By S.L. Fuller | May 16, 2017
If there’s one thing that rang true at Uber’s Elevate Summit at the end of April in Dallas, it’s that barriers to electric urban air transport are rampant. Electric VTOL — or, eVTOL, as Uber calls it — might seem farfetched, but exciting. Uber’s vision includes passengers living in the most densely populated cities around the world taking an aircraft to work everyday, instead of sitting in traffic on the ground.
The setup would seem simple — similar to how Uber operates today, users would access UberAir from a cell phone app and reserve a seat in an eVTOL aircraft. Cost would be comparable to other Uber services, accessible to more than just business executives. The electric aircraft would operate from vertiports, with a turnaround time of five minutes, including recharge. Uber said it aims to demonstrate this type of network in Dallas and Dubai in 2020.
But there are several hurdles to implementing such technology in that timeframe. Most notably, an aircraft has to be developed. Then that aircraft would need a powerful battery — one that has yet to be developed. Next would come the FAA certification process, which could present the most difficult hurdle of them all since eVTOLs would be a new aircraft type.
Then what about pilots? Add in infrastructure and vertiports, and Uber has itself more than a handful to accomplish.
With NASA alum Mark Moore at the helm of this urban mobility project, Uber is very aware of the barriers. So aware, in fact, that on the first day of the summit, R&WI contributor and published author Richard Whittle moderated a panel called, “Introduction to Breaking the Barriers.”
Day two of the summit went even more in depth on potential barriers, with entire panels dedicated to noise, batteries, infrastructure, network optimization, market synergies, air traffic control, and autonomy and pilots. The following day, GAMA and the FAA held a Part 23 certification workshop, which could present a potential pathway to certificating an eVTOL aircraft.
The Elevate Summit caught mainstream media attention, considerably because of the deep pockets behind the project. The rideshare company has made official partnerships with Aurora Flight Sciences, Bell Helicopter, Pipistrel, Mooney, Embraer and ChargePoint. Many other companies plan to vie for a nod from Uber when it comes time to procure different aspects of the eVTOL ecosystem.
Elsewhere, in the automobile industry, manufacturers have already been making strides in developing autonomy systems and powerful, fast-charging batteries and charging systems. Why should the aerospace industry fall far behind?
“We can't let the car industry beat us, right? We basically should piggyback on everything that they’re doing because that's going to drive battery technology to a range that will enable us to feed [power] at a higher rate,” said Pat Romano, CEO of ChargePoint, when explaining the challenges to charging eVTOL aircraft. “And how we're proposing to do that … is to deliver cooling along with charging in a new connector for the VTOL aircraft. I think with interesting evolutions in cooling technology, and the interaction between the ground systems like ours and aircraft, we can beat this problem.”
The truth remains: a battery is needed before anyone can hope to charge it. But Dr. Rob McDonald, a professor at California Polytechnic State University, and Dr. Brian German, an associate professor at Georgia Institute of Technology, said they think it’s quite possible. Their presentation on stored energy showed optimistic trends and general forecasts for electric power in aircraft. One compelling argument named the tiltrotor as an efficient design.
Aurora Flight Sciences, Mooney International Corp. (in partnership with Carter Aviation Technologies) and Detroit Aircraft (as its new company, Airspace Experience Technologies) unveiled their eVTOL concepts at the summit. Pipistrel and Bell teased theirs, while other companies, like Airbus’ A3, presented the concepts they have already started developing on their own initiatives. There may not be official requirements to which manufacturers must adhere to stay competitive, but Rob Wiesenthal, founder and CEO of Blade, recommended a five-passenger aircraft with 1,000 pounds of payload, including passengers and luggage. This, he noted, is probably larger than most manufacturers have been conceptualizing. But, it’s the size he figured would fit with the economics of operating in New York City, where helicopter charter operator Blade is based.
He also suggested that a closed cockpit might be a good design to pursue for safety and security reasons. Uber said range would have to accommodate an average trip of 20 miles and to keep in mind that five-minute turnaround time.
Innovation is the name of the game, and manufacturers are eager to innovate. Some aren’t even intimidated by the impending FAA certification process.
Chris Van Buiten, VP of Sikorsky Innovations, told R&WI that helicopter manufacturers might not have to elevate their standards when designing urban transport vehicles for certification. While a new type of aircraft, the eVTOL would be relatively small in size, compared to other aircraft, like the Sikorsky S-76D that can seat 12 passengers in an oil-and-gas configuration. The company has its Sikorsky Autonomy Research Aircraft (SARA), an autonomous S-76, on a certification path. If Sikorsky can get a large autonomous aircraft certificated by the FAA, an eVTOL half the size should not be more difficult. Other non-aircraft manufacturers who want to get in the urban mobility game, though, may have more difficulty.
The first eVTOLs will most likely not be fully autonomous, anyway. It was discussed at the Uber summit that the goal, at first, would be to have an aircraft system that would be simple enough for anyone to fly with a little bit of training. Considering the shortage of pilots, noted by Bowles, it would be illogical for an eVTOL system to require more pilots who must achieve a rotorcraft rating. So to start, maybe the aircraft system would be semi-autonomous. But the goal is for full autonomy, be it years down the road.
Say the aircraft, its power system, its piloting and its certification become realized. Now the challenge becomes putting the aircraft in the same airspace as traditional helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. Wiesenthal said that New York City might be a good place to try sharing the airspace.
“What we're really interested in is an eVTOL rotorcraft cohabitation phase. We want to bring eVTOL to New York City as quickly as possible,” he said. “We want the public to see them, to be able to afford them, to trust them, to try them and to hear them.” Blade is all too familiar with societal pushback when it comes to helicopter noise and emissions, and caps and curfews. “We need to drastically change the technology that we adopt, and the type of equipment that we use to address the issue head-on. But it's going to have to be phased. And I think we're perfectly positioned in Manhattan to have this cohabitation phase. I think once we've proven these benefits in real-life situations, we will then have the power to change the infrastructure, to relight the dormant helipads, [and have] great new vertiports.”
Blade is already operating aspects of Uber’s eVTOL concept. The company arranges flights, crowdsourced or scheduled, that people can then share to bring the cost down. The user interface is app-based, and Blade can arrange a flight in 20 minutes. Security measures are taken at Blade lounges, where baggage logistics are also sorted out. But the company said it is excited for the prospect of eVTOL, as it could bring a potential of 10 times more business and yield lower operating costs and landing fees.
There is a plethora of people who believe that eVTOL can happen, and who are already putting in the work to get it done. Even if the 2020 deadline does turn out to be too ambitious, there are plenty of people — including the next crop of engineers — who want to make urban air mobility a reality. Take it from the man who doesn’t yet have a battery to charge:
“The reason I think this industry is going to be successful faster than anyone thinks is every single product oriented-person, every engineer — anyone that had an inkling that they wanted to be in that space when they were a little kid — is dying to build this,” Romano said. “And there is nothing like the passion of a massive amount of human thinking that, unleashed on this promise, is going to make this go a whole lot faster than anyone thinks. I'm very excited about it personally; I think everyone in this audience and everyone that's going to be in this industry is very excited about it.”