Some expected the Covid-led calamities of 2020 to have a devastating impact on the large cohort of start-ups seeking to bring new, largely eVTOL, aircraft to market. Some wondered whether investors might lose their appetite for this much-hyped precocious sector. Others pondered how consumers might rethink their attitudes towards getting into small cabins to rideshare with complete strangers, as per some of the new urban air mobility business models.
As the year closed, the fallout appeared to be somewhat minimal, or at least not especially visible. Some of the supposedly 250-plus new programs appear to have hibernated to a degree, but the acknowledged front-runners seem to be pressing ahead, with the likes of Volocopter, Joby Aviation, Lilium, Vertical Aerospace, and Wisk to some extent appearing to pull away from the pack.
The new year could see the more visible separation of the wheat from the chaff because the consensus among independent observers seems to be that no more than a dozen or so of these new aircraft will see the commercial light of day. Also, as Covid disruption hopefully dissipates in 2021, there will likely be more scrutiny as to whether new aircraft developers are meeting the exacting timelines that will be required to meet highly ambitious commitments to achieve initial service entry by as early as the end of 2023—now scarcely 36 months away.
Also on the radar during 2021 will be the extent to which the regulatory outlook for the new wave of aircraft will become less opaque, giving programs a clearer path to type certification. As 2020 closed, there were reasons for optimism that leading regulators FAA and EASA were edging closer to defining safety means of compliance to cover new architectures and propulsion systems. Consensus as to how to approve plans to operate some of the new aircraft autonomously are far from resolved yet.
One trend that emerged during 2020 was a shift in emphasis away from the much-vaunted urban air mobility models towards a broader array of applications that may prove easier to get up and running in the short-term. These include operations in less densely-populated areas in support of functions such as emergency medical support and freight deliveries.
This trend also seems to be favoring fixed-wing designs using conventional or hybrid propulsion for which the technology risks of getting to market are lower. It also saw the more inclusive designation advanced air mobility increasingly vie for favor with the more specific urban air mobility.
Another trend to be alert to is more of the long-anticipated consolidation involving start-ups either being acquired by larger entities with deeper pockets or disappearing after running out of financial runway. After all, 2020 started with Japanese carmaker Toyota shelling out $394 million to become Joby Aviation’s sugar-daddy as part of a $590 million Series C funding round. No sooner had that happened than Korean rival Hyundai announced it had allocated $1.5 billion to buy a place in the eVTOL stakes with a direct investment in a new aircraft program. Expect more of the same.