EVTOLS: Engineered to 'Rise'

Everything you need to know about evtols

Stratview Research 23-11-2021

The popularity of EVTOL aircrafts has been exploding in the industry lately and in my opinion, it’s quite natural for an advancement this promising. These aircrafts can be powered by electric motors and are designed to take-off and land vertically. Hence, terminating the need for a traditional runway. These are lighter, greener, and easier to operate as compared against their rivals, the traditional aircrafts. So, there aren’t a lot of reasons not to feel ‘electrified’ about this new technology.

Professionals from industries beyond aerospace are bouncing off the walls and waiting eagerly for this technology to be customer-ready because of all the potential problems it could solve. But before we start expecting solutions from a tech which is still to make a commercial debut in the market, it would make more sense in getting a better idea about what this tech has in its arsenal. Classifications, applications, funding, hurdles, potential and everything else that makes it worth this discussion. So, let’s dive straight in.

Same family, yet different ways of reaching the sky:

The classification of evtols is way more minute than what anyone would expect for a product which is yet to enter the market in its full glory. EVTOLs today are primarily classified by the Vertical Flight Society(VFS) based on Design Maturity, Energy Source, Thrust Type, Pilot Type and even Carrying Capacity. Till date, almost 100+ different eVTOL concepts have been proposed by different organizations, councils and innovators. Still, the mechanism behind the levitation and propulsion of all these, revolve largely around just a handful popular ones. As per the Vertical Flight Society, some of the most broadly recognized configurations are:

a) Vectored Thrust
b) Lift + Cruise
c) Wingless Multicopters
d) Hoverbikes
e) Electric Rotorcraft

 

Image source: [a] [b] [c] [d] [e]

 

a.) Vectored Thrust:

These evtols have at least one pair of wide wings and use the same propulsion system for hovering as well as for cruise. They function on the principle of thrust vectoring; which is the ability of an aircraft, rocket, or other vehicle to manipulate the direction of the thrust from its engine(s) or motor(s) to control its attitude or angular velocity. Furthermore, vectored thrust evtols also have the ‘with or without-fan’ variants among themselves.

b.) Lift + Cruise:

Perhaps the closest to vectored thrust evtols but less complex in terms of functioning. The only feature which makes lift+cruise evtols different than the vectored thrust ones is that the lift+cruise variants use separate propulsion systems for hover and cruise flight. One CANNOT distinguish between a vectored thrust evtol and a lift+cruise evtol simply by looking at it.

c.) Wingless:

As the name suggests, wingless multicopters are the variants which depend entirely on rotors for both lift as well as cruise. And though these are relatively simple when it comes to designing, on the other side of the coin, the absence of wings interferes with its forward-flight performance and thus limits its speed and range.

d.) Hoverbikes:

These may feel like straight out of a Sci-fi movie at a first glance but these are for real. Hoverbikes can be considered as the newest addition to the evtol family and will take the longest to gain popularity because of the obvious challenges it brings to the manufacturers and the consumers alike.

Some common concerns which may serve as hurdles in the wide acceptance of hoverbikes might be:

  1. Rider Safety: Helmets and other safety accessories used by bikers, won’t be as effective when we are talking about crashing from a height of 16 feet since hoverbikes won’t be having any ‘cockpit’ or ‘enclosed cabinet’.
  2. Flight Altitude: The average flight-altitude for the currently available models of hoverbikes is <20 feet. Which further excludes its usage from a number of different scenarios where other categories of evtols would do just fine.

e.) Electric Rotorcraft:

These are simply the electric versions of traditional rotorcrafts and unlike other members of the evtol family, rotorcrafts do not rely on Distributed Electric Propulsion(DEP) system, to achieve flight or to cruise. In contrast with the new members in the evtol family, Electric Rotorcrafts are easier to certify because of the presence of well-laid guidelines for traditional rotorcrafts.

Is the sky really as bright and clear as the investors think?

Despite of the year 2020 being the year of the pandemic and one of the years where aviation industry saw unprecedented losses, investors kept pouring money into evtol startups like a dream. According to a report from the UN’s Air Transportation Agency, published in January 2021, the fall in international travel was excruciatingly as high as 60%. Which forced a lot of organizations in the Airlines & Aviation Industry to resort to severe steps like salary cuts and even attrition.

