Uber Elevate Summit Outlines eVTOL Flight Plan
By Richard Whittle
Fantasy, fad or fabulous future, the rush to create electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft for use as air taxis is attracting serious interest and money.
The Elevate Summit, a conference to promote the air taxi concept, hosted in Dallas, Texas, April 25–27, by cell phone ride-paging service Uber, attracted advocates and expert speakers from nearly every industry and regulatory agency with a role to play in turning the eVTOL dream into reality. The conference also attracted venture capitalists willing to bet millions of dollars that the electric air taxi idea won’t remain science fiction much longer.
“This technology is real,” declared Nikhil Goel, head of product for Uber’s Advanced Programs division, as he introduced an “Investor Outlook” panel of five venture capitalists. “It’s coming sooner than we think,” Goel added. “But what you may not know is that the money is also coming sooner than you think. There are investors out there, many of whom are joining us today, who are ready to invest in this space and deploy real capital; not just in vehicles, but in all the technologies that are going into this space — everything that’s required to break the barriers.”
“Breaking the Barriers” was another panel (moderated by this writer) where six experts invited by Uber broadly discussed the regulatory, environmental, economic, infrastructural and cultural barriers, and thoughts on how they could be overcome.
The goal, described in a detailed white paper the company released last October titled “Uber Elevate — Fast-Forwarding to a Future of On-Demand Urban Air Transportation,” is “on-demand” mobility that reduces the ever-burgeoning time and resources commuters and others must spend to travel by car on over-crowded roads and highways. “A network of small, electric aircraft that take off and landing vertically,” Uber’s white paper reasoned, “will enable rapid, reliable transportation between suburbs and cities and, ultimately, within cities.”
Jeff Holden, Uber chief product officer, announced at the Elevate Summit that the company has partnered with the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas and Dubai, UAE, with the goal of having the first Uber Elevate Network demonstration by 2020 — less than three years in the future. Other speakers described things that will have to happen to make Uber’s larger vision come true:
- Vehicles manufacturers will have to create safe, reliable, affordable eVTOL aircraft suited to the mission of carrying perhaps one to four passengers on short hops, flying at speeds faster than typical helicopters — and some day with no pilot onboard.
- Makers of component technologies, especially batteries, will have to improve and refine their products to provide capability and reliability equal to the demands of unprecedented operating tempos in crowded and confined airspaces.
- Vertiports with charging stations suited to eVTOLs will have to be designed, approved by relevant authorities and electric utilities, financed and built.
- Vehicle designers will have to find ways to design the noise of eVTOL fans, rotors or propellers at levels low enough to gain acceptance from a public increasingly sensitive to and militant about aircraft noise — a major limitation on existing helicopter air taxi services.
- Operators will have to devise business models that make eVTOL transport appealing to consumers and operation of eVTOL fleets economical for owners.
- The US Federal Aviation Administration and aviation authorities in other countries will have to devise new regulations for the certification of eVTOLs and air traffic control in urban airspaces.
Formidable as many of those barriers are, Goel’s promise that “real capital” is ready to help break those barriers was illustrated by Michael Linse, founder and managing director of Linse Capital, who appeared on a five-speaker “Investor Outlook” panel. Linse, whose company last year invested $150M in ChargePoint, which runs the world’s largest network of electric (ground) vehicle charging stations, announced that he and partner Simon Morrish had formed a new firm called Levitate Capital to invest in the concept Uber is trying to nurture.
“We are initially going to start focusing on early stage companies in the [eVTOL] space, [and issuing] check sizes of $0.5M to $5M,” Linse told the conference. “And we’re looking at the entire ecosystem, so we’re not just focused on the vehicle manufacturers. And then, as the industry matures, we’re going to be able to deploy larger checks into the companies that we think are going to be the winners in the industry.”
Also on the “Investor Outlook” panel was Bilal Zuberi, a partner in Menlo Park, California, investment company Lux Capital, whose website says the firm “invests in emerging science and technology ventures at the outermost edges of what is possible” and partners “with iconoclastic inventors challenging the status quo and the laws of nature to bring their futuristic ideas to life.” Zuberi said the “ninety or so” companies Lux has invested in included electric car maker Tesla and drone maker DJI. As for eVTOLs, Zuberi said, “There’s been a remarkable growth of interest from the investor side.”
Zuberi said investors “need to have strong nerves to invest in this,” but he also said “hard tech” investments like eVTOL and related technologies have “suddenly become exciting. It is sexy now. It is interesting to invest in this. There’s no shame in saying there’s people who have made maybe hundreds of millions of dollars building their last companies who are now thinking, ‘Wait a minute. I want to do something better in life. I want to do something bigger. I want to change humanity. I want to create a new dream.’”
Zuberi named no names, but among the first to fuel interest in eVTOLs were Silicon Valley investors such as Google co-founder and billionaire Larry Page, who has poured millions into at least two companies developing such aircraft.
Another Elevate Summit panel member with the strong nerves needed to fund eVTOL development was Alexander Asseily, co-founder of Jawbone, a San Francisco, California, company that develops and sells wearable technology such as activity-tracker wristbands. Asseily said he and other partners in Atomico, a London investment firm, were “really excited about this space and excited about the kind of impact it can have, both in terms of its social impact and its environmental impact.” Atomico earlier this year invested €10M — about $10.1M — in Lilium Aviation, a Munich company founded by four young Technical University of Munich graduates. Lilium recently flew a two-seat prototype of its “Lilium Jet” and released a video at the Summit, where co-founder and CEO Daniel Wiegand spoke.
