Hyundai announced its own plans to develop a four-passenger eVTOL aircraft that for now is designated as the S-A1. The company has committed to spending $1.5 billion on its plans to enter the urban air mobility market through the end of 2025.

In Germany, two startups seem to be setting the pace among European eVTOL contenders. Both Lilium and Volocopter have ambitions not only to build aircraft, but also to operate them, which perhaps explains why they have not sought to partner with Uber.

Back in late March, just as the Covid lockdowns were beginning, Lilium completed a $240 million fundraising round to take its total backing to $340 million. It imminently expects to resume flight testing of its all-electric Lilium Jet, which promises a range of up to 186 miles, making it suitable for connecting cities, rather than just intra-urban short rides.

Volocopter claims it will have its two-seat VoloCity model certified and ready to start operations by early 2023. The all-electric design is intended for short hops of little more than 22 miles and the company is also developing a cargo-carrying version called the VoloDrone. In February, logistics group DB Schenker invested in Volocopter through an €87 million ($99 million) Series C funding round, taking the total capital behind the company to €122 million. Other backers include Mitsui Sumitomo Insurance Group, MS&AD Ventures, TransLink Capital, Lukasz Gadowski, and Btov.

In the UK, Vertical Aerospace appears to be leading a pack of home-grown eVTOL contenders. The company is backed by Ovo Energy founder Stephen Fitzpatrick and in January launched a fund-raising campaign to generate the further $100 million it estimates it will need to get its first aircraft certified during 2024.

Vertical, which has recruited experienced aerospace engineers from companies including Rolls-Royce, BAE Systems, and Boeing, is now working on a full-scale prototype for a design featuring a wing and open rotors that it hopes to fly for the first time during 2020. The all-electric aircraft, which will feature a Honeywell flight control system, is expected to deliver a range of almost 100 miles and speeds of up to about 150.

Another prominent eVTOL contender is China’s EHang, which is working on single- and two-seat versions of its all-electric Autonomous Aerial Vehicle. The company continues to enjoy close cooperation from the Civil Aviation Administration, which is allowing it to conduct extensive flight trials in locations such as Guangzhou and Taizhou.

Despite having no published timeline for completing type certification, in 2019 EHang delivered 61 examples of its 216 AAV to several dealers and partners in countries including Norway, with a view to allowing them to be demonstrated to prospective customers. The company, which completed an initial public offering on New York’s Nasdaq market in December 2019, also has conducted flight trials in the U.S., but those plans appear to be on hold for now.

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