Kenneth I Swartz, Vertical Flight Society
In the seven and a half years since the Vertical Flight Society (VFS) held its first Transformative Vertical Flight (TVF) symposium on electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft in 2014, the electrification of the air transport industry has become a global movement touching almost every aviation segment and continent including Asia.
VFS was founded as the American Helicopter Society in 1943 by the visionaries of the early helicopter industry who believed that technological cooperation and collaboration were essential to support this new type of aircraft.
Now, history is repeated itself with VFS (and most of its 6,300 individual and 163 corporate members) playing a similar leadership role helping to advance today’s “Electric VTOL Revolution” and expand the advanced air mobility (AAM) ecosystem and market.
The first VFS symposium in Arlington, Virginia in August 2014 brought together 100 engineers, scientists and visionaries excited about the promise of transformative vertical flight. Attendees came from across industry, academia and government, including large aerospace companies and Silicon Valley start-ups.
The participants were drawn together by the belief that rapid advances in electric motors, motor controllers, energy storage systems (e.g. battery-electric, hybrid-electric and later hydrogen-electric), low-cost and light-weight composites and fly-by-wire flight control systems would make electric VTOL possible, but no one really knew if the market would develop.
Visionary companies that gave presentations at the early symposiums included Joby Aviation (Joby S2 and Lotus concepts), Zee.Aero (now Wisk), ESAero, Siemens, ChargePoint, Boeing, Georgia Tech, e-volo (now Volocopter) , Aurora Flight Sciences (now part of Boeing), AgustaWestland (now Leonardo) and Pipistrel, as well as representatives from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
A week before the first meeting, NASA made the first tethered flight of the unmanned Greased Lightning all-electric tiltwing aircraft in August 2014. The aircraft had 10 electric motors and was one of the first successful demonstrations of distributed electric propulsion (DEP) – a foundational technology for the eVTOL industry.
The VFS symposiums quickly became the go-to place where eVTOL visionaries and vertical flight technical experts could share their knowledge and collaborate on areas of mutual interest such as aerodynamics and acoustic modeling, charging, crashworthiness, manufacturing technology and the elephant in the room: aircraft certification requirements and means of compliance.
Parallel developments in the world of electric fixed-wing aviation were more limited but included Pipistrel’s conversion of its Alpha aircraft to electric propulsion in 2014 to create the Alpha Electro Light Sport Aircraft (LSA), and the first flight of the Airbus Groups E-Fan in 2014 and flight across the English Channel the following year.
Public awareness of eVTOL technology slowly increased in 2016 with the first appearance of the Chinese EHang 184 AAV at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada on Jan. 7, 2016 and the first manned flight of the Volocopter VC200 in Germany on March 30, 2016 (following the first flight of the VC-1 in 2011 and the first unmanned free flight of the VC200 in Nov. 2013).
On September 21, 2016, Tier One Engineering flew a battery-electric powered Robinson R44 helicopter on a record five-minute flight at Joint Forces Training Base (JFTB) Los Alamitos in California. The eR44 program is supported by United Therapeutics founder Martine Rottblatt a medical biotechnology visionary who has also invested in several other companies (including EHang in China and Beta Technologies in the US) to develop eco-friendly eVTOL aircraft to deliver manufactured transplant organs to hospitals.
The Uber Elevate white paper released in October 2016, “Fast-Forwarding to a Future of On-Demand Urban Air Transportation,” elaborated plans for an urban air transportation service using thousands of eVTOL aircraft — eventually autonomously flown — with very low direct operating costs and zero greenhouse gas emissions. The white paper gave commercial expression to research by NASA studies at the Langley Research Center in the late 2000s which began pointing (DEP) for the revolutionary capabilities of distributed electric propulsion for electric VTOL, conventional takeoff and landing (eCTOL) and short takeoff and landing (eSTOL) aircraft. NASA researcher Mark Moore (later Uber Elevate’s Director of Strategy) was a key player in these studies.
The idea of DEP is to replace the single complex rotor system — cyclic, collective, swashplate, transmissions, gearboxes, shafting, hydraulics, etc. — with multiple simple thrusters, and (ideally) an efficient wing for higher speed/longer-range cruise. Advocates also believe distributed electric thrusters (propellers, fans, etc.) have huge benefits in terms of safety, emissions, noise and community acceptance.
