Some believers in emerging aviation technology have a futuristic vision of a highly connected fleet of electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) vehicles in the sky above Southern California within five years.
The vision is shared not just by aviation entrepreneurs and Silicon Valley executives. Among its promoters is Billy Nolen, acting administrator of the US Federal Aviation Administration, who has publicly identified the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles as a potential opportunity to showcase the USA as a leader in eVTOL technology.
“As we think forward within the FAA, we’re sort of thinking around the idea of ‘innovate 2028’ with the upcoming Olympics,” Nolen said during the NBAA Business Aviation Convention and Exhibition in Orlando in October. “I mean, there’s nothing like having an aspirational goal and a forcing function.”
“We’re talking about probably having hundreds if not thousands of advanced air mobility [AAM] vehicles by the 2028 timeframe,” he added.
Speaking to the same audience, Patrick Ky, executive director of the European Union Aviation Safety Agency, outlined an even more aggressive timeline by pointing to the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris as when the emerging eVTOL industry could shine on a world stage.
“The French government is very excited about trying to use the Paris Olympics to showcase these new forms of mobility,” he said.
Such encouragement from leaders of traditionally slow-moving regulatory bodies on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean has not gone unnoticed by air taxi developers racing to be the first to bring potentially revolutionary air services to market. Two developers that have made notable progress in developing eVTOL prototypes – Archer Aviation and Joby Aviation – are aiming to launch operations in 2025.
Adam Goldstein, founder and CEO of California-based Archer, told FlightGlobal in January that he has taken the FAA’s message to heart.
“Billy Nolen has stated he wants these vehicles certified in 2024 and to get them operational in 2025,” he says. “I think there is a really big motivation to see the next great aerospace company built in America, so you have a big policy backing where it’s become one of the FAA’s priorities to do this.”
“This isn’t just like certifying the next plane or the next cool thing,” he adds. “This is a vehicle that adds a lot of value to society.”
DUE FOR DISRUPTION
Like many competitors, Archer envisions a ride-sharing service using eVTOLs to fly passengers less than 50 miles (80km). In November, the company unveiled its second airframe, a four-passenger-plus-pilot vehicle called Midnight.
Though the viability of eVTOLs as commercial vehicles remains unproven, major US airlines have placed their bets. Delta Air Lines, long sceptical of the AAM space, disclosed last year a plan to invest up to $200 million in Joby. Archer, on the other hand, has backing from United Airlines. Both companies plan to roll out operations with routes connecting airports to city downtowns.
Many other start-ups are working to develop and certificate eVTOLs in coming years. Players include Germany’s Lilium Air Mobility, the UK’s Vertical Aerospace and US-based Wisk Aero, which has funding from Boeing, and Eve, backed by Embraer.
As for the imagined fleet of eVTOLs moving people in Los Angeles airspace by 2028, Goldstein said the timeline largely hinges on FAA certification.
“The only way that happens is we certify in 2024 and in 2025 we start operating,” he says. “Archer isn’t saying that, Billy Nolen is saying that. It’s not that Archer has this aggressive schedule, it’s that when everybody wants to get it done, we get it done.”
For start-ups to launch operations in 2025, they must begin testing conforming aircraft this year, said Sergio Cecutta of SMG Consulting, during the Vertical Flight Society’s Electric VTOL Symposium in Mesa, Arizona on 26 January.
“It takes a certain amount of time,” Cecutta said. “And this is the best-case scenario, right? We all want to believe the OEMs that by 2025, we’ll have at least two or three aircraft that are going to be certified.”
Not everybody is bullish on the sector. Some aerospace analysts have serious doubts about the viability of the envisioned air taxi operations.
“There’s been so much focus on the technologies and the aircraft, but not enough focus put on the operators of those aircraft… [and] how the hell they are going to make money,” Kevin Michaels, analyst at consultancy AeroDynamic Advisory, said earlier this month during an aerospace industry event near Seattle.
Air taxi business models tend to assume operators will recoup their costs by flying eVTOLs thousands of hours annually, he says. But the aircraft could have notable operating constraints, including limitations imposed by charging and restrictions on operating in poor visibility or icy conditions.
“You’re planning on flying 3,000 hours per year… Are you kidding me?” Michaels says. “That’s what twin-aisles fly.”
He sees the eVTOL sector has having a “venture capital mentality… Tell a big story, maybe one of the 10 will work. That’s not the way our industry tends to function”, Michaels says.
Analysts also cite challenges posed by developing wholly new infrastructure and air traffic control systems.
“Just think about the… organisational nightmare of trying to pull together all this infrastructure across jurisdictions, across state lines,” BofA Securities financial analyst Ron Epstein said at the same event. “Not that it’s insurmountable – but it’s pretty insurmountable.”
Others are far more optimistic. Eric Allison, head of product at Joby, told FlightGlobal on 27 January that he believes his company’s ambitious certification timeline puts the 2028 Olympics within reach.
