Imagine a world with a realistic option for transportation that is quicker, less polluting, and offers a myriad of destination options. Living in New York City and need quick transport to the Hamptons? How about a commuter in Los Angeles looking for a quick weekend getaway to Palm Springs? An estimated 200 companies are currently working to build electric vertical takeoff and landing vehicles (eVTOLs), a new type of small passenger aircraft designed for transportation within congested urban environments. But what does this actually mean?
While many big-name ventures invoke clear images of purpose, use, competitive market, and regulation, the term ‘eVTOL’ itself is more nebulous and exotic. The idea of silent, in some cases autonomous, sky taxis buzzing around major cities can be difficult to fully understand.
The emerging eVTOL market faces similar opportunities, challenges, and upside potential as many disruptive ventures, but with less clear industry parameters. Thus, the question remains how the aerospace industry can collaborate to solve the remaining challenges (safety, regulatory, operational) to make futuristic private aviation a closer reality.
Imagining the future of air travel
In recent years, there has been noticeable disruption in the private aviation industry, with select providers offering short, often shared, helicopter rides across urban cities. This offers a much cheaper option than a chartered aircraft and offers the luxury of point-to-point travel without the hassle of a commercial airport.
Helicopters are the closest conceptual competitor to eVTOLs, but the cost of manufacturing, purchasing, operating, and maintaining eVTOLs is considerably less than rotor aircrafts
But assessing the near- and long-term benefits of eVTOLs is a more difficult question to answer. On one hand, there’s the popular image of a Jetson’s-style urban commute, but the realities are likely much simpler. Considering where and how helicopters operate today is the first focal area, because eVTOLs will be able to offer the same performance, but at a lower price, noise level, and pollution footprint.
Some of the immediate benefits of this technology include reduced traffic in high density areas and potential new delivery systems for large retailers. However, operations such as surveys of disaster areas (automated or with a crew), rapid EMS response, and police operations are all potential positive impacts of the maturation of this industry.
Beyond the benefits, there is no denying the consumer appetite for this type of transportation. Depending on geographical location, the public is anxiously awaiting a safe deployment of eVTOLs as a transportation option. Regional airports often deploy small aircrafts that only hold ten passengers. These small, expensive to purchase and operate aircrafts can conceivably all be retired in exchange for eVTOLs and a Vertiport.
However, personal use of eVTOLs is farther off than commercial use. Only once regulations and airspace traffic management systems and standards are defined—and the ‘newness’ wears off on the commercial side —might the industry see personal eVTOL use.
Understanding and overcoming the challenges
Despite the potential benefits, there are remaining challenges the eVTOL market faces
Safety is always a concern with autonomous systems. One safety concern specific to eVTOLs is Vortex Ring State (VRS), which occurs when the aircraft essentially flies into the unstable air of its own wake. This effect is likely to be exacerbated in a highly urban space, the main area of operation for sky taxis.
Regulation and aviation approvals go hand in hand with safety—and the key is balance. There should be enough regulation that ensures safe operations; however, regulation that is too tight will constrain the development of the industry. Regulation will likely operate on an evolutionary path, becoming tighter as more experience is gained by manufacturers, operators, and regulators. Currently, there are multiple approvals required for each operator, most of which are still being defined. These include production approval, type certifications, and operational authorisations. The eVTOL industry is still building out its regulatory and operational framework prior to any broad reaching launch. While this is a large hill for the eVTOL industry to climb, multiple companies are working on parallel threads to succeed.
Operations and infrastructure tend to create new markets and, as such, are viewed as opportunities for companies rather than roadblocks. However, in order for eVTOLs to propel forward, there are decisions to be made about vertiports and energy requirements. This includes how vertiports will be designed, how vehicles will be charged or fuelled, and what energy requirements are needed to operate. Several companies have collaborated to help design new vertiports, both planning for these facilities as well as being a service provider for Air Traffic Management specific to eVTOLs.
To overcome these challenges, the public must be educated on the benefits and risks of eVTOLs. Companies that see a clear demand and market opportunity must continue to invest in development, shape regulation, and drive efficiency for production and operations.
Assessing industry disruption and sustainability implications
It was recently reported that eVTOLs could disrupt the US$49bn helicopter industry. This is because helicopters are the closest conceptual competitor to eVTOLs, but the cost of manufacturing, purchasing, operating, and maintaining eVTOLs is considerably less than rotor aircrafts. A small to mid-sized helicopter burns 45 to 50 gallons per hour—roughly US$250. A similarly sized eVTOL consumes roughly 8.2 cents per mile. To compare, that would give (not assuming recharging time) a mid-sized eVTOL a range of 2,400 miles for the same price as an hour of a mid-sized helicopter. New composite materials, advanced aerodynamics that are not constrained by a top mounted main rotor, and a new approach to propulsion all fuel these gains.
It remains to be seen how the electric vehicle (EV) industry’s demand for rare earth metals will impact eVTOL
But disruption of the helicopter industry is not the only potential impact of eVTOLs. There is a considerable reduction in environmental and noise pollution with eVTOLs compared to traditional aviation. Legacy aerospace companies are already on the path towards utilising hydrogen or biofuels as sustainable fuels for their airframes. In fact, 81% of aviation organisations see high potential for low carbon hydrogen for the future of their sector.
The biggest question around sustainability in the eVTOL market is the auto industry. It remains to be seen how the electric vehicle (EV) industry’s demand for rare earth metals will impact eVTOLs, however it is reasonable to assume that the EV market—which is more mature—will be first in line.
The impact of the emerging eVTOL industry is far reaching, and the business case for companies to be the first or second movers in this space is immense. While there are challenges with any new venture, those who are willing to make the upfront investment to forge a new path will be rewarded. Many industry leaders will be following the progression of eVTOLs closely, both within the aerospace community and those who wish to take part as customers.
About the author: Sean Moore is Head of Aerospace & Defense Market Unit, Capgemini Americas