In 2013, Uber (and startup Blade in 2014) launched its first on-demand aerial ridesharing flights using its mobility app to crowdsource passengers for helicopter charters from Manhattan to the Hamptons in New York, but the market was limited because fares were high, since helicopters are so expensive to operate.
On-Demand Urban Air Transport
Uber’s early business success was based on transporting people from “A” to “B” in a more efficient and user-friendly manner. Along the way, the company had amassed a huge database of urban origin and destination (O&D) data that would be the envy of any transportation engineer or urban planner.
Uber Elevate envisioned that “a network of small, electric aircraft that take off and land vertically … will enable rapid, reliable transportation between suburbs and cities and, ultimately, within cities.”
In addition to high capacity charging systems, the essential infrastructure included repurposing the tops of parking lots, existing helipads and even the vacant land in the middle of highway cloverleaves as “the basis of an extensive, distributed network of ‘vertiports’ (VTOL hubs with multiple takeoff and landing pads, as well as charging infrastructure) or single-aircraft ‘vertistops’ (a single VTOL pad with minimal infrastructure).”
The Uber business model required eVTOL aircraft with extremely low seat mile and trip costs to lure potentially millions of people from gridlocked highways into the sky to reduce commute time and increase productivity.
The Uber Elevate Summit in Dallas, April 25–27, 2017, became a watershed industry event that brought together 500 stakeholders and significantly raised the global profile of the emerging eVTOL industry.
Uber’s bold initiative also triggered several bullish market forecasts by consulting and financial firms that expected the UAM market to grow exponentially from 2025 and be worth between $665 billion and $1.5 trillion by 2040 — numbers which have moved upwards since!
This includes the sale of aircraft and, more significantly, the revenue generated transporting passengers and goods on these new aircraft. Today, the majority of eVTOL developers have linked their investor pitches to the development of these large UAM markets which they expect to be significantly larger than the vertical flight market served by helicopters today. For that reason, many of the aircraft developers plan to have vertically-integrated business models that see them both manufacturing and operating the aircraft.
Following the release of the Uber whitepaper in 2016, a lot more eVTOL developers started coming out of stealth mode to talk about their projects (unrelated to the Uber initiative) including aircraft that had been flying in secret or at remote test sites.
Lilium Aviation of Munich, Germany autonomously flew its full-scale two-seat “Eagle” Lilium Jet prototype featuring 36 distributed electric fans near Munich in early April 2017. The Eagle had a row of twelve fans along each wing flap (which deploy to vector the thrust downwards) and three fans on each side of the tilting canard.
Kitty Hawk selected April 24, 2017, the day before the first Uber Elevate Summit, to unveil photos and videos of their proof-of-concept eVTOL Flyer recreational vehicle featuring a single seat, simple controls, eight downward facing rotors, a protective screen and a set of pontoons for overwater flights and landings.
The Kitty Hawk team was led by Canadian engineers Dr. Todd Reichert and Cameron Robertson and sponsored by Larry Page (the co-founder of Google). The two engineers founded AeroVelo (now written “Aerovelo”), which developed the Snowbird human-powered ornithopter in 2010, the Atlas human powered helicopter that won the $250,000 VFS Sikorsky Prize in 2013, and the Eta bullet-shaped bike that Reichert used to set a human-powered speed record of 89.59 mph (144.18 km/hr) in 2016.
A large number of people flew the second-generation Kitty Hawk Flyer at a private test site in Nevada before Kitty Hawk cancelled Flyer in 2020 and shifted resources to the high-performance single-seat Heaviside eVTOL project.
In September 2017, VFS also lent its expertise to the launch of the $2 million GoFly competition that encouraged hundreds of grassroots teams around the world to create a personal flying device that is safe, useful, and thrilling. The teams were free to use any propulsion source, but many opted for electric motors. The $1 million grand prize, sponsored by Boeing, remains unclaimed after a flyoff in February 2020.
The first unmanned flight of the Airbus A³ Vahana took place at the Eastern Oregon Regional Airport, Pendleton, Oregon, on January 31, 2018. In early 2016, A³ (pronounced “A-cubed”) by Airbus Group began developing Project Vahana as a self-piloted aircraft featuring four distributed electric propellers each on tandem tilting wings. Vahana was designed to carry one passenger or cargo at speeds of 143 mph (124 kt or 230 km/h) over a 62-mile (100 km) range.
Airbus subsequently developed another technology demonstrator – CityAirbus – which was a multi-copter test flown in Germany.
