Eric Adams

Words/photos for Wired, Gear Patrol, PopSci, The Drive, Men's Health, Air&Space, more

Jun 12, 2019
Published on:
18 min read
evtol - subscribe banner
evtol - subscribe banner
evtol - subscribe banner
evtol - subscribe banner

Anyone who’s serious about electric vertical-lift transportation on a large scale knows it’s not going to be easy. After all, the players — collectively and individually — are creating a whole new mode of transportation in what is already one of the most complicated businesses in the world, aviation.

But what, precisely, is the eVTOL crowd up against? Below is the complete roster of challenges — a checklist, if you like — for an industry blazing a trail toward aeromobility. To make it truly work, each of these challenges must be successfully confronted and answered.

Are we missing any? Email us and let us know. This article will be updated for, oh, the next 20 years or so with progress reports on each component.

1. Money: Investment dollars need to come from multiple sources

Beta Technologies Ava XC
Beta Technologies is receiving funding for its eVTOL R&D from United Therapeutics, which wants to use eVTOL aircraft to deliver human organs. Eric Adams Photo

Aerospace R&D success is enormously dependent on budgetary support, and the figures for launching new eVTOL programs are already proving staggering. Many of the industry’s early leaders have surpassed $100 million in investment dollars already, and it’s not inconceivable that any single aircraft could pass the $1 billion mark getting from genesis to certification. In fact, at last fall’s Bentonville UP conference, a closed-door gathering of industry leaders, Boom Supersonic founder Blake Scholl warned that it would likely take his own aircraft, a supersonic airliner, around $6 billion to reach certification. Sure, it’s a different category, but it’s also known technology for an existing market. Given the newness of everything about eVTOL, it’s safe to say that serious eVTOL efforts will require eye-watering investment.

Where’s that money going to come from? Everywhere. Programs emanating from legacy aircraft manufacturers — Bell, Boeing, and Airbus, for instance—have the luxury of large R&D infrastructures already in place, including funds that can be committed to eVTOL. But these are also largely risk-averse companies, and the corporate leadership can decide at essentially any moment to pull the plug on a new program, if the climate feels iffy or the technology is not proving itself fast enough. Other startups are relying on investment dollars from seed funds and venture capital, while still more are leaning on launch customers to help them get from A to Z. Beta Technologies, for instance, has one in the form of United Therapeutics, which wants to use eVTOL technology to transport manufactured organs for human transplant. The fact that UT is not an air taxi startup specifically will likely work in Beta’s favor, as it divorces it from the need for a functional air taxi system in order to succeed — though it will need a functional manufactured-organ industry.

Will any of these sources help push individual programs through hundreds of millions of dollars in development costs? Only time will tell, but it’s likely that the most successful programs will have funding from a variety of sources. Some of these might be surprising — such as brand sponsorships or real-estate developers looking to spur high-tech industries in different regions — but they’ll all need to be willing to play the long game rather than seek immediate returns.

2. Independence: Companies shouldn’t count on a single application

Alaka'i Technologies Skai eVTOL
Alaka’i Technologies expects to use its hydrogen-fuel-cell-powered aircraft, Skai, for a variety of utilitarian applications — not just as an air taxi. Alaka’i Technologies Photo

Beta’s unconventional launch customer, United Therapeutics, underscores a point that only few companies seem to be cognizant of: There needs to be more to eVTOL than air taxis. Even more pointedly, there needs to be more to eVTOL than Uber. That company should be lauded for jump-starting the technology and supporting its early development, but anything can happen at any time. Uber could pull the plug on its support of eVTOL, or itself face viability challenges. If Uber vanishes, who or what will shepherd the movement along?

The point is, eVTOL developers should be developing viable technologies regardless of the end user, because anyone just in it for air taxi customers could end up without financial or logistical support should that industry flame out for any reason. Perhaps even better than Beta’s example in this respect is the newly announced startup Alaka’i, which made it explicitly clear that its aircraft, Skai, is being developed from the outset to be of service to search-and-rescue, law enforcement, cargo, utility, delivery, and other commercial customers, not just air taxi types. Even private ownership shouldn’t be ruled out, even if the early vehicle costs will be stratospheric. After all, there are lots of deep pockets around who would like nothing better than to be the first on the block with an electric flying car.