Asseily praised Uber for convening the summit. The telecommunications industry in Europe sparked the mobile phone revolution on that continent by coming together to agree on Global System for Mobile (GSM) standards, Asseily said, and he predicted that, “That same trajectory that sparked the mobile revolution is going to happen here as well.”
As the “Breaking the Barriers” panel participants made clear, much work needs to be done if the eVTOL concept is truly going to become a revolution in personal air mobility. One large hurdle is the task of providing the charging stations and charging capacity that even a small fleet of eVTOLs would require, especially given the relatively brief endurance imposed by the limited energy density and relatively heavy weight of even the best of today’s batteries.
Pasquale “Pat” Romano, ChargePoint’s president and CEO, said he was “totally in” on the eVTOL movement. “Everything that gets electrified, whether it is floating, rolling or flying, we want to charge it,” Romano said. He also agreed that “this industry is going to be successful faster than anyone thinks.” But at the same time, Romano — whose company has sold more than 34,000 charging ports for electric road vehicles located at 7,000 networked sites — said the eVTOL vision “does pose some interesting challenges.”
One important challenge is the need at vertiports “to position charging equipment so that it is incredibly simple for a limited amount of ground personnel to recharge an aircraft,” Romano said. “Positioning the amount of electrical gear, and the utility issues associated with this, are not insignificant,” he added.
“Just to give you a little indication,” Romano said, “the spec for the current VTOL aircraft calls for charging rates of about 300 kilowatts. That’s the equivalent of [the power needed for a small] grocery store,” he said. “So when you see a graphic of a vertiport, and you see a VTOL aircraft or multiple parked, charging, think about each one in your mind as a grocery store’s worth of energy being delivered instantaneously. That’s a fascinating problem.” His point, Romano said, was that while electricity is a “plentiful resource, the access to high-capacity electricity really needs to be planned carefully with the utilities.”
European carmakers, utilities and other companies are planning more than 400 electric ground vehicle charging sites with 350 kW high-powered chargers in Europe. And ChargePoint announced in January that it will be deploying 400 kW charging stations this summer across North America.
Rex Alexander, co-founder of rotorcraft infrastructure consultancy HeliExperts, said that besides the ability to supply large amounts of electricity, eVTOL vertiports may need additional features differing from traditional heliports. The keys to success, Alexander said, will start with community acceptance and noise reduction, which means optimizing vertiport locations to meet those needs as well as to maximize the number of flights possible and allow appropriate airspace integration. Possible vertiport locations, he said, include ground level and roadway sites, barges and piers over water, and the roofs of parking garages or high rise buildings.
“Each one of these particular locations has its own challenge,” Alexander said. “Each one has its benefits. Each one has its negatives.” Alexander said HeliExperts would like to conduct a study, in cooperation with the FAA and other entities, to better understand what eVTOL infrastructural needs will be; what regulations, codes and guidelines should be changed to meet eVTOL infrastructural needs; and to develop accepted international standards for such facilities.
“One of the pieces of the puzzle that we need to work on is safety,” Alexander added. To that end, he recommended the creation of a US accreditation program for eVTOL vertiports. “Currently we don’t have that in the US for private facilities,” he said.
Two participants on the “Breaking the Barriers” panel emphasized the importance of eVTOL designers meeting Uber’s goal of “low enough noise levels that the vehicles can effectively blend into the background noise” of communities where they fly. One was Rob Wiesenthal, CEO of on-demand helicopter air taxi service BLADE, which flies wealthy customers from its bases in New York City, New York, and Los Angeles, California, to surrounding destinations.
“Noise emissions are our number one concern,” Wiesenthal said, noting that while BLADE has been able to use 25 heliports in Manhattan as launch pads for its flights, ever-tighter noise abatement regulations have reduced sightseeing helicopter flights around New York City by 50 percent this year. The prospect of “having a type of rotorcraft that will actually get down to the noise level of background noise” is a major reason he is interested in what he hopes will be a “seamless transition to eVTOL.”
Noise and acoustics consultant David Josephson said “a few companies have really paid attention to designing vehicles for low noise,” then played recordings of a small piston helicopter and a quieter prototype eVTOL, the VC200 Volocopter built by German company e-volo. “We can do a lot better as we go along,” said Josephson, who on the second day of the conference moderated a panel on noise that went into far greater detail.
Greg Bowles, vice president of global innovation and policy for the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, said GAMA has formed an Electric Propulsion and Innovation Committee (EPIC) to help fit eVTOLs into the regulatory schemes that govern both the manufacture and operation of small aircraft. He acknowledged that eVTOL advocates must overcome issues of safety, noise, infrastructure, technology, regulation and societal acceptance. But like many participants in the conference, Bowles described the vision of electric air taxis using urban skies to ease road traffic congestion and create a new dimension in flight as a question not of “if” but of “when.”
“We will get through these issues and this will be a reality,” Bowles predicted.
Fantastical as the idea still sounds to many experts, some pretty smart money is betting on it.
About the Author
Richard Whittle, author of The Dream Machine: The Untold History of the Notorious V-22 Osprey (Simon & Schuster, 2010) and Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution (Henry Holt and Company, 2014), is a frequent contributor to Vertiflite.