Then on February 5, 2018 it was revealed to the public that manned flights had been taking place with the EHang 184 in Guangzhou City, Guangdong Province, China. The Chinese manufacturer has been the most active by far in flying its autonomous aircraft single-seat 184 and two-seat 216 aircraft in different countries around the world, including an aircraft based in Quebec since 2019.
The Kitty Hawk Cora was first revealed on Mar. 12, 2018, after nearly eight years of secretive eVTOL developments by Zee Aero, which had been backed by Larry Page Page since 2011. Then, in June 2018, Kitty Hawk signed a partnership with Boeing to “collaborate on future efforts to advance safe urban air mobility” which created Wisk Aero, first revealed on Dec. 2, 2018.
Cora development began as a successor to the Zee Aero Z-P2, with the first example (N301XZ, since retired) registered in June 2017 as the “Mule SPA,” with unmanned flight testing begun in the last half of 2017 in Hollister, California; this was soon followed by shipping test aircraft to Canterbury, New Zealand.
Cora has 12 independent electric-powered lifting propellers mounted on its 36-ft (11-m) long wings for vertical takeoffs and landings and a single three-blade pusher propeller providing thrust for forward flight.
On March 19, 2018, the first manned flight of Opener BlackFly v2 ultralight aircraft took place in secret near the company headquarters Palo Alto, California, USA. Then with great fanfare on July 12, Opener shocked the world by unveiling its website and a high-quality video showing piloted and unpiloted BlackFly eVTOL aircraft flying low over the spectacular mountain scenery.
And on June 22, 2018, Beta Technologies founder and chief test pilot Kyle Clark secretly made the first manned flight of the proof of concept Ava XC at Plattsburgh International Airport, Plattsburgh, New York, USA, (which was publicly revealed in an article in Wired magazine in January 2019). Beta is one of the only eVTOL developers to fly their aircraft with a pilot from the beginning, while most companies have opted for remotely piloted test programs and have never flown with a human onboard.
Rounding out the year 2018, the first manned flight of the LIFT Aircraft HEXA single-seat ultralight eVTOL took place at a small airfield northwest of Austin, Texas, USA.
During 2019, other developers flew unmanned scale and full size technology demonstrators, including the Aurora Flight Sciences PAV (Passenger Air Vehicle), XTI TriFan (65%-scale model), Airbus
Helicopters’ CityAirbus demonstrator, the Lilium 5-seater all-electric jet and the Vertical Aerospace Seraph eVTOL.
When the VFS launched its free eVTOL News e-newsletter in October 2016 and its www.eVTOL.news website in April of 2017, it could only identify half a dozen active eVTOL aircraft programs. This could be considered the launch point of the so called “eVTOL revolution” with timelines and aircraft profiles being updated weekly as secretive companies revealed their concepts, scale models, mockups and flying prototypes.
The directory grew at a rate of about one aircraft per week during the first year, but this accelerated to an average rate of two aircraft per week with 100 aircraft catalogued by July 2018, the 200th by September 2019, the 300th by July 2020, and the 500th by August 2021 as more aircraft were unveiled and new actors joined the Electric VTOL revolution.
On Jan. 21, 2022 VFS announced that the number of electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft concepts has now reached 600 designs from nearly 350 companies and innovators worldwide, all of which are documented in its authoritative World eVTOL Aircraft Directory. [Press release and graph: https://vtol.org/news/press-release-vfs-electric-vtol-directory-hits-600-concepts]
This exponential growth in aircraft designs includes is unprecedented, says Mike Hirschberg, VFS Executive Director. “VFS had estimated $4.5B of investments in eVTOL companies in 2010–2020. However, last year saw several additional developers go public and/or attract sizeable private investments; the total additional global estimate in 2021 alone was around $6B.”
The eVTOL revolution has actually been underway for some time, as evidenced by the millions of electric drones sold and the exponential growth in the number of drone pilots (in contrast to decades of declining numbers of general aviation pilots).
Of course, there is a world of difference between developing a drone (also called “unmanned aircraft systems” or “UAS”) and an aircraft that will have a pilot and passengers which must be certified by an internationally recognized regulatory authority to ensure its airworthiness.
Since 2016, VFS has categorizing these aircraft similarly to the venerable “V/STOL Wheel,” first introduced in the 1960s to differentiate various aircraft that combined the vertical takeoff and landing capabilities of a helicopter with the high-speed forward flight of a fixed wing aircraft, of which only three aircraft entered production: the BAE Systems Harrier, the Yakovlev Yak-38 Forger and the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey.
