UK start-up Vertical Aerospace says it has begun flight testing the country's first full-scale, fully electric, vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, putting the Bristol-based company a step closer to its goal of providing personal, on-demand and carbon-free air travel between cities within four years.
The 750kg (1,650lb) unmanned technology demonstrator, which features four ducted fans, made its maiden sortie in June at Cotswold airport in Kemble, Gloucestershire – around 100 miles (160km) west of London. Some 12 flights have taken place to date, says Vertical Aerospace.
Company founder Stephen Fitzpatrick has developed this eVTOL concept to address what he calls the "challenges" with air transport and its surrounding infrastructure.
"Passenger numbers for short-haul flights have exploded in recent years, but as a result, aviation is now a major contributor to climate change and local air pollution," notes Fitzpatrick, who is also chief executive of UK energy company Ovo.
He says congestion around airports from cars and other forms of road transport has become "a huge problem" and for flights of 500nm (800km) or less, "we are spending more time travelling to and from the aircraft than we are in the air".
Vertical is aiming to revolutionise how people travel by "decarbonising" air transport and giving people the "freedom to fly from their local neighbourhood directly to their destination".
Since its inception in 2016, the firm has hired 28 aerospace and technical experts from Airbus, Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Martin Jetpack and GE Aviation with "extensive experience" of building certificated commercial aircraft.
Vertical Aerospace says it has drawn expertise from the energy industry and Formula One motor sport, through which it has "learned a lot", in terms of technology and the pace of development.
"The lightweight materials, aerodynamics and electrical systems developed through F1 are highly applicable to aircraft, much more so than to road transport," notes Fitzpatrick. "By putting those technologies in the hands of experienced aerospace engineers, we can build cutting-edge aircraft for the 21st century."
The company says its goal is to bring eVTOL aircraft to "everyday customers" in an affordable, safe, convenient and carbon-free way.
The company is now building a fixed-wing, piloted version of the eVTOL from its Bristol base, which is designed to carry two passengers on short-range flights. No date has been disclosed for the aircraft's maiden sortie, but Vertical Aerospace says it is working with the European Aviation Safety Agency towards securing certification for the type in 2022.
In a later stage, Vertical will seek to extend the aircraft's range and passenger load. It will also introduce elements of autonomous flight and expand the number of chartered routes the eVTOL can serve.
Fitzpatick says with its rich heritage in aviation, and large base of "world- class" engineers and technical experts, the UK has an opportunity to lead the world in eVTOL technology.
"We have the global outlook and entrepreneurial spirit required to develop and commercialise this technology," he says. "Designing and building technology with such disruptive potential could ultimately bring thousands of highly skilled jobs to the UK and secure our place at the forefront of aviation innovation. With the right support from government, regulators and the wider science and engineering community, the UK can lead the way in personal, on-demand and carbon-free air travel."