When it comes to technology in aviation, nothing is buzzier than the development of electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, with both market and customer interest growing substantially over the last few years.
Much as its name suggests, eVTOLs are aircraft that are powered electrically that can hover to take off and land vertically. They are part of the wider advanced air mobility (AAM) category, which is also known as urban air mobility (UAM). This category mainly focuses on utilizing small aircraft to carry passengers in urban or suburban areas as a response to heavy traffic congestion. Aside from eVTOLs, this broad category also includes helicopters, drones, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Despite the futuristic impression the jumble of words might give off, the concept behind eVTOLs and AAM is surprisingly not as new as people might think. People have been dreaming of a future with flying cars for at least a century, and this concept has been prevalent in books, movies, and tv shows.
AAM can trace its history to the Autoplane developed by American aviator Glenn Curtiss at around 1917, which is widely considered to be the first attempt to build a flying car. Shown at the PanAmerican Exposition in New York City, the aircraft had three wings and a maximum speed of 65 mph. However, although it was capable of hovering, it never truly achieved a full flight. Other inventors also developed flying automobiles, such as Henry Ford’s “Flivver,” which sadly ended with a fatal crash of its test pilot.
Most flying car concepts during this period never managed to be launched commercially, due to challenges including the variations in size, weight, shape, and wing types. Instead, developers mainly focused on safety issues and the efficiency of the aircraft.
Later, the 1950s to 1980s saw a few operators start providing flight services using helicopters, in cities including New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, to name a few. For example, New York Airways (NYA) and Pan Am offered at least 30 flights in June 1964 between John F. Kennedy (JFK) and Newark Liberty International Airport, with in-between stops such as Wall Street. The following year saw helicopters such as the Boeing Vertol and various types built by Sikorsky flying from the Pan Am Building. Unfortunately, 1977 saw an incident involving a rooftop crash that killed five people, which led to Pan Am stopping its flight services.
However, these accidents did not deter operators. Helicopter UAM operations reached their peak in New York City in 2010, flying around 80,000 annual flights. In 2014 BLADE Air Mobility, launched services in the same city and later spread its operations to San Francisco Bay Area and Mumbai, India. In 2019, Uber partnered with HeliFlight to provide helicopter ride-hailing services between Lower Manhattan and JFK Airport for $200-$225 per passenger. Unfortunately, most of these helicopter flights attracted complaints from city residents regarding noise levels when flying, as well as safety concerns.
The mid-2010s also saw designers and engineers using technology made for drones in their new aircraft designs. Stanford aeronautics professor Ilan Kroo discovered that technological advances in airframe design and electric batteries could see the creation of a small self-flying electric aircraft. Unlike helicopters, eVTOLs were pitched to be quieter, safer, and take up less space when lifting off and landing. There were also further plans to make these aircraft autonomous, which, according to operators, would help to scale flight operations for widespread adoption. Aside from transporting passengers, autonomous services also include delivering consumer goods and emergency supplies. These services are already available – such as Zipline, a manufacturer which uses drones to deliver medical supplies, vaccines, and blood in Rwanda and Ghana. More recently, Skyports, a vertiport infrastructure developer, partnered with the UK’s Royal Mail to use UAV services to deliver parcels to remote communities such as the Isle of Scilly in southwest England.
The AAM industry is currently developing at breakneck speed, with many companies now in the process of attempting to gain certification for their eVTOLs. Japanese operator SkyDrive is on the way to gaining certification for its aircraft with Japan’s Civil Aviation Bureau (JCAB) and has plans to launch services in 2025. Volocopter, another pioneer in the AAM industry, has already secured Production Organization Approval (POA) with the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and projects to start operations in 2023. Recently, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) accepted EHang’s type certification application.
Despite recent milestones, there still remains a few challenges when it comes to getting eVTOLs up and running, the main issue being infrastructure. The small size of eVTOLs and the fact that they are usually battery-powered and run on electricity means that aircraft need to land often, not only for onboarding passengers, but also for recharging. As eVTOLs will be mainly flying in or around urban areas, the aircraft needs to be accommodated in such a way that it does not take up too much space. Another issue is the technology itself. Whilst advances have been made, developers are also looking to make eVTOLs more sustainable, due to a growing interest in decreasing the aviation industry’s carbon footprint. Autonomy is also another factor – doing so would help to decrease the weight of the aircraft and allow more passengers on board. It would further help to combat the pilot shortage in the industry, especially since there might be a learning curve with regard to piloting an eVTOL. Developers also need to convince the general public that flights like these are safe to travel in, which might explain why the focus still mainly remains on safety and flight testing.
eVTOLs are also peculiar in that they are not technically helicopters, nor are they aircraft like those of general aviation. This means that existing government regulations do not technically cover these aircraft. With different manufacturers producing various designs for their eVTOLs, it remains difficult to standardize them. As such, government agencies need to work together with companies to help create the criteria and standardization of these new aircraft in the first place, which will therefore impact the speed of commercialization.
Despite the difficulties that the industry faces, AAM is still at the forefront of today’s technological advances. And whilst several years ago it might have seemed like a fanciful dream of the future, the first real-world application is likely to be only two short years away at the 2024 Paris Olympics.
© Copyright Global Sky Media -2022 | All Rights Reserved