“Our mantra this year is build, build, build,” says Balkiz Sarihan, head of Airbus urban air mobility (UAM). And while assembly of the first CityAirbus NextGen prototype is a core part of that effort, it also encompases construction of a wider operational ecosystem, test environment and regulatory landscape.
Perhaps the most visible element of that is the vehicle itself: parts for the first CityAirbus NextGen prototype are beginning to arrive at the manufacturer’s facility in Donauworth, Germany, ahead of final assembly activities starting later this year, to support a first flight in 2024.
“This year is all about assembly – literally the pieces are coming in,” says Sarihan.
Sarihan, briefing journalists on 15 February, said the electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft is on course to make its first flight – without a pilot on board – in 2024.
Development of the CityAirbus NextGen is being led by Airbus UAM – a separate Munich-based legal entity – but drawing on expertise elsewhere in the group.
Donauworth is home to Airbus Helicopters’ production line for its H135 and H145 light-twins, but is also serving as the final assembly and test base for the CityAirbus NextGen; the manufacturer last year broke ground on a dedicated test centre that will be built at the site.
All the suppliers for the programme have now been lined up, says Sarihan; the most recent addition – announced in January – is French firm Crouzet, which will provide the human-machine interface for the aircraft. Sarihan reveals little about what the pilot controls will look like, save to say there will be “a stick”.
Other suppliers include Spirit AeroSystems (wing), KLK (tail), and MagicAll (the electric propulsion units, or EPUs).
But Airbus UAM has also looked within the broader group for expertise: Airbus Defence & Space is providing the batteries, while Airbus Helicopters is developing the main fuselage and the aircraft’s eight propellers. “We are pulling in expertise from all these areas,” says Sarihan.
Although Airbus UAM is dedicated to the CityAirbus NextGen effort, it also serves as a technology development and testing house for “the benefit of the [Airbus] group”.
That includes distributed propulsion, full-electric flight, batteries themselves or “different kinds of propulsion as well, in addition to [battery] electrification”.
In this instance, that means hydrogen fuel cells, which will later be tested aboard a subsequent CityAirbus NextGen prototype.
Although many operating in the UAM space have brought the development of batteries in-house, Sarihan thinks in future this may become a more standardised technology across the industry.
“I think eventually there has to be co-operation on batteries, because everyone is chasing the same technology.”
Developers will be able to add value through the design of the battery packs the battery management systems, she says, but adds: “In the end, the cells are the cells – everybody’s using the same cells.”
Meanwhile, Airbus UAM continues working to shape the broader ecosystem in which the CityAirbus NextGen might operate. That includes the regulatory environment, pilot licensing requirements and operational use cases.
In collaboration with the Bavarian government and 28 other partners, Airbus UAM is to create an early test environment in the southern German state. This will see it establish vertiports in two locations – to be confirmed next year – from which it will operate a number of routes and missions to “test the interoperability of the system requirements”.
Airbus UAM sees medical services as a key early use case for the eVTOL aircraft – providing a societal benefit that could accelerate wider acceptance of the technology, Sarihan argues.
In addition, such services – “getting the right intervention, the right medication, the right person to the right place at the right time” – can be performed with the current CityAirbus NextGen design that features a three-passenger cabin and can operate from existing helipad infrastructure.
“Operators are saying to us ‘I don’t need you to replicate what I can do in my helicopter… I need you to give me something that is additive’,” she adds.
But for those eyeing air taxi operations, is a three-passenger cabin large enough to ensure profitability? Sarihan argues that it is simply “a starting point”.
“It’s not three passengers from a business case perspective, it is three passengers from a reasonable projection of technology readiness.
“The machine is scalable – it’s just the technology needs to reach our ambition.”