The focus of this year’s EBACE is aimed squarely at the future, but not one that is far on the horizon. Speakers at the opening session talked about products already in the production and certification processes, technologies already out there that are being ported into aviation, and problems that have nearly arrived on the doorstep.
Fortunately, the tone was optimistic, and the mood of the speakers—from the welcoming officials from Geneva International Airport to government leaders in Europe to NBAA president and CEO Ed Bolen—was positive all around. Genève Aéroport CEO André Schneider pointed out that 25 to 35 percent of the aircraft movements on the airport were business aviation-related, making it the third-largest business aviation airport in Europe.
EBAA secretary general Athar Husain Khan took a solid look toward the future. In the 11 months since heading the association, he’s seen just how quickly new technologies such as electric propulsion, blockchain, sustainable aviation biofuels, and alternative forms of aerial mobility are quickening the pace of innovation in business aviation. “These are providing us with new avenues for driving business growth, but we still face many hurdles,” Khan said. “We are increasingly digitized and that brings on cybersecurity challenges. There are questions of market and airport access. And of course we must protect our interests from colorful interpretations of European regulations on a local level.”
Khan went on to point out that the EBAA Expanding Horizons business aviation awareness campaign is entering its second year. As part of the campaign the group is making commitments to focus on a way to build business aviation, all the while showing sustainability on a global level and raising awareness at how business aviation helps global commerce on a societal level. He highlighted the importance of getting policy makers onboard, which was why EBAA invited Grant Shapps MP, chair of the UK All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on General Aviation, to speak.
“I care about aviation as you do. I’m a pilot and it is a passion to me. So I want to issue a cautionary warning," Shapps said. "I think that if we are not careful in the next 10 years or so, we will be facing some pretty existential threats to business aviation.”
First on his mind were the environmental protesters who had been blocking UK streets the week before, even trying to disrupt road access to London Heathrow Airport. His message was clear: “We need to be proactive about cleaning up business and general aviation because we are perceived to be both noisy and dirty. The environmental protesters believe the future of our planet needs to be green. And although they haven’t specifically gotten here, yet, I think it is pretty obvious that business aviation is very likely to end up at the forefront of their concerns.”
Shapps pointed out, however, how the 222 members of the APPG he chairs are working hard to make the UK the most general aviation-friendly country in the world. To do that, they are working with industry to promote STEM aviation education, grassroots aviation—which grows the next generation of aviation industry workers, drone regulations, clean manufacturing, and the preservation of UK’s aviation heritage. He said that support from industry is there, particularly for STEM, but that it is essential that manufacturers find ways to make aviation both cleaner and quieter.
It is a big task, but the keynote speaker—Florian Reuter , CEO and managing director of Volocopter—set out to show how something as revolutionary as an autonomous electric vertical takeoff and landing vehicle (eVTOL) could solve one key problem every attendee at EBACE has experienced: getting from the airport to the city center and then back to the airport. “As we travel everywhere on the globe, cities are faced with severe mobility traffic challenges,” he said. “Even with autonomous cars, skytrains, and subways, we have not found solutions including the third dimension. That’s next. The third dimension is both vertical and electric.”
Reuter pointed out that, although his vision has been around awhile—the company flew its first autonomous VTOL above Dubai in 2011—several large corporations have recently been working on their own electric aircraft and VTOL machines. “We’ve realized that with more than 100 years of automobiles in the city, we are still at the average speed of a horse,” he said.
Interestingly enough, Reuter has been making steady progress all these years as technology has advanced, and in the process his organization has been working with German civil aviation authority Luftfahrt-Bundesamt (LBA) and EASA to create the regulations under which an eVTOL could become a certified commercial aircraft, as well as regulations under which such an aircraft could fly. By 2016, the LBA regulations needed were in place and Reuter’s Volocopter flew its first manned flight in southern Germany, near the company’s base of operations. EASA regulations are expected to be finalized inside this week, Reuter said.
Today, the battery technology has reached the point where Volocopter's vehicle can reliably fly up to 22 miles and batteries can be hot-swapped for rapid “refueling” and redeployment of the aircraft. “It is really the perfect inner-city transport vehicle,” said Reuter. “It has 18 independent propulsion trains and unprecedented redundancy and can fly with two engines out and still complete its mission. Also, it can carry 400 pounds of payload, which is two people, and we believe that we can scale manufacturing such that the operating costs will be slightly more than what people pay today for an inner city ride in a taxi.”
Reuter is serious when he speaks of scale. Automobile manufacturer Daimler is both an investor and a manufacturing partner, and from the tech side (because after all, Volocopter is a tech company first) Intel is a partner, as are several other high-profile corporations. Among its executives are people who have come to the company from Uber, Siemens, and Airbus, among others. That explains how Reuter intends to become the app-centric ride-hailing 3D transport company of the future.
Over the next year, Volocopter plans demonstrations in Singapore, first at a confidential location outside the city for regulators and then, with their approval, in the city center, so that people can become aware of and comfortable with the eVTOL technology. In the UK, the company is part of an innovation sandbox recently introduced by the government to determine the possibilities and find the stakeholders needed to bring new urban mobility to London. Finally, in Frankfurt, the airport is partnering with the company to use it as a blueprint for how the Volocopter would work to ferry passengers from the airport to the city center.
Reuter is excited to network with people in the exhibit hall this week at EBACE. “We are looking to exchange information and interact with other industry executives here and build a cooperation going forward,” he said.