A flood of new eVTOL orders was announced in 2021, representing potentially thousands of aircraft from customers as diverse as United Airlines to the Bristow Group. Mike Hirschberg, executive director of the Vertical Flight Society (VFS), sees this as a distinctly positive sign for this emerging aircraft sector, with a few caveats.
“It is an indicator of interest, but the orders are conditional. It is interesting that the companies with the largest number of orders are not the leading developers. There are a few companies that are actually flight testing their operational product for FAA certification, but many others have not flown a full-scale version of that they are developing. Few have a product they are close to developing and selling,” he cautioned.
Nevertheless, “The orders are a great way for the eVTOL companies to say that they are developing aircraft with these capabilities and have these potential customers lined up. And it is also a great way for the operators to show that they are thinking forward. It is an indicator that there is interest and a mutually reinforcing announcement and helps support the development of the aircraft. And everyone in the airline business is highly motivated to reduce emissions so they are not regulated to do so,” he said.
But the torrent of capital poured into the eVTOL market in the last few years—an estimated $6 billion in 2021 alone, some of which came through special purpose acquisition companies or SPACs—was directed at just a handful of players and is not likely to be repeated, Hirschberg believes. “I don’t expect to see these types of billion-dollar investments in the future that we saw with the SPACs. In the beginning of 2020, there was a frenzy of investment into eVTOLs. One analyst called it FOMO—the fear of missing out. The leading companies raised eye-watering amounts of money to support developing aircraft. But it has been declining since then. While SPACs are a great way to pump money into a developing company, they’re not a panacea. There are SEC [Securities & Exchange Commission] concerns and people looking to make money on the SPAC deal as opposed to developing an aircraft.”
However, the money is enough to get leading eVTOL developers either across or near the certification goal line, Hirschberg said, albeit the capital required is astonishing. “For a new aircraft, you need about $1 billion, 1,000 engineers, and ten years as a rule of thumb. There are exceptions, but that is the order of magnitude. We do expect to see more companies [certify aircraft] other than the six or seven who now who are leading development, but that’s the order of magnitude [of resources] that is required.”
Hirschberg suspects eVTOLs will be the first new aircraft to be certified under the new rules for light aircraft, FAR Part 23.64, and that some of the technologies aboard will inevitably migrate for use onboard conventional aircraft. “Everybody is looking at the technologies like electric and hydrogen to reduce overall emissions. Things like fly-by-wire, lightweight composites, advanced manufacturing, electric motors, batteries—these technologies that are being developed, when they are certified, can be applied to all aircraft, not just eVTOLs, but conventional aircraft—both piston and turbine-powered. They have a lot of potential to change the world and change aviation.”
With helicopters, that could begin with hybrid-electric systems on tail rotors, he remarked. “There are benefits to having hybrid-electric power for helicopters, but they will be specific use cases, much like we have seen with NOTAR (no tail rotor anti-torque systems) or shrouded tail rotors, where there are benefits. There will be some helicopters in the future that have hybrid technologies and some that don’t.”
He sees fly-by-wire flight controls as the key to maximizing the potential of eVTOLs. “Fly-by-wire can make aircraft partially autonomous, fully autonomous, and very intuitive and easy to fly. [Its use in eVTOLs] will prove its benefit for other [future Part 23] aircraft, just like when glass cockpits were first developed for business aircraft. That allowed the costs to come down and people became more aware of the benefits and capabilities. Today, there are glass cockpits available on virtually every new helicopter.”
The ongoing kerfuffle over 5G C-band radar altimeter interference is unlikely to have the same impact on eVTOLs that it has on helicopters, Hirschberg asserted. “For highly automated aircraft you need other sensors besides just your eyeballs and radar altimeters—you need Lidar and GPS. There are multiple sensors that eVTOLs need to use to ensure safety.”
Infrastructure is another matter. “If there is no infrastructure, there is no urban air mobility. They do go hand-in-hand. The big players have done good [political] spadework and continue to do so, working with GAMA (the General Aviation Manufacturers Association) and CAMI (the Community Air Mobility Initiative), but you can never do enough. There is always more that could and should be done. This is important. We want to make sure people understand the benefits from eVTOLs as opposed to just saying ‘I don’t want hundreds of aircraft flying over my house.’”
One large infrastructure challenge in the U.S. is that the FAA has yet to develop standards for vertiports, Hirschberg said but noted that the agency and industry continue to work together to do so. “There has been a lot of planning and support for infrastructure in the U.S. and abroad. There are a lot of companies planning and working with real estate developers and potential operators.”
He sees the overall political climate for eVTOLs as positive. While Hirschberg stated that the Biden administration has not made eVTOL-specific research and development a priority, it has made “electric and hydrogen key pillars of their clean and sustainable power focus.”
Hirschberg acknowledged interest in the growing eVTOL market has propelled VFS membership to record levels with 36 new companies and 550 new members joining in 2021. He called the growth “hugely gratifying. It helps to propel us to do more. We are a small organization, but we punch above our weight.”