3. Batteries: Good, but need to get far better

Safran hybrid electric power system
Bell is partnering with Safran on a hybrid electric propulsion system for the Bell Nexus, as existing battery technology can’t yet deliver the range and endurance the company wants. Safran Photo

There are a few very specific technological inflection points that sparked our current run toward eVTOL technology. Control systems for multirotor aircraft — developed from drones — is a big one, as is the growth of lightweight structural carbon fiber in manufacturing. But battery technology holds a special place in the hearts of aeromobility enthusiasts. The arrival of the lithium-ion battery and its continued development in both consumer electronics and electric automobiles will enable aircraft to fly practical distances cleanly and reliably.

But despite all the promises around current battery technology — with some manufacturers suggesting they can achieve 180-mile ranges at 180 miles per hour with 1,000 pounds of payload — no eVTOL aircraft has demonstrated truly useful and economically sensible performance yet. It may indeed happen with current technology, but it may also require a new generation of battery tech using different materials and much lighter forms. Those systems, most likely lithium-metal or lithium-oxygen, could still take decades to arrive.

Though the energy density of batteries is rising at 2 to 3 percent each year, it still pales in comparison to liquid fuel, and the batteries remain heavy and expensive. Even in experimental winged airplanes, which don’t have the VTOL requirement or the mandated need for large power reserves that commercial aircraft have, and which function far more efficiently in forward flight, batteries can barely muster hour-long flight-times with just two passengers. Until aircraft actually reach the promised flight times with useful payloads, everyone should assume the technology still has far to go.

4. Electric motors: They should be areas for innovation, as well

True, electric motors have been around for as long as the internal combustion engine. They’re proven, reliable, and safe. What they aren’t just yet is optimized for aviation. Compare it to the automotive industry. Just as carmakers such as Tesla, Audi, and Mercedes have taken motor development and manufacturing in-house to ensure they meet the right performance and reliability standards, eVTOL manufacturers should be prepared to evaluate similar potential for their aircraft. Precisely tuned motors custom-built for a specific application can boost efficiency and performance significantly. Really, motors shouldn’t be any more off-the-shelf than batteries or flight-control systems.

5. Pilots: There aren’t any

Bell Nexus cockpit
The cockpit of the Bell Nexus is designed to accommodate a pilot in its initial deployment. But will there be enough people to fill those seats? Rob Reyno Photo

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, there were 609,000 pilots in the United States in 2017, down 30 percent since 1987 despite the fact that more and more passengers are flying every year. As a result, airlines are dealing with a pilot shortage, which will likely translate to severe problems for air taxi operations looking to fill pilot seats in their aircraft. Recruiting new pilots is one way of course, but flight training is expensive, as are the associated salaries and benefits. The assumption, of course, is that autonomy will negate the need for pilots, or at least enable “minimally trained” crews to operate highly automated aircraft — that is, developing systems that will allow aircraft to manage most of the flying themselves, with human pilots there to oversee things, make last-second changes, and handle emergencies.

That’s all well and good, except for that fact that such systems are nowhere near ready for actual deployment in passenger-carrying commercial aircraft, even if unmanned aircraft are making headway in this realm. At present, none of the manufacturers have demonstrated an aircraft’s ability to take off, fly to a destination, then land with human passengers on board. Yes, Sikorsky has demonstrated its advanced, autonomous SARA system, but even if that system is greenlit for use in urban air mobility systems, we’re still years from actual deployment.

Many companies are projecting service commencing as soon as 2025 — a heartbeat away in aviation years — but its highly unlikely that there will be autonomy systems certified for commercial use in that timeframe. So companies will need fully trained pilots plus a rock-solid understanding of what “minimally trained” will mean, precisely, and how even those systems will be certified. If that comes to fruition, it could prove an exciting new career opportunity for those interested in aviation but not quite able manage the expense and time required to secure a conventional pilot certificate. But either way, eVTOL companies shouldn’t assume this problem will solve itself.

evtol - subscribe banner
evtol - subscribe banner

6. Autonomy: Essential for safety — and success

Sikorsky SARA with Matrix technology
Sikorsky’s autonomy demonstrator SARA, a modified S-76 helicopter. Sikorsky Photo

In a study released last year, Porsche Consulting estimated that by 2035, there will be a demand for 23,000 eVTOL aircraft. As noted in the previous Hurdle, that will mean either lots of pilots or a lot of fully baked autonomous flight control systems. Not only will this be the key enabler for widespread deployment of passenger-carrying eVTOL aircraft, but it will be key to safety. Though automation is very much under scrutiny at the moment, thanks to the Boeing 737 MAX investigations, it will ultimately be critical for these new aircraft types, especially as they fly in close proximity to structures and other aircraft, and in all kinds of weather and visibility conditions. Furthermore, autonomy will evolve hand-in-hand with the integration of aircraft into public airspace, as the entire system will benefit from aircraft being able to automatically fly system-dictated routes and make adjustments in the presence of other aircraft. The technology will have to go through its own validation and certification system, as well as prove to the flying public that it’s both safe and reliable.