All of the the 600 eVTOL aircraft concepts fall into one of the following five categories:
• Vectored thrust – An eVTOL aircraft that uses any of its thrusters for lift and cruise. (205 examples as of January 10, 2022)
• Lift + Cruise – Completely independent thrusters used for cruise versus for lift without any thrust vectoring (99 examples).
• Wingless (Multicopter) – No thruster for cruise – only for lift (162 examples).
• Hover Bikes/Personal Flying Devices – Single-person eVTOL aircraft are considered to be in the general class of hover bikes or personal flying devices with the primary differentiation being that the pilot sits on a saddle or is standing, or something similar. All are multicopter-type wingless configurations. (93 examples).
• Electric Rotorcraft – An eVTOL aircraft that utilizes a rotor, such as an electric helicopter or electric autogyro (41 examples).
Only about two dozen of these 600 concepts had actually made it to the flying prototype stage by early 2022, and the overwhelming majority of these have been flown remotely without a test pilot or passenger onboard.
First eVTOL Unicorn
In 2009, Joby Aviation began its quest to develop the ultimate eVTOL aircraft, but the few details of the company’s aircraft and progress were limited to VFS meetings. That changed in January 2020 when Joby stepped out of the shadows and released images of the production version of its all-electric, five-seat tiltrotor in conjunction with the announcement of a $590M Series C financing led by Toyota that brought the company’s total funding, including previous rounds, to $720M.
The news suddenly made Joby the first “unicorn” in the eVTOL industry, using a term coined by venture capitalist Aileen Lee in 2013 to describe the rare occurrence of a private startup reaching a valuation of $1B.
The Vertical Flight Society had the honor of welcoming Joby founder and CEO JoeBen Bevirt as the keynote banquet speaker at its TVF 2020 in San Jose, California, on Jan. 22, 2020. The 400 attendees had the opportunity to hear from one of the pioneers and visionaries of the eVTOL industry — it was Bevirt who originally coined the term “electric VTOL” a decade earlier — and learn about his inspirations and ambitions.
Bevirt’s presentation came one month after Uber announced that it had signed up Joby as its seventh eVTOL partner.
With these new investments, now Joby had the financing available to fund an aggressive certification program and invest in tooling to take its aircraft into production.
The investment by automobile manufacturers in the eVTOL industry now takes many forms, from companies investing in small startups to industry giants like Hyundai that created their own air mobility subsidiary.
Advanced Air Mobility
In March 2020, NASA announced that it would start using the term advanced air mobility (AAM) in place of the term of the more limited scope implied by “urban air mobility” (UAM).
NASA uses the term AAM to “encompass developing and deploying aviation in transformative and innovative manners in order to provide aerial mobility in ways not typically seen today.”
While UAM originally indicated transportation within a city (e.g. air taxis), NASA expanded the use of the term two years ago to also include goods and cargo. However, with the initiation of NASA’s AAM Project, the agency needed a more precise term to indicate what is and what isn’t included in its definition.
According to NASA, AAM encompasses UAM (intracity transportation), regional air mobility (intercity transport and transportation to/from a city from a district outside a city or rural area), cargo UAS (but not small UAS for package delivery), and other similar concepts, whether vertical or conventional takeoff and landing.
The result is that AAM now encompasses a continuum of complementary electric aviation technologies that include eVTOL, eSTOL and eCTOL aircraft, up to and including helicopters, commuter and regional aircraft being retrofitted with battery-electric, hybrid-electric and hydrogen-electric propulsion systems.
Urban Aeronautics of Israel and Alaka’i Technologies of the US were among the first eVTOL companies that mentioned using hydrogen fuel cells for eVTOL power. Since then numerous eVTOL companies have gravitated towards hydrogen for increased range, while several general aviation aircraft companies have announced plans to retrofit regional aircraft with hydrogen fuel cells for emissions-free flight.
The rapid spread of the Covid-19 virus in early 2020 quickly disrupted the schedules and supply chains of the eVTOL industry.
Although Uber had raised $8.1B in its initial public offering in May 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic upended Uber’s business strategy and plans for profitability.
