Electric aviation at your doorstep

Changing urban living with eVTOL

The urban landscape is changing.

By 2030, urban areas are projected to house 60% of people globally and one in every three people will live in cities with at least half a million inhabitants.¹ The growing population will have an impact on our already crowded cities and transportation networks.

In a 2018 survey, three of the most congested cities in Europe were found to be Rome, Paris, and London where hours spent in traffic per year are 166, 165 and 149 respectively.² For London, as of 22nd June this year, the TFL daily congestion charge for cars entering the city center will increase from the existing £11.50 to £15. Car-free areas in London are also being introduced through the Streetspace programme in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Back to the Future (1985)

We can all agree that traffic is the worst and that we’d rather be anywhere but in a traffic jam. It wastes our time, impacts our quality of life, and adds to our carbon footprint. Consumers, now accustomed to the on-demand economy and many starting to think “green”, are looking for ways to get from point A to point B quicker and better. It would be helpful to press a button, lift up to the skies, and hover over all of the other cars to reach our final destination — just like in the scene from “Back to the Future” where the car takes off from the ground and flies away.

Not quite as retrofuturistic as the movie, Urban Air Mobility (UAM) could be one answer to the clean, on-demand travel that we’re looking for.

Take a big bustling city like São Paulo in Brazil. Airbus’ on-demand helicopter booking platform, Voom, has proven that it can take you from the São Paulo International Airport to the city center in 11 minutes on average, as opposed to a 2-hour car ride.³ Ride-sharing company Uber and aviation startup Lilium are just a few examples of companies competing with aerospace giants Airbus and Boeing in the electric flight race.

In the future UAM will be used for personal transport — in the form of air taxis — but also for emergency medical response, firefighting, and cargo delivery. Here is a deeper dive into how the technology works and barriers to overcome before moving from built product to commercialisation.

A brief history of the flying car

The idea of personal aviation dates back as early as the 1920s. The visionary Henry Ford dabbled in aviation, building the Ford “Flivver” in 1925. This light, single-seat aircraft was meant to fit in an office. While Ford ceased production of the Flivver after a fatal crash killed the pilot, they continued to develop other models.

Although Ford’s attempts in aviation were unsuccessful, he believed in the vision and famously said in 1940: “Mark my word: A combination airplane and motorcar is coming. You may smile, but it will come.” During Ford’s time, there was a high public interest in developing the flying car however, with the start of World War II, it got shadowed by the focus on military planes and preparation for the war.

The Convair Model 118

Then, in 1947, a car body with aircraft wings prototype was developed — the Convair Model 118. It consisted of up to 190 horsepower and two fuel gauges: one for the car and one for the wings. Unfortunately, the model never went into production after a demonstration flight failed (the uninjured pilot did not realise that the plane engine had ran dry). Other aircraft models included Waterman Aerobile from 1937, and the Aero-Car from 1966, and they all had one thing in common — these vehicles needed a runway to take-off and fly.

This is where the magic of VTOL comes in to transform the take-off. A vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft is one that can hover, take off, and land vertically. Some of the first VTOL aircraft include Curtiss-Wright VZ-7 quadrotor helicopter from 1958 used in the U.S. Army and the Harrier Jump Jet from 1967 used in the Royal Air Force.

Sketches of Lilium aircraft

eVTOL: How it works

If the best-known example of a VTOL is a helicopter, we could have been mass-producing helicopters for years: the first practical one, the VS-300, was invented in 1939 and has come a long way since. There are a few reasons why helicopters aren’t buzzing above your head (unless you’re in a city like Los Angeles in California) — they are expensive to maintain (i.e. the oil needs changing approximately every 25 flight hours), expensive as a form of flight (i.e. one way trip from JFK into NYC in an Uber Copter costs an average of $200–225; while a taxi is $40–60), it generates noise pollution, and it can be dangerous, as witnessed in the Kobe Bryant helicopter accident earlier this year.

Recent investment and interest in electric aviation has brought about a new, scalable solution, the eVTOL, a hybrid-electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft. Most companies are focusing on eVTOL today to develop aircraft that can more easily integrate into existing city infrastructure, cut emissions, and become as affordable and accessible as a ground taxi.

Immediate opportunities include short-range travel like city to airport in the São Paulo example. The long-term opportunities are inner-city flights like the air taxi Uber is developing— mitigating traffic after work by jumping on an Uber Air and getting home in a matter of minutes. There are several eVTOL companies working on the on-demand air taxi service including Lilium, on a mission to democratise air travel; Wisk Aero, a joint venture between Boeing and Kitty Hawk, a company backed by Google founder Larry Page; and Uber Air — after ride-hailing, electric scooter and bike rental and food delivery, Uber is now planning to take to the skies by 2023 with its new offering.

Source: Deloitte analysis

Barriers to take-off and landing

One of the biggest challenges for making VTOL widely accessible is building the infrastructure. In order for VTOL to work safely and efficiently, there need to be landing sites, better known as vertiports. These can be in existing locations (think rooftops) but many will need to be built. The wider requirements for infrastructure include sufficient air traffic management, control systems, and charging stations in place.

No matter how groundbreaking the technology, a critical component is working collaboratively with authorities and regulators. The European Union Air Safety Agency (EASA), the European Authority for aviation safety, released certification guidelines for commercial operation of VTOL in 2019. Both EASA and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the US encourage any company developing eVTOL to connect with them at the beginning of the project so that they can support the business throughout the design process. They will be looking closely at the existing battery technology and power storage as well — currently 30 to 50% below the battery capacity needed for passenger flights of any reasonable distance.⁴

Public acceptance of this new mode of transportation, from both the passenger and citizen perspective, is what will make or break the future of eVTOL. The comfort and safety of passengers is critical for this new way of flying. Speaking to the community, learning how people move, and setting up noise acoustic control will be key.

From manned to autonomous

Though several R&D projects like Voom by Airbus have recently shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, UAM remains a long-term strategy for the two main passenger jet-makers Airbus and Boeing. The impact of the pandemic is similarly felt by the startups in the space as they hope to resume flight testing as soon as the lockdown is lifted.

The bigger vision for eVTOL is to go from manned to autonomous based on the argument that autonomous aircraft will be faster and more reliable when it comes to seeing and navigating obstacles in the sky. The autonomous component will require an additional layer of trust-building between companies and consumers. An exciting solution, there is much that is still unknown in terms of the passenger perspective of eVTOL as a mobility solution.

After all, we’re only at the beginning of the electric revolution.

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