Ironically, 2020 itself saw a whooping $1.1 Billion in investments for evtol/Air Taxi startups according to an analysis released by Pitchbook, which was 80% higher than what was received in 2019. The same report tells us that Q1-2021 alone has pulled investments worth $3.8 Billion for eVTOL/Air Taxi startups, which is more than three times the total amount pulled-in during 2020.

 

Image Source: [1]

 

This has become a topic of interest among many professionals including and beyond the Aerospace Industry.

And many think that the production is going to surpass the demand greatly. Currently, we do have a lot of players in the market who have their tools and talent, ready to deploy and break the ground on the manufacturing of evtols but do we have the corresponding amount of buyers in the market?

Many thought-leaders across the aviation industry are now trying to place everything together to get an idea of how the picture will look like, a couple years from now. During one such endeavor, Sergio Cecutta(Founder and Partner - SMG Consulting), in one of his interviews with Aviation International News, compares the present-day eVTOL landscape with the early 1900s when the long-tail aircraft had just started coming into business and a lot of companies went into aircraft manufacturing but only a handful have survived till date. So, the investors need to choose carefully on which horse to put their money on or else it can really end up costing them a fortune.

EVTOLs and the Automotive Industry:

Since almost all the companies which are planning to launch evtols have Air ‘Taxi’ as one of their major(or only) goal, leading Automotive players who have already envisioned what the future of mobility is going to look like, have made a rather smart move by investing a fortune or by announcing partnerships with some promising players in the evtol space. To list out some recent, noteworthy involvement of the Automotive sector in the eVTOL space, we can begin with:

1. Toyota’s investment of $394M as lead investor in Joby's Series C financing, in Jan 2020. Where Toyota clearly mentions the following in its Press Release:

“Toyota is embracing emerging technologies as it transforms into a mobility company that is better equipped to meet the unique mobility needs of individuals everywhere.”

2. The Uber and Hyundai Motor Company partnership to develop Uber Air Taxis for a future aerial ride share network in January 2020, at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES).

Though in Dec 2020, Uber sold its Air Taxi Service platform to Joby Aviation.

3. Oct-2019: Porsche and Boeing sign an MoU to explore the premium urban air mobility market and with an aim of extending the urban traffic into airspace.

Detlev von Platen, Member of the Executive Board for Sales & Marketing at Porsche AG quotes "We are combining the strengths of two leading global companies to address a potential key market segment of the future."    

4. Nov 2017: Geely, the parent company of Volvo, acquire Terrafugia.

5. Aug 2017: German eVTOL startup Volocopter pulls in $30 million in investments from Mercedes' parent company, Daimler.

Why do the cars want to fly?

The apparent motive behind automotive organizations investing heavily into the evtol space is the vision of making a transition from being ‘Automotive’ companies to ‘Mobility’ companies.

Because after a few years from now, if the evtols indeed turn out to be worthy of the excitement, then they’ll soon enough capture a large chunk of the transportation industry,

Disruptive only for UAM or more?

Everyone has their eyes on evtols for Urban Air Mobility. That’s the primary application even in the manufacturers’ books. But once customer-ready, its applications will span far beyond just UAM.

Though UAM will have the largest serving of its applications, players are already on the move for partnerships and collaborations to penetrate into sectors other than just UAM. Some popular applications of evtols can be:

  • UAM:

→ According to a research on evtol Passenger Acceptance conducted by NASA, with cruise speeds of about 100 mph for intra-metro trips compared to the average automobile commute speed – often about 30 mph – evtol aircraft can reduce travel time by 50% or more, depending on the trip distance.

  • Emergency Medical Response:

→ In a recent virtual panel hosted by McKinsey & Company, use of evtols as a part of an emergency response system, to move a medical professional to the scene of an incident, was recognized as one of the most positive and achievable application.

  • Time-sensitive deliveries:

→ In April 2021, Vermont based Beta Technologies announced that it has received an order for 150 evtols from UPS, which UPS intends to use for transporting time-sensitive deliveries.

  • Aerial Sightseeing:

→ In December 2020, Chinese evtol developer EHang announced the launch of an aerial sightseeing service in partnership with Greenland Hong Kong Holdings Limited.

  • Military Applications:

→ In May 2021, California based Kitty Hawk, in partnership with Agility Prime(US Air Force’s arm to support evtols) carried out a number of test missions to check an evtol’s usability in search operations, medevac, personnel recovery and even resupplying missions.