This was apparent in second-quarter 2020 financial reports that showed Uber’s mobility revenues dropping below its food delivery services revenues. Customers were traveling less, but ordering a lot more takeout food through the Uber Eats app. This was reflected in Uber’s third quarter financial results, which showed mobility revenue had declined 53% year-over-year, even as delivery revenue grew 125%. The fallout hit the eVTOL industry on December 8, 2020 when Joby Aviation announced the acquisition of Uber’s entire Elevate business unit and associated intellectual property (IP), as well as the transition of most of the staff. In addition, Uber would invest an additional $75M in Joby, on top of the $50M it had secretly invested in Joby in January 2020 as part of its Series C funding round.
While Joby benefited from the transaction, the nine other eVTOL companies affiliated with Uber suddenly had to update their business plans.
During its four-year existence, Uber had announced partnership agreements with Aurora Flight Sciences (a Boeing Company), Bell, EmbraerX, Hyundai, Jaunt Air Mobility, Overair (a spinoff from Karem Aircraft), and Pipistrel Vertical Solutions. Two other companies (rumored to be Beta Technologies and Vertical Aerospace) had apparently also partnered with Uber but had not been announced by late 2020.
Following Boeing’s partnership with Kitty Hawk to form Wisk, and Uber’s Elevate sale, Boeing’s Aurora Flight Sciences has stepped back from its own eVTOL aircraft development to support Wisk’s Cora development.
Bell suspended development of the Nexus eVTOL aircraft, while continuing to test fly its Model 429 helicopter Electrically Distributed Anti-Torque (EDAT) technology demonstrator in Canada, with four tail-mounted electric fans replacing the aircraft’s complete tail rotor drive system.
Brazilian aerospace giant Embraer announced on Oct. 15, 2020 that it was spinning out Eve Urban Air Mobility Solutions, Inc. from its Melbourne, Florida-based EmbraerX subsidiary, just prior to the Elevate sale. The new subsidiary, Eve, became a new, independent company dedicated to accelerating development of its eVTOL aircraft and the UAM ecosystem.
Hyundai Motor Group’s Air Mobility business announced the development of the S-A1 eVTOL aircraft at CES 2020. On November 5, 2021, Hyundai renamed its urban air mobility division Supernal, which will develop aircraft and provide key elements of the AAM ecosystem.
Jaunt Air Mobility was created in 2019 to bring the world’s first electric Slowed Rotor Compound (SRC) aircraft to market – the Jaunt Journey – after acquiring the intellectual property of Carter Aviation Technologies. On October 11, 2021, Jaunt announced it had entered into an agreement to merge with the AIRO Group (US) which owns six other companies active in the air mobility, autonomy, UAS and aerospace business.
Overair spun out of Karem Aircraft as the fourth company founded by aerospace visionary Abe Karem. The Butterfly eVTOL tiltrotor uses four large, electric tilting rotors incorporating Optimum Speed Propulsion (OSP) and low disk loading.
Pipistrel Vertical Solutions is part of the world’s most successful manufacturer of electric general aviation aircraft based in Slovenia. After unveiling its 801 eVTOL air taxi concept in 2019, the company shifted focus to developing a hybrid-electric VTOL cargo drone.
Several other companies that were originally focused on multicopter designs – including Airbus, EHang and Volocopter – announced in 2021 that they are now developing new eVTOL models with wings.
The eVTOL companies that secured significant investments prior to the COVID-19 pandemic found themselves in a relatively good position when funding became tighter for start-up companies of every sort. Most of these companies successfully raised capital through seed, Series A, Series B and Series C funding rounds with external investors who were offered equity or part ownership in the company.
In December 2019, Chinese drone manufacturer and eVTOL developer EHang went public with a $100M initial public offering (IPO) on the US Nasdaq stock exchange. Earlier in the year, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) approved initial unmanned service. EHang’s prospectus noted that it planned to launch passenger air taxi service in its home city of Guangzhou and other cities in China.
Then a year after Joby Aviation became the first eVTOL start-up valued at more than $1B in early 2020, a growing number of companies across the advanced air mobility (AAM) industry looked to merge with a Special Purpose Acquisition Company (SPAC) that was already publicly traded to raise the funds necessary to bankroll future growth.
Also called “blank-check companies,” a SPAC is a publicly traded shell company created solely to raise funds and merge with a privately-owned business, giving the start-up a stock market listing (and ticker symbol) in as little as eight weeks. Essentially, a SPAC can offer an early stage but high-growth company with a capital-intensive launch plan a faster IPO process, along with experienced partners within the SPAC guiding the operation.
The shell company contributes the funds it raised in its SPAC IPO along with a private investment round known as a private investment in public equity (PIPE) that provides additional capital to help the business grow.
