The business aviation community got a virtual introduction to some of the pioneers of so-called advanced air mobility (AAM) during an EBACE Connect session on Tuesday. Speakers from four electric aircraft developers explained how their plans to transform the air transport business model have made strong progress while other aviation sectors have been held back by the Covid-19 pandemic.
In the UK, Faradair Aerospace is about to complete the design of its Bio Electric Hybrid Aircraft (BEHA) and start structural engineering work. Over the past eight months, the company has added major new partners, including propulsion providers Honeywell and MagniX, as well as expanded its workforce at a new headquarters at Duxford airfield.
“We are going to see a democratization of the regional air travel model,” CEO Neil Cloughley told the EBACE Connect audience. “Covid has brought a huge opportunity. We’re seeing a lot more interest in sustainability and new business models because technology is proving itself [in terms of value to society].”
According to Cloughley, MagniX’s Magni500 electric motors will have achieved certification in time for the first full-scale BEHA prototype to start test flights in 2024. Honeywell is supplying a turbogenerator that will be able to run on sustainable aviation fuel and/or jet-A.
The company hopes to achieve Part 23 type certification by the end of 2026 and by 2030 expects to have at least 300 of the 18-seat aircraft in commercial service, with a mix of passenger and cargo missions. Cloughley said operators will be able to reconfigure the interior for these different roles in little more than 15 minutes.
Pipistrel chief technology officer Tine Tomazic revealed plans for three different versions of the Slovenian company’s planned Miniliner family of electric aircraft. The standard model would carry a single pilot and up to 19 passengers and be able to operate from 2,600-foot runways, flying four 220-mile missions on a single charge (with a 45-min diversion margin for each trip).
“It is like a minibus and will have 40 percent lower direct operating costs than today’s commuter aircraft, and it will be much quieter,” said Tomazic. He argued that by taking the AAM approach, aviation can be far more productive, becoming “more like the fast-food industry than a Michelin-starred restaurant that is still peeling potatoes with a scalpel.”
Later this year, Pipistrel will begin flight testing its new four-seat Panthera 152 aircraft. This is program is being supported by the European Union’s Mahepa program and will start operating with hybrid-electric propulsion before transitioning to all-electric power at a later date.
From California, Dan Dalton, v-p for global partnerships with Wisk Aero, reported that progress with the startup’s Cora two-seat, autonomous aircraft has been boosted with expertise supplied by Boeing and its Aurora Flight Sciences subsidiary. Boeing, which co-owns the Wisk joint venture with Kitty Hawk, last year said it would wrap up its Boeing Next technology incubator project, which had been working on several eVTOL designs. Evidently, this move has freed up expertise that is now being redirected to Wisk’s program.
Dalton acknowledged that Wisk likely will not be the first to start commercial air taxi services, mainly due to its insistence on going straight to autonomous operations. He also confirmed that the company will soon unveil plans for what it calls its “sixth-generation” aircraft, and this is expected to be a larger, longer-range eVTOL model.
Meanwhile, flight testing of the Cora is continuing in New Zealand, where Dalton said Wisk is enjoying a high degree of cooperation from the government, industry partners such as Air New Zealand, and local communities. This is allowing it to evaluate the autonomous, all-electric model in controlled airspace alongside other aircraft.
Germany’s Volocopter, which on Monday announced its own plans for a new eVTOL model called the VoloConnect, also participated in the EBACE Connect session. CEO Florian Reuter said that the multirotor architecture of its aircraft is low risk from a certification point of view because its 18 rotors, each with their own electric motor, provide a high degree of safety redundancy.
According to Reuter, Volocopter primarily conceived its eVTOL aircraft to be operated autonomously but took a strategic decision to put a pilot on board to fast-track commercial operations, requiring the addition of a control stick. “When we first talked with the regulators, they asked how we could be sure that flight testing would be safe and we were able to show them failure modes from hundreds of flights [made with the autonomous control system] to demonstrate how the [flight] computer dealt with them,” he explained. “This gave them a lot of comfort before we even put a pilot on board, so there is definitely a paradigm shift [towards autonomy].”