“The administrator deserves kudos for putting forward a bold vision of leadership in the space,” he says. “To have a meaningful commercial service in place, I think, is well within the way we see this evolving. It’s very feasible.”
Joby has already been working with the city of Los Angeles through its partnership with Delta, Allison says. He acknowledges that the airspace around Los Angeles International airport is “one of the most-complicated airspaces around” due to the airport’s proximity to the urban core and “extremely high utilisation”.
“LAX and JFK are quite important markets, so we certainly are giving a lot of attention to those areas,” Allison adds. “We’ve all been impressed in the way the FAA has leaned in on what they need to do to push things along on an aggressive timeline. I think that there’s a lot of agency-level enthusiasm.”
As possible first companies to market, Archer and Joby are doing “foundational work” on certification and testing that will help launch the entire industry, Allison says. There is risk that the FAA will ask start-ups to undertake costly and time-intensive redesigns of their aircraft before granting approval to operate in the national airspace. Both Archer and Joby say they have been in close communication with the FAA through their respective development processes, however.
“Ultimately, we know that we are not in control of the process,” Allison says. “Whatever decision they make, they will make and we will deal with that as decisions happen. But we’ve been really encouraged.”
New eVTOL designs increase the complexity of certification because they have different configurations, multiple thrust sources and various operating modes. “Many AAM companies are the designer, manufacturer and operator, requiring them to obtain several certifications,” the FAA says on its website.
Pilots of eVTOLs will be required to be rated to operate powered-lift vehicles, the FAA says, as many of the vehicle designs involve taking off vertically and transitioning to forward flight. The agency is developing operational and pilot-training rules and determining how to integrate new aircraft types into the existing airspace system. The FAA expects to update its regulatory framework for AAM operations in urban areas in 2023.
Additionally, the agency on 6 December filed a proposal for subjecting air taxi operations to regulations that currently apply to airlines and other commercial operators. Powered-lift aircraft are not among five existing aircraft categories to which FAA operating rules apply – commuter carriers, domestic carriers, flag carriers, on-demand carriers and supplement carriers. The FAA has proposed adding powered-lift to the list with its pending rule change.
For inventors, the staggering cost of developing new technology and getting the FAA’s blessing represents another significant hurdle. Goldstein has previously estimated that the price of one aircraft design to reach certification could be up to $1 billion.
‘MAKE THAT VISION A REALITY’
Achieving large-scale air taxi transport in time for the 2028 Olympics is viewed by some as a highly ambitious and perhaps unrealistic timeline. Others within the industry – such as Jia Xu, chief technology officer of Honeywell’s urban air mobility and unmanned aerial systems units – say it is entirely possible for eVTOL start-ups to progress that quickly.
Xu points to the introduction of turbofan engines and reliable rocket motors as bringing “explosive growth” to the aerospace industry. He is optimistic about timelines laid out by Archer, Joby and federal regulators and is encouraged by the pace at which EASA and the FAA are moving to support the sector.
Honeywell is doing its part. “Aircraft type certification, ultimately, is the OEM’s responsibility, but we are providing them with certifiable components that have some level of functional guarantees within the certification regime, so that it reduces the amount of ocean that they’re boiling.”
Though it has taken multiple generations of demonstration aircraft to solve a multitude of power, battery and flight-physics problems, Xu says, several start-ups have reached the point of “no kidding, go do it”.
“Looking at some of the partners that we’ve worked with – Lilium and Archer as well as Pipistrel and Textron – they’re past the point where it’s just about demonstrators,” he says. “People are moving very far along in terms of developing and finalising their aircraft and sourcing all of the components. The industry is very serious about moving beyond just doing demos and into producing conforming aircraft.”
“These companies are working very diligently for certification,” Xu continues. “There’s a host of companies and partners like Honeywell working somewhat behind the scenes to make that vision a reality.”
To minimise costly and time-intensive redesigns, Archer has, to the extent possible, been using components similar to those found in existing type-certificated aircraft.
“We tried to design the vehicle to be as close to existing regulations as possible, with the newest stuff,” Goldstein says. “The goal here was to say, ‘Hey regulators, this looks just like all the stuff you’ve certified before’… We don’t 3D print. We vertically integrate as little as possible because we want to use parts that are already on other certified planes.”
“We’ve obviously borrowed some stuff from the helicopter world because we’re vertical flight,” he adds. “If you’re willing to certify helicopters, you should be willing to certify these vehicles.”
Honeywell’s Xu believes it is wise for air taxi developers to pursue “certification-ready systems” with “proven capabilities and pedigree”, he says.
Having explicit support from federal regulators is encouraging, as well. Creating a certification pathway for electric air taxis is one thing the FAA “has to get right”, Nolen said in October.” That work is underway as we speak and we have a couple of dozen of [applicants] in the pipeline.”
Certification is, after all, just the beginning. “For the overall industry to become successful, one thing we need is a type certificate,” Xu says. “The next one we need is an operation.”