In December 2020, helicopter booking service Blade Urban Air Mobility landed a $400M SPAC with Experience Investment Corp. and announced plans to eventually transition to eVTOL aircraft. The deal closed in May 2022 and company’s common stock began trading on the NASDAQ under the ticker symbol “BLDE” on May 10, 2021. Prior to the deal closing, Blade placed conditional orders for 20 Alia aircraft from Beta Technologies. Blade has also partnered with Embraer’s Eve and Wisk to fly their aircraft within their network, and with Helijet International in Vancouver to expand scheduled helicopter services in British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest’s Cascadia corridor as a foundation for future eVTOL service.
On Feb. 10, 2021 Archer Aviation and SPAC Atlas Crest Investment Corp. (NYSE: ACIC) announced they would merge with the new company listed on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) under the ACHR ticker symbol.
On the same day, United Airlines announced a purchase agreement for up to $1B of its four-passenger (plus pilot) aircraft and options for an additional $500M, totaling 200 aircraft.
Archer first unveiled its plans and progress to the world back in May 21, 2020 with a team of engineers recruited from competing San Francisco Bay Area eVTOL startups Joby and Wisk, and Airbus’s Silicon Valley program, Vahana.
Atlas Crest was sponsored by an affiliate of Moelis & Company, a leading global financial advisor. The deal closed September 17, and Archer generated $857.6 million in gross proceeds including $500M held in trust and $600M in a PIPE funded by leading strategic and financial investors, including United Airlines, Stellantis (formed by the merger of Groupe PSA and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles in January 2021) and the venture arm of Exor, Baron Capital Group, the Federated Hermes Kaufmann Funds, Mubadala Capital, Putnam Investments and Access Industries.
The SPAC deal and the United order put Archer’s value at $3.8B. Archer’s two-seat Maker proof of concept demonstrator flew for the first time at an undisclosed location in California on Dec. 17. This aircraft has six five-bladed, highly tapered, tilting propellers mounted forward of the wing, and six two-bladed lift propellers mounted behind the wing. The unnamed production model will be larger and accommodate a pilot and four passengers.
On Feb. 24 Joby Aviation announced it would merge in a SPAC transaction with Reinvent Technology Partners, a company founded by LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hollman and tech entrepreneur Mark Pincus. The transaction netted Joby $1.1B, down from the $1.6B originally forecast. The company became the first U.S.-based eVTOL company listed on public market when it began trading on NYSE under ticker “JOBY” on August 11, 2021.
Joby already holds a $40M contract with the US Department of Defense, which provides early revenue to reduce technology risk.
In its investor presentation, Joby says there is a huge untapped market opportunity of “$500 billion addressable market for the U.S. alone [and the] total global addressable market is north of $1 trillion.”
The company says its FAA Part 23 eVTOL aircraft offers a step change beyond existing helicopter technology, with an aircraft that is 100 times quieter than a helicopter (65 dBA at hover) and offers a four times per mile improvement over a twin engine helicopters on a 25-mile trip.
Each aircraft is projected to cost $1.3M to build but is expected to generate $2.2 M in net revenue and $1M in revenue per year, resulting a payback period of about 1.3 years on the initial investment. Fares are expected to be based on a price point of $3.00 per seat mile (revenue passenger mile, or RPM) with $1.73 revenue per available seat mile (RASM) at 100% load factor.
Joby’s key assumptions and performance indicators for launch of air taxi services in 2026 have caught a lot of attention. The company expects to field 963 aircraft by that time (with 850 in its operating service agreement) with each operational aircraft flying seven hours per day as part of a 12-hour duty day, with an average trip length of 24 miles and a projected load factor of 2.4 passengers per trip. Joby says this will translate into about 12.4M total flights per year, with about 34,400 flights per day.
Joby also revealed its initial 23 target markets in the United States as well as Australia, Brazil, Canada, Dubai, Germany, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Mexico, Singapore, Thailand, and the United Kingdom.
On September 14, 2021 Lilium of Germany completed its business combination with Qell Acquisition Corp to support the development of the seven-seat Lilium Jet — indicating six passengers and a pilot — and started trading on the Nasdaq under the symbol “LILM”. Qell is led by Barry Engle, a former president of General Motors North America. As a result of the business combination, Lilium received approximately $584 million of gross proceeds before fees, down from the $830 million originally forecast when plans were first announced in March 2021. The company expected to spend an estimated $221 million in fiscal year 2021.
