Emerging electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft "will not only revolutionize vertical flight, but society as a whole," Mike Hirschberg, executive director of the Vertical Flight Society, predicted during a Wednesday Heli-Expo session on eVTOLs. He cited a confluence of regulatory, technological, and industrial developments that he thinks makes this the right time for eVTOLs, including the trend toward performance-based regulations, advances in electric motors, batteries, computer models and simulations, and increased investment in technology.
At present, Hirschberg said there are no less than 155 different eVTOLs under development. And, he noted, the timetable set by Uber Elevate is not unreasonable—eVTOL prototype aircraft flying by next year with commercial service beginning as early as 2023.
According to Bell vice president of Innovation Scott Drennan, the business case is easy to make for this new class of aircraft. Citing data from the investment bank Goldman Sachs, NASA, and Uber, he said the global rideshare market will grow from $36 billion in 2016 to $285 billion in 2030, with the potential for 750 million urban aerial passenger trips across 15 major cities by 2030. Further, this data suggests the global market could support 900 to 1,500 air taxis as early as 2025 and that it would support 9,000 to 12,000 by 2035.
Drennan made the case that Bell’s Nexus concept vehicle is what urban air travelers would expect—a "robust and redundant" vehicle with a speed of 150 mph and range of 150 miles. As enticing as the passenger market might be, he said the potential for “beyond the last mile” high-priority cargo delivery was even greater and that Bell was already partnering with NASA to demonstrate urban critical mission transport.
Airbus’s Zach Lovering, vice president of urban air mobility, predicted the demand for eVTOLs would soar as ground congestion throughout the globe continued to worsen. “It takes two hours to drive to the airport from downtown São Paulo and only 10 minutes to fly there in a helicopter,” he noted. “The future of mobility is vertical,” he said. Like Hirschberg, Lovering thinks the technology stars are aligned for eVTOL, citing distributed electric power systems, digital design and manufacturing, advanced avionics and autonomous systems, infrastructure development, connectivity, and on-demand business models as key enablers going forward.
Lovering noted that Airbus A(3) is already flying its Vahana eVTOL and recently achieved forward speeds of up to 50 knots with the aircraft. Nevertheless, he believes that there are limits to vehicle autonomy. “I think there will always be humans in the loop,” he said. “I don’t think anyone would trust Siri to talk to ATC.”
Danny Sitnam, who operates Helijet in Vancouver, cautioned that potential eVTOL fliers “don’t want another flight test experience” and that safety was paramount to industry success. “The risk has to be wrung out and the safety has to be impeccable,” he said.
Sitnam envisioned eVTOL as a useful bridge to other forms of passenger air transport in areas with acute ground transportation congestion and as essential humanitarian tools in the lesser developed world. Citing his own experience founding Helijet in the 1980s, he also noted that the eVTOL industry also needed “patient capital.”
Rex Alexander, president of helicopter infrastructure company Five Alpha, emphasized that local officials, particularly fire marshals, hold the keys—and are potentially the greatest obstacles—to any eVTOL infrastructure development, including rooftop vertiports. “They have the most teeth,” he said.
Alexander said an ASTM International committee was hard at work writing standards for vertiports that could be adopted by regulators going forward, but as of now, there are no formal standards for vertiports. He said the design of vertiports in an urban environment was critical to mitigating the effect of wind and turbulence on vehicles and assuring passenger ride quality.
Michael Dyment of Nexa Capital Partners pointed out that not only will UAM infrastructure be expensive, “it will take time to build.” A lack of UAM infrastructure could strangle the emerging eVTOL industry in its crib, he added.
Nexa is currently looking at 78 cities for UAM investment using 28 layers of data and 11 different operational models. Dyment believes this is the largest problem facing the industry, not certifying the vehicles themselves. “We think the certification issues will get tackled. I think we’re all going to get there,” he concluded.