7. Federal approval: A lurking gremlin

Among the more pernicious gremlins lurking in the path toward aeromobility is government regulation. After all, if eVTOL aircraft can’t reach certification, and if the operators can’t set up safe operational guidelines and maintenance and repair systems for the new machines, nobody’s going anywhere. In the U.S., the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) appears to be playing along and cooperating with the aircraft manufacturers as they develop their vehicles, but they aren’t going to yield when it comes to safety, redundancy, crashworthiness, maintenance plans, manufacturing consistency, and any number of factors it uses to grant approval for commercial operations. Nor will the operators be allowed any shortcuts when it comes to setting up safe passenger-carrying operations. The fact that all this is entirely new doesn’t mean the government will let things slide. It will — and should — be entirely the opposite.

8. Manufacturing: You can’t fly without aircraft

Icon A5 light sport aircraft
The light sport aircraft manufacturer Icon has discovered that large-scale manufacturing using carbon fiber can pose special challenges. Icon Aircraft Photo

Most all of the new eVTOL aircraft will need to be manufactured using carbon fiber, a material that’s expensive and complicated to manufacture. The material is lightweight and high-strength, allowing for improved efficiency in the aircraft and lighter structures. But manufacturing thousands of aircraft annually from it will be a huge challenge. Even making a few dozen per year has been virtually impossible for small airplane manufacturer Icon Aircraft, and the larger airliner manufacturers have been able to do it only with enormous R&D costs associated just with that process. No aircraft manufacturer builds more than 700 per year right now, and those planning to make thousands annually will have to be incredibly innovative.

9. Airspace integration: The skies are big, but not that big

Just as technologies are being developed to allow unmanned aerial systems to fly in public airspace, those systems will need to be further enhanced for eVTOL aircraft, whether they’re flying as air taxis or search-and-rescue aircraft or any other application. There’s much to consider: How will the aircraft navigate, communicate, and respond to emergency situations? How will routes be determined and conflicts with other aircraft avoided? NASA and the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) industry generally are making significant progress in their development of a viable UTM (unmanned aerial systems traffic management) system, and it will certainly lead straight into eVTOL aircraft, as well. But it remains a major hurdle that needs to be applied across many different kinds of environments — and applied flawlessly.

10. Public Acceptance: They’re the ones putting their lives on the line

All of the money, time, and effort being put into the air taxi element of eVTOL technology could easily amount to nothing if the flying public isn’t bought into the idea. They could balk for any number of reasons: costs, if the promised Uber-equivalent fares don’t materialize; safety, if too many aircraft crash or if the manufacturers don’t have proper responses to the ones that do; noise, which could prove to be a significant challenge, especially around dense urban environments or the proposed “vertiports”; or even less tangible qualities such as equality. If air taxis become the exclusive provenance of the wealthiest tiers of a population, resentment from everyone on the ground could squelch public support of the systems’ growth. If manufacturers and the industry as a whole don’t anticipate this and have sound strategies to avoid it from the outset, the experiment will fail.

11. Infrastructure: Vertiports, charging, and people

One of the skyport concepts unveiled at this year’s Uber Elevate Summit. Uber Image

For the air taxi business to thrive, it will need to reach scale — thousands of aircraft flying thousands of people daily all around the world. That means there will need to be landing pads for individual eVTOL aircraft and vertiports for large clusters of them, charging technology, and of course all the details of running an active, public-service aviation business. This includes everything from coffee to apps to scales for weighing passengers. There will need to be dedicated elevators for speeding passengers to rooftops, and personnel dedicated to logistical support and safety. Yes, the aircraft will be simpler and inherently safer, but things will still happen, so there will need to be persistent, ubiquitous support for both little hiccups and larger incidents.

12. Unknowns: There will be many

Finally, because there are so many new elements necessary to make aeromobility a real thing, from the hardware and control systems to the business models to the regulatory elements, there are likely to be many surprises, as well. What are the lurking gremlins in automation? (For example, will an eVTOL aircraft one day see its own reflection in a skyscraper window, freak out, and crash?) Are there any over-reliances in the technology already being incubated? Are social and political forces going to compromise the viability of the effort in some fashion?

The industry has to be incredibly aggressive about self-monitoring for the emergence of brand-new threats nobody ever thought of, rather than relying on the FAA to uncover them — or worse, the National Transportation Safety Board. The industry has to look into the future, predict these, and stop them early from festering and growing.