Pitfalls in the sky?

Unfortunately, none of the Electric Aircraft companies are based out of Utopia and neither are any of their customers or clients. Nascent or mature, promising or not so promising, recognized or overlooked, every new technology or concept has to navigate its way through a lot of questioning eyes in the industry and that’s precisely why many don’t survive for long.  

Being newbies, evtols have not been exempted from any of these and whether or not this technology will see the acceptance its aiming for, depends upon factors, many of which are beyond the reign of both investors as well as the players alike.

If we wish to categorize the very initial challenges which evtol companies are going to face, then we may divide them as follows:

  • Technological challenges
  • Infrastructural challenges
  • Regulatory challenges
  • The ‘Skill-Gap’
     
  • Technological challenges:

One of the biggest challenges eVTOL manufacturers are facing today is that there’s ‘room for improvement’ but there’s ‘little or no’ room in its true sense. Almost every evtol today operates using the Distributed Electric Propulsion(DEP) or the Fly-by-Wire system, which allows the pilot to automate the whole process of flight to a great extent. It naturally makes more sense as some vectored thrust models of evtols have as many as 15-18 rotors. The orientation and speed of these rotors is what defines the trajectory of the aircraft. For example, decreasing rpm at the front and increasing it in the rear indicates the condition of forward flight.

“For traditional aircraft, fly-by-wire is just optional, for evtols, it’s an absolute necessity.”  says Stephane Fymat, Vice-President of Urban Air Mobility at Honeywell. Now, the problem is that traditional aircrafts which use DEP, are much larger in size as compared to evtols. So, the primary challenge here is to hardwire the same system in a much smaller space without compromising the safety and the functioning.

  • Infrastructural challenges:

This is precisely where the game goes out of the hands of the manufacturers and the investors. In an ideal situation, even if the manufacturers manage to launch a working model say next year, and the model excels all the tests and certifications, has an affordable price and looks stunning. Even if the above situation turns out to be true, there will only be a handful (<10) of cities which will be able to permit its operations because of the ‘infrastructure’ required to support this mobility system. Developing a flawless eVTOL isn’t the endgame here. One needs to think about setting up vertiports, traffic management systems, ground infrastructure to support UAM at scale, landing sites and even parking spots, before thinking about successful operations of this future-tech.

  • Regulatory challenges:

The regulatory bodies European Union Aviation Safety Agency(EASA) and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have both taken up distinct approaches for airworthiness of evtols. While EASA had already laid out a separate set of guidelines aimed specifically at VTOLs, FAA’s approach here is to employ its existing set of guidelines laid out for ‘Small Aircrafts’, after a thorough examination of the Concept of Operation(conops).

Both EASA and FAA advise startups and manufactures to get in touch with them as early as possible while in the design page to avoid a plethora of rework. Some useful highlights from both EASA and FAA regarding the certification of VTOLs will be:

EASA

→ Has released a dedicated set of standards specifically for VTOLs. Latest version was released in May, 2021. And the complete document can be found here.

→ Some vital parameters laid down for the certification include Fly-by-wire system analysis, lightning strike exposure, flight hours after rotor failure, high-intensity radiated fields (HIRF) protection etc.

→ Does not allow certification of unmanned air taxis yet.

→ Specific evaluations for the functioning capability of the aircraft after single and multiple bird strikes.

FAA

→ Uses existing criteria (14 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) § 21.17 (b)) laid down for ‘Small Aircraft’ for the certification of VTOLs also. The specifications can be found here.

→ The certification will be provided or the aircraft as a single functioning unit and the components like rotors, propellers etc. will not need separate certification.

→ Does not allow certification of unmanned air taxis yet.

→ Focuses on the Concept of Operation(Conops) first and then decides on what all certifications will be ‘needed’.

  • The ‘Skill-Gap’

Around the year 2024, is when most of the eVTOL companies are planning to make a commercial launch of their models, and the governing authorities show no sign of releasing certifications for unmanned air taxis yet. So, to make UAM a reality and that too at scale, the industry will need to focus on Pilot Training Programs as they make progress on the production side.

When talking about the need for Pilots to support the future UAM systems, Martin Peryea(CEO of Jaunt Air Mobility) says “The pilot becomes a flight-deck manager who monitors systems and gives basic commands.”

