Airbus' Vahana eVTOL aircraft
As traditional and start-up firms embracing Electrical Vertical Takeoff and Landing (eVTOL) vehicles have attracted more than $1 billion in investments, eVTOL stands at the cusp of major advances, according to the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA).
"Over the last decade we have all witnessed the rapid evolution of battery technologies, the capabilities of microelectronics and innovation in software capabilities," Greg Bowles, GAMA's vice president for global innovation and policy, wrote in an email. "The promise of hybrid/electric aircraft is coming to be realized; the all-electric light training aircraft of the last five-years are being joined by larger, more energetic designs which can carry four-to-nine passengers at higher speeds and longer distances."
Bowles manages the GAMA Electric Propulsion Innovation Committee (EPIC). The latter's aim is to enable the design and operation of hybrid and electric aircraft in key aviation markets around the world.
"These new technologies allow for aircraft to execute traditional missions more efficiently and enable exciting new missions like on-demand mobility," Bowles wrote. "As the cost of maintenance and fuel is reduced, these translate to both more utilization of the aircraft and lower overall costs. The rapid acceleration of investment and activity in eVTOL has resulted in a large number of both traditional and new aerospace companies working to develop capable new aircraft. There remain surmountable technical challenges on the aircraft and infrastructure side and regulatory hurdles related to the design and operations of these aircraft."
Examining such challenges and the promise of eVTOL will be topics for discussion at the Vertical Flight Society's 6th Annual eVTOL Aircraft Symposium on Jan. 29-31 in Mesa, Ariz. More than 130 aircraft are being tracked by the VFS World eVTOL Aircraft Directory at www.eVTOL.news.
Recent market studies commissioned by NASA, as well as those published by financial investment and analysis companies, such as Morgan Stanley, estimate that as many as 100,000 eVTOL aircraft could be flying commercially in the coming decades as part of an emerging $500 billion to $2 trillion market.
One recent study by the German consultancy Roland Berger predicts that industry will field about 3,000 eVTOL passenger drones by 2025 for air taxi and airport shuttle service and 98,000 such drones by 2050 for air taxi, airport shuttle, and inter-city service.
Uber is heavily committed to advancing the eVTOL concept through its Uber Elevate initiative, and the company has five partners for its eVTOL aircraft: Boeing's Aurora Flight Sciences, Bell, Embraer, the California-based Karem Aircraft and the Slovenian-based Pipistrel Aircraft.
Bell recently unveiled the design for its Nexus eVTOL aircraft, which is to use six pivoting ducted fans attached to a fuselage that will be able to carry four passengers and a pilot. Ducts are to augment the power provided by the fans, reduce noise and improve the safety of passengers and crew.
For its part, Airbus is to fly a four seat, quad-ducted propeller eVTOL aircraft called CityAirbus, in the coming months. Airbus has been flying its smaller, unmanned Vahana eVTOL aircraft since last January. Airbus and a number of non-traditional companies appear to be angling to compete with Uber in the urban air mobility business overall rather than merely selling eVTOL aircraft to future urban air mobility providers, such as Uber.
Such companies include the California-based Joby Aviation, the German-based Lilium GmbH and Volocopter GmbH, and the California-based Kitty Hawk Corp., financially supported by Google co-founder Larry Page.
"There are still only a few companies that are flying manned aircraft at larger scale," said Mike Hirschberg, the executive director of the Vertical Flight Society. "Joby is the farthest ahead with the S4--their four-seat tilt-rotor, six tilting propellers configuration. It appears Joby is really far ahead in terms of battery and electric motor technology."
Joby has been "low profile" since 2016 after its design received a good deal of attention at the Vertical Flight Society's 2nd annual eVTOL Aircraft Symposium in 2015, Hirschberg said.
Technology entrepreneur, JoeBen Bevirt, founded Joby Aviation in 2009.
Beyond the technology, infrastructure, and safety perception challenges for urban air mobility, regulatory hurdles may loom.
"Key authorities, including FAA and EASA, have been working with the GAMA membership for a number of years, and a number of projects have begun mature certification efforts in these markets," Bowles wrote. "There remains a good deal of work to be accomplished to finalize regulatory environments related to the design and operation of eVTOL, however, because we all envision a 'crawl, walk, run' approach to these challenges. There don’t seem to be any major hurdles which preclude initial design certification and initial operations of eVTOL. GAMA continues working with key aviation authorities to streamline these regulatory paths and to enable the 'walk' and 'run' phases of the eVTOL market."