The first flight of Lilium’s 5th generation technology demonstrator, the 5-seat “Phoenix” took place in May 2019, but a fire and the COVID-19 lockdown delayed testing with its second Phoenix until July 2021. The company moved the flight test program to Spain in late January 2022 to take advantage of more favorable weather.
The company has also secured more than $200M in commitments from infrastructure partners, including Ferrovial and Tavistock Development Company. Tavistock will develop an eVTOL hub at Lake Nona in Orlando, Florida. Ferrovial will build a Vertiport for Lilium’s exclusive use at Palm Beach International Airport and at other sites in Florida, as well as a network of 25 Vertiports in the United Kingdom and more than 20 Vertiports across Spain.
In August 2021, Lilium announced it was in negotiations with leading Brazilian airline Azul to build an exclusive eVTOL network in Brazil that would utilize up to 220 Lilium Jet aircraft. The deal had not yet been finalized at press time.
UK-based Vertical Aerospace became the fourth eVTOL developer to raise funds through a SPAC when it merged with Broadstone Acquisition Corp on December 14, 2021 and started trading on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) under the ticker symbol EVTL.
Vertical plans to certify its five-seat VX4 air taxi by 2024 and has lined up a string of conditional orders from major airlines, aircraft leasing companies and investors. The growing list includes the American Airlines, Avolon, Bristow Group, Iberojet, Japan Airlines, Marubeni Corporation and Virgin Atlantic.
Avolon, a Dublin-based aircraft leasing company announced in turn that it plans to partner with GOL Linhas Aéreas Inteligentes, Brazil’s largest airline, and Grupo Comporte, a shareholder, to launch an eVTOL network in Sao Paulo, Brazil, with service beginning as soon as 2025. In total, Vertical has announced 1,350 in conditional orders, more than any other electric aircraft company.
In the UK, Vertical is also collaborating with London’s Heathrow Airport to explore how Vertical’s VA-X4 eVTOL vehicle could operate from the airport by the mid-2020s.
Eve is the urban air mobility business created by Embraer S.A. and established as an independent company in October 2020. In late 2021, it revealed plans to merge with SPAC Zanite Acquisition Corp. and list in 2022 on the NYSE as Eve Holding, Inc. under the ticker “EVEX.”
Embraer will remain a majority stockholder with an approximately 82% equity stake in Eve Holding following the closing of the business combination, including its investment in the PIPE.
In the lead up to the announcement, Eve announced 1,735 vehicle orders, via non-binding letters of intent, from 17 launch customers, including fixed wing and helicopter operators, aircraft lessors and ride sharing platform partners who plan to launch services beginning in 2026.
These SPAC transactions significantly expanded the number of eVTOL aircraft investors and customers in less than a year.
In November 2021, Volocopter canceled its plans to go public through with a SPAC merger, stating that it was an “extremely unfavorable” time, given the higher shareholder redemptions and lower net returns being realized through 2021.
There are still a few bridges to cross before eVTOL aircraft start rolling off final assembly lines and into the sky.
The certification rules for airplanes and helicopters were not originally design to certify electric aircraft, and they incorporate a lot of new and novel technology.
Following a re-write of FAR 23 small airplane rules, the FAA now looks to organizations like SAE International and ASTM International to help develop consensus standards to support the certification of electric motors, batteries and other new technology.
In Europe, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has published its “Special Condition for Small-Category Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) Aircraft” (SC-VTOL-01), leaning on EUROCAE to develop its needed industry standards.
The lack of harmonized regulations presents an addition challenges for companies wanting to sell in many jurisdictions.
Similarly, the licensing and training of future eVTOL pilots and maintenance technicians is not fully addressed in existing regulations. The development of fly-by-wire eVTOL aircraft calls for innovation in the development, certification and entry into service of new training systems, with some regulators moving faster than others in this area.
eVTOL operators will also need to recruit sufficient pilots to meet their business plans, at a time other sectors of the aviation industry – including airlines, helicopter operators and business aviation –are in post Covid-19 recovery and actively competing for the same pilot pool.
And the training and recruitment of well-qualified eVTOL maintenance technicians has hardly been addressed at a time when licenced avionics technicians are already in extremely short supply.
The development of eVTOL aircraft is a global phenomenon that also includes many companies and countries across Asia.
Today this includes a number of eVTOL aircraft developers in China, Korea and Japan, and joint ventures that see American, Brazilian and European companies parting on aircraft development, AAM infrastructure or future air services in Asia.