So, as a result of the DEP systems, which efficiently utilize the concept of a feedback loop, the amount of skill required to fly an eVTOL will become very less as compared to the current standards of a traditional aircraft.

The direct contribution of the Pilots for tasks like providing stability to the aircraft, will be reduced and the whole flight system will get automated to a great extent.

When and where do we get to see one in the streets?

Now, one might ask, ‘It all looks great in the news but when do we get to see the flying cars?’ ( evtols actually)

And that would be an interesting take because most of the eVTOL startups have only been able to present the prototypes so far. Joby Aviation, the most immensely funded company in the evtol space with a total of $2.3 Billion raised so far, plans to start its commercial operations in 2024. Second in line is Lilium with $1.2 Billion in funding, preceded by Archer Aviation with a total of $1.1 Billion raised, have all made announcements to commercialize their operations around 2024-25.

So, the period from 2024-26 can be called as the time when we’ll get to witness the Judgement Day for the seemingly promising evtol startups and the investors will get to know how well their bets played-off.

As for the ‘where’ part now, there are quite a few possibilities for that and it would be difficult to give an accurate prediction at this point. Since most of eVTOLs are in the development stage now, the best any company has managed to get so far is, ‘flight-testing’ permission or ‘demonstration’ permission. And though everyone is expecting the US to be top candidate, China might already be ahead in the race as it can certify aircrafts without any dependency on the FAA and EASA. Here are a few ‘volunteers’ we have for evtols so far:

 

 

→ November 2018: Dubai police starts training on Electric Hoverbikes and announces plans to add them to their fleet by 2020. [2]

→ August 2019: Uber selects Dallas as one of its launch cities for its Air Taxi initiative. [3]

→ October 2019: Singapore allows Germany based startup Volocopter to perform its scheduled Air Taxi demo over Singapore’s Marina Bay. [4]

→ March 2020: Ehang recieves a nod for flight-testing in Norway. [5]

→ December 2020: Ehang receives long-term flight testing permission in Austria. [6]

→ December 2020: Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, announces the first-in-the-nation Urban Air Mobility Partnership. [7]

→ Jan 2021: Ehang partners with Greenland, Hong Kong for aerial sightseeing trials. [8]

→ March 2021: Wisk, an eVTOL joint venture between Kitty Hawk and Boeing, extends passenger trials of its air taxi services to New Zealand. [9]

→ March 2021: South Florida city’s Mayor, Francis Suarez confirms his plans to have vertical airports to be built in Miami by 2024, after a meeting with the top brass of Archer Aviation. [10]

When do you think you’ll see one in your neighborhood?


References:
[a] - https://lilium.com/

[b] - https://www.sae.org/news/2020/06/evtol-startups

[c] - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volocopter_2X

[d] - https://science.howstuffworks.com/transport/flight/modern/hoverbike-future-flight.htm

[e] - https://evtol.news/aquinea-volta

[1] - https://pitchbook.com/news/reports/q2-2021-pitchbook-analyst-note-the-evtol-air-taxi-startup-handbook

[2] - https://edition.cnn.com/2018/11/08/middleeast/hoverbike-dubai-police-flying-lessons/index.html

[3] - https://evtol.com/news/uber-selects-dallas-elevate-pilot-city-major-expansion/

[4] - https://www.volocopter.com/newsroom/volocopter-commits-to-launch-air-taxi-services-in-singapore/

[5] - https://evtol.com/news/ehang-authorized-flight-testing-norway/

[6] - https://www.ehang.com/news/713.html

[7] - https://www.lamayor.org/mayor-garcetti-announces-first-nation-urban-air-mobility-partnership

[8] - https://www.globenewswire.com/news-release/2020/12/28/2150926/0/en/EHang-Launches-Aerial-Tourism-Services-with-Strategic-Partner-Greenland-Hong-Kong.html

[9] - https://www.aviationtoday.com/2021/04/01/wisk-moves-forward-with-transport-trial-in-new-zealand-adds-insitu-integration/

[10] - https://statescoop.com/miami-archer-flying-taxis-vertical-airports/

Further Reading:

  1. https://files.pitchbook.com/website/files/pdf/Q2_2021_PitchBook_Analyst_Note_The_Air_Taxi_Startup_Handbook.pdf
  2. https://www.mdpi.com/2226-4310/6/3/26/htm
  3. https://assets.evtol.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/eVTOL-Basics-For-Investors.pdf

                               

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