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When in 1784 Vincenzo Lunardi, the ‘Daredevil Aeronaut,’ demonstrated a hydrogen balloon flight from the Artillery Ground of the Honourable Artillery Company in London, a short walk from Reed Smith’s London office, he found instant fame as he completed the first manned flight over England. Watched by other luminaries of the day, including the then Prince of Wales and, reportedly, a crowd of 200,000, he travelled as far as Hertfordshire, fuelling in the process a ballooning fad that gripped the nation. Lunardi travelled with a slightly under-inflated balloon (taking off prematurely because of the crowd’s impatience), a dog, a cat and a (caged) pigeon (although he did stop briefly to release the by-then rather airsick cat). By this stage the French had been ballooning for a year, but many of the attempts had been so heroically unsuccessful as to lead to significant scepticism for this new fad and many dismissed Lunardi’s experiment as merely an amusing entertainment. Not all of Lunardi’s experiment went according to plan: he had anticipated being able to row the balloon through the air and so had brought along a variety of oars with him to do so. Perhaps it is unsurprising against this backdrop that Lunardi’s efforts were met with a mixture of admiration, fear, amazement, pity, incredulity and disbelief.
Today, like Lunardi’s crowd, the Prince of Wales, and the cat, we stand at the dawn of a new era of aviation. Advanced air mobility represents the next inflection point in aviation’s continual evolution. Despite our clear cultural affection for the vertical take-off – from balloons, to the Harrier jump jet, through to Elphaba’s broomstick and Superman – we have a hard time accepting that it could become part of our daily lives. Mention the prospect of delivery drones, unmanned aerial vehicles, or of hopping on an electric-powered flight to go to the pub and you are likely to be met with a look that says “dream on.” But, despite a lack of real awareness of this technology, AAM has the potential to bring about the next significant change in mobility and perhaps the global economy, promising to transform how people and cargo are moved. In the United States alone, the AAM market is forecast to be worth $115 billion annually by 2035, creating more than 280,000 high-paying jobs.
Developing out of small, unmanned (drone) aircraft a race is underway to develop larger electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, which will be capable of operating between places not currently or readily served by surface transportation or existing aviation.
Expected to eventually be unmanned and autonomous, eVTOL aircraft are runway independent, and incorporate non-traditional electric or hybrid propulsion. As anyone with an electric car will have realised, electric motors (and potentially, eventually, hydrogen fuel cells) and streamlined controls can greatly simplify a propulsion system and improve mechanical reliability, while in the process substantially reducing costs. This reduces the environmental impact by minimising emissions and noise pollution.
There are several configurations being developed in the eVTOL market. These include:
- Multi-rotor – efficient to take off and land (but less so to cruise due to the lack of aerodynamic lift). These are slower and have the shortest range, but are easiest to certify.
- Lift and cruise – a simple design and arguably the most reliable. These aircraft are expected to be easier to certify and easier to maintain, but are less efficient (due to the extra mass and drag coming from the lifting rotors) and so have a shorter range.
- Tilt rotor – capable of higher speed and longer range, but more complex and thus more challenging to certify.
- Vectored – efficient, long range but energy intensive and noisy (and may require new battery technology to be truly viable).
As Domhnal Slattery, chief executive of the aircraft leasing company Avolon, told Reuters in an interview this year, “If you think about transportation strategically this is the next big frontier.” It is a frontier being explored by a combination of entrepreneurs, giants of aerospace and global logistics companies, like Airbus and Boeing (Aurora), Amazon Prime, DHL, a major U.S. postal company and even an online food ordering and delivery service.
Much like the early aeronauts and their balloon designs, at present there is no single dominant design or business model in the eVTOL market. Broadly, each of the key players is targeting certification before 2026, but there has to be real uncertainty around the timeline for those manufacturers that have no experience of certifying an aircraft, let alone the challenges of entering mass production.
However, there have been significant developments and commitments that give us an indication of what is possible. For example, one of the top three global leasing companies has signed an order for up to 500 eVTOLs valued at $2 billion with Vertical Aerospace, an eVTOL maker backed by investors including major airlines. Vertical reportedly has pre-orders for up to 1,000 eVTOL aircraft, along with a pre-order option from Virgin Atlantic, all valued at up to $4 billion.
The designer and manufacturer/developer Wisk is noteworthy as it has achieved a number of ‘firsts,’ in particular the first flight of an all-electric, autonomous eVTOL aircraft designed for passenger use in the United States. Boeing has invested in the company, and it is telling that while some companies building eVTOL aircraft are starting with a manned aircraft with the goal of later transitioning to an unmanned aircraft, Wisk is going straight to self-flying notwithstanding that will mean it is later to the market. Wisk has surpassed 1,500 test flights, entered a partnership with NASA, partnered with Boeing (Aurora), and built and flight-tested two new aircraft, bringing Wisk up to nine full-scale aircraft.
Germany’s Lilium Jet first flew its full-size, two-seat Eagle prototype in 2017, and a five-seat version in 2019. Lilium has already achieved more than 100 flights, and has more than 700 employees. A six- or seven-seat production version is planned for 2025 as a flying taxi, with a range of more than 150 miles.
Joby is intended to be a four-passenger commercial aircraft with a pilot, capable of travelling up to 150 miles, and Joby Aviation and the parent company of a leading American mobility provider have agreed to integrate their services (Joby will now transport passengers in the New York area to JFK airport), and the American mobility provider must invest $125 million.
Archer is developing multiple models of eVTOL aircraft focused on improving mobility in cities. Its five-seat eVTOL aircraft is capable of carrying four passengers for up to 60 miles using today’s battery technologies. In February 2021, Archer announced it would start an air taxi service in Los Angeles by 2024. Los Angeles is also one of United Airlines’ major hubs, so it should come as no surprise that United Airlines now has an agreement to work with Archer, contributing its expertise in airspace management to assist Archer with the development of battery-powered, short-haul aircraft, together with a commitment to a purchase agreement worth potentially in excess of $1 billion to acquire a fleet of 200 eVTOLs, which are expected to give customers a quick, economical and low-carbon way to get to United's hub airports and commute in dense urban environments within the next five years.
Brazilian aircraft manufacturer Embraer has designed, developed and certified close to 50 aircraft models, delivering over 8,000 aircraft to over 100 countries. Embraer formed EVE as a breakaway subsidiary from its EmbraerX technology incubator, having already signed letters of intent for over 1,000 aircraft, with the number still growing, which is arguably the largest order book in the market. For example, Avantto, the largest operator of Embraer executive jets in Latin America, has signed a letter of intent with Eve for 100 of its eVTOL aircraft, and Bristow, a Texas-based helicopter operator, has similarly placed a conditional order for up to 100 aircraft from Eve, with deliveries expected to start in 2026.
CityAirbus NextGen is an all-electric, four-seat ‘lift and cruise’ configuration eVTOL with an 80 km range and a cruise speed of 120 km/h, making it well-suited to flight operations in major cities, providing city commuting and an efficient air transport service between strategic locations in urban and suburban environments. Given their market position in commercial aviation, Airbus is, perhaps unsurprisingly, also focussed on a comprehensive approach that goes beyond just the aircraft to the rest of the ecosystem, including traffic management, routing, and noise mapping.
- Advanced air mobility has the potential to bring about the next significant change in mobility, and many players have already developed and financed viable aircraft
- $8 billion of capital has flowed into the development of electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft over the last five years, with the cargo market expected to reach $58 billion by 2035
- AAM feeds nicely into the current hot topic of ESG as this new form of transport will reduce the environmental impact by minimising emissions and noise pollution