Chinese eVTOL developers have been hard at work since EHang launched its first project 2014 with several new aircraft capable of transporting passengers or cargo unveiled in 2020-2021 by a range of startups and industry giants of aerospace and automotive, such as XPeng and Geely.
In January 2019, the Airworthiness Department of CAAC issued its “Guidance on UAV Airworthiness Certification based on Operational Risks,” aimed at establishing a risk-based unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) airworthiness management system including for transporting cargo, inspecting powerlines and carrying passengers.
Early demonstration flights helped increased public awareness of the aircraft and technology and paved the way for limited passenger demonstration flights not under North American or European airworthiness regulations.
While SPAC investments in the eVTOL industry in the United States and Europe seemed to have peaked in 2021, investments in the investment climate in China remains strong.
Today, the leading eVTOL companies in China include EHang, AutoFlight, XPeng HT Aero, Geely’s Terrafugua, Volant Aerotech, Pantuo and other players which are all detailed VFS writer Xin Gou’s report China’s Rising eVTOL Industry in the November/December issue of Vertiflite magazine (also available on the VFS website https://evtol.news/news/chinas-rising-evtol-industry.
In a recent development, Autoflight received $100M to develop its safe, clean, quiet and affordable Air-Taxi from “Team Global”, a technology holding lead by high profile German/ Polish tech entrepreneur Lukasz Gadowski. The company flew its V1500M Prosperity in Shanghai in October 2021. As a result of the investment, Autoflight opened an R&D and Certification Center at Augsburg airport in Germany in early 2022 to support development of its four-seat ‘Prosperity I’ air taxi.
TCab is another Chinese company, which was founded in Shanghai in 2020. After obtaining seed investments of nearly $10M, TCab flew a half-scale model of its five-seat E20 eVTOL in December 2021.
AAM Industry Expands
The development of eVTOL aircraft took an early lead in the electrification of air transportation, but now fresh investment is flowing into the eSTOL and eCTOL aircraft sectors as well as the hydrogen-electric fuel cells for aircraft use.
The fixed-wing field includes a number of clean sheet aircraft designs like the Eviation Alice from Israel/US, the VoltAero Cassio electric-hybrid aircraft from France and the Tecnam P-Volt from Italy.
In addition, a growing number of companies are planning retrofit programs that will replace piston, turboprop and turbofan engines with electric motors by way of a supplementary type certificate (STC).
One of the first STC programs was launched by Ampaire several years ago to transform the Cessna 337 Skymaster into a hybrid-electric aircraft with an electric motor replacing one of the two piston engines.
Other STC conversion programs that have been announced target the ATR 42/72, Cessna 208 Caravan, de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver and Dash 8-400, Dornier 228 and 328 and MHI RJ CRJ regional jet, with hydrogen-electric propulsion favoured for aircraft in the 19 to 70 seat range.
VFS Expands AAM Industry Engagement
At the same time, VFS was also expanding its horizons, from an initial focus on the technology of eVTOL to a broader focus on the broad AAM ecosystem.
To this end, in 2018, VFS partnered with the CAFE Foundation to co-sponsor the 12th annual Electric Aircraft Symposium (EAS) held in Oshkosh, Wisconsin the weekend prior to the EAA AirVenture airshow which has long hosted the leading innovators from across the industry, as well as regulators and aircraft operators.
Beginning in September 2019, VFS also hosted its first of five semi-annual workshops focused on infrastructure operations as they relate to eVTOL aircraft capabilities and performance. In 2020, VFS formally established its VFS Electric VTOL Technical Committee, led by Dr. Anubhav Datta, and in 2021 formed councils on Flight Testing and Hydrogen.
The VFS-led E-VTOL Flight Test Council (for eVTOL and other types of electric aircraft) is a collaborative group effort with the Society of Flight Test Engineers (SFTE), Society of Experimental Test Pilots (SETP) and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), with VFS taking the lead role for accumulating the bulk of the technical content.
The Society’s Hydrogen Council is an open forum for hydrogen in aeronautics powertrain applications, covering the spectrum of science, technology, development, production, storage, distribution, fuel cell manufacturing, eVTOL and drone applications, and related topics.
Just as VFS established the world’s first public workshop on electric VTOL in August 2014, the Society is now holding the world’s first public workshop on hydrogen for eVTOL, eSTOL and eCTOL aircraft in March 2022.
About the Author
Kenneth I. Swartz
Regional Director for the Americas
Vertical Flight Society
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