Farnborough International Air Show, keeping an eye on aviation: The “WILL IT TAKE OFF” series.
Farnborough International Air Show 2022 did not disappoint!
The hot topic unsurprisingly was sustainable ways of flying.
Electric aircraft and drone capabilities have developed immensely in the last few years, with experts exploring the future of urban transport and drone capabilities. With the UK government unveiling plans to build a 164-mile automated superhighway by mid-2024 linking Bristol to London, the opportunity for electric aviation is huge. It was impressive to see the industry’s response to these new opportunities.
The companies leading the charge at this year’s Farnborough International Air Show were Lilium, Vertical Aerospace, Kaman Aerospace Corporation and Supernal, which had extremely impressive stands to attract investors and pre-sell their technologies to continue to innovate.
What’s the holdup?
Cities don’t have the space to give people their own driveways, let alone a runway. The dream of flying cars has, until recently, been just a dream. With advancement in technology and improved cost effectiveness, the final challenge is to solve take-off and landing.
The solution? Electronic vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) is what companies like the ones listed above are racing to do. The market value if eVTOL aircraft reach mass adoption is astronomical and will change how we move people and cargo.
What is eVTOL?
Electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) is the current “in development” technology that will allow aircraft using electric power to hover, take off, and land. This technology has become highly sought after thanks to significant advances in electric propulsion and the growing need for new vehicles for urban air mobility.
eVTOL vehicles are electric and function like drones. Large omnidirectional fans support the aircraft to move in any direction and take off vertically. While designs vary, most seem to resemble the form of a drone.
For ‘air-taxis to work, vertical take-off is a necessity. Therefore, another critical element of eVTOL flight is making it easy to control take off or landing and the transition between vertical and forward flight.
A decade ago, NASA scientists hypothesised that the next era in aviation would feature distributed electric propulsion.
Distributed electric propulsion uses multiple thrusters and efficient wing design for safety, noise, and emissions advantages. And by replacing the complex rotor, collective, cyclic, swashplate, transmissions, gearboxes, shafts, and hydraulics of a helicopter, it’s a much simpler system that’s far easier to fly.
Uber intends to build another dimension to its business model, following the success of taxis and delivery services. Uber Elevate’s plan on eVTOL aircraft details the following specifications:
- Four passenger capacity (including a possible pilot).
- Gross vehicle weight of 1,800kg.
- $1 to run 500kW for 1 minute during take-off and landing
- 71kW of power required during flight for 150mph of speed.
- 120kW of power required during flight for 200mph of speed.
- With the ability to run about 40 hours per week for a year.
- $0.12 per 1kWh
Despite eVTOL’s silent nature, the cabins will feature noise-cancelling technology for flight comfort. Most electric propulsion is quiet. It’s difficult to hear a Tesla approaching beyond the traffic noise, the idea is that eVTOL aircraft will be no different.
The plan seems to be to arrive at a fully autonomous aircraft. But for the time being, concepts will be piloted. The critical factor in the usability of the eVTOL aircraft is operating cost.
If Uber or companies like Bell Helicopters keep operating costs low – the concept is a real possibility. Most developers aim to use purely electric power, but hybrid systems and Alaka’i’s hydrogen fuel cell-powered eVTOL is possible.
What’s stopping it?
In 2019, Deloitte published a research paper outlining the barriers to eVTOL adoption. This report details what stands in the way of the future of aircraft mobility.
Aside from the technology still in the testing phase, several social, economic, and political barriers need to be overcome before this technology becomes adopted for mass market use. Nevertheless, the new superhighway in the sky will undoubtedly speed up the development of this technology and attract new investors.
eVTOL vehicles have applications beyond just ‘air taxis.’ Future possibilities include inter-city transport and cargo shipping possibilities. For companies like Amazon, which has already invested in drone delivery testing, the eVTOL could further reduce costs and speed up delivery.
But before that future can be realised, significant hurdles exist. These hurdles are mostly like what stands in the way of autonomous car adoption:
- Air traffic management
Despite all these challenges, the race for air domination is already knee-deep. Uber plans to establish an on-demand urban air transportation service. In addition, they plan to repurpose the roofs of parking lots and rent vacant land next to highways.
With low mile-seat costs, Uber plans to lure consumers from the roads to the skies. While the eVTOL market has already profited from the widespread use of drones – PAV (or passenger air vehicle) is next.
Mark Moore, Uber’s engineering director of aviation, left NASA to help drive aeronautical progress. He estimates the cost to develop each working concept at around $10-$20 million.
Uber is currently working with at least six aerospace companies:
- Embraer X
- Jaunt Air Mobility
- Karem Aircraft
Seeing how big tech and aeronautics interplay in practice will be interesting. For example, it has historically taken roughly ten years for an aircraft design to be cleared for commercial flight. That is a pace that tech companies are not likely to settle for.
We hope that safety and sustainability won’t be sacrificed in the race to make a profit and monopolise the skies.
I experienced a massive buzz from the Farnborough air show around the future of these electric flying cars. But the question left in my mind is, are flying cars sustainable? What is the comparison in energy use between an air taxi and an electric vehicle?
It’s easy to become caught up in the excitement of big stands with some fantastic technology. After all, the point of the Farnborough air show is to do just that. But the question remains, who is sustainable and who’s greenwashing? Obviously, the answer is to source clean electricity from renewables etc. But the question is whether there will be enough supply of this for eVTOLs to be a genuinely sustainable mode of transport. What will be the impact of these fantastic flying machines? We are sold a dream, but how and why we achieve that dream is important. So, let’s hope that at next year’s show, there’s some focus on the implications of this technology!
With all these lingering questions, I began looking for answers. In the following article in the series “Will it take off?” I used drone delivery vs delivery vans as a real-world example to answer these questions.