Embraer sees its foray into the emerging eVTOL market as a pathway to developing larger fully autonomous aircraft. That was the message from Antonio Campello, president and CEO of Melbourne, Florida-based Embraer X, the company's advanced projects arm that was created a year ago with innovation teams in Boston and California's Silicon Valley. Embraer X unveiled one of several eVTOL concept vehicles it is working on at the recent Uber Elevate summit to promote urban air vehicles.
“Our mission is to discover business disruptions, things that bring significant future growth, radical innovations, with business models and technology,” Campello told AIN. “That is how this project with Uber got started. We analyzed the market and thought it would be very attractive and a disruptor in urban mobility.” He said Embraer X is also working on other projects, but is not ready to discuss them yet and revealed little about the specifics of the company's eVTOL concept beyond the artist's renderings.
“Our eVTOL program is still at a very early stage,” Campello said, adding that the company is not prepared to reveal a program schedule, “but we support Uber's timetable [for test flights by 2020]. The design is evolving. We have several possibilities. We decided to disclose one of them to get some feedback.” In addition to disclosing one idea for a concept vehicle at the Uber Elevate summit, the company has been utilizing focus groups to measure consumer reaction to it, Campbello said. “We have been getting reaction from people on the street. We've been incorporating their expectations because we know this is not like something we have already done.” He said Embraer's past passenger research for commercial and business aircraft is not applicable when it comes to eVTOLs.
However, he said the technology incorporated into eVTOLs could eventually scale up into the company's larger aircraft. “The trends in aviation are to autonomous vehicles and electric power. Autonomous will take a while and will be progressive; eVTOL will start with pilots but we will design it as much as possible to be autonomous. It will be a different type of pilot and as soon as possible, no pilot. Aviation as a whole will go to this pilotless direction," he said. "By doing this with this program, we are preparing the company to make other aircraft with autonomous capability. The same applies to electric power. Right now the main limitation is the battery capacity. However, there is a trend for larger hybrid vehicles and as batteries improve the more people we can carry with batteries alone. So anything we are doing for the eVTOL project will be applied for the future of the company.”
Campello said Embraer X is drawing on resources from across the company's three business units—defense, commercial, and business jets—as well as dedicated employees and outside companies and institutions including universities including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “We also took some of our designers and engineers to Silicon Valley for a while 'to drink the water,'” he said. “It's a new approach, a new mindset. It is very flexible. We have our autonomy and our money.”