In November, Vertical Aerospace gave its first exclusive tour of its eVTOL work, providing VFS with unique insights to its development.
By Mike Hirschberg, VFS Executive Director
Vertiflite, Jan/Feb 2019
On Sept. 10, 2018, the Bristol, UK-based startup, Vertical Aerospace, Ltd., revealed that it had built and flown the UK’s first full-scale electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft.
This unmanned technology demonstrator — dubbed the “Proof of Concept” (POC) aircraft — was sized for a one-person mission, weighing 1,752 lb (795 kg). The POC first flew indoors on Aug. 25, 2017 at Cotswold Airport in Kemble, Gloucestershire, about 100 miles (160 km) west of London. The initial design was modified to its current configuration, with first flight on June 6, 2018 (the month that was reported at the unveiling). The aircraft was flown a dozen times before Vertical Aerospace moved on to the next project.
The Energy Behind Vertical Aerospace
Aerospace was founded in April 2016 by CEO Stephen Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick, a serial entrepreneur, has a background in electrical energy and high-tech vehicles: he is also the founder and CEO of Bristol-based OVO Energy, the UK’s largest independent energy technology company and supplier, serving more than 1.1 million customers.
OVO says it was started “to make energy greener, cheaper, and simpler for customers, to introduce more renewables into the mix and to ensure we had a positive impact on their lives.” The company has expanded into other energy technologies and markets, including home energy storage, electric vehicle chargers and technologies, and innovative energy solutions across the OVO Group: “Today OVO is no longer simply an energy retail business: it is [a] group of innovative, dynamic companies, all striving to harness technological advances with great consumer propositions to create more abundant clean energy for everyone.”
Fitzpatrick, a self-described lifelong Formula 1 racing enthusiast, was also previously the owner of the Manor Racing Team.
As part of the announcement in September, Vertical Aerospace said it had 28 aerospace engineers and “experts from technologically advanced sectors such as Formula 1, Energy and Defence.” Employees came from Airbus, Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Martin Jetpack and GE Aviation with “extensive experience” in building certificated commercial aircraft. In the statement, Fitzpatrick also revealed that “We’ve learned a lot from Formula 1, both in terms of technology and pace of development. The lightweight materials, aerodynamics and electrical systems developed through F1 are highly applicable to aircraft, much more so than to road transport.” The company notes that the existing hub-and-spoke air transportation model used by the general public is the same paradigm whether flying 500 miles or 5,000 miles — everything goes through airports. Vertical says its mission is “to make air travel personal, on demand and carbon free.”
A Grand Tour
The current premises for Vertical Aerospace are in an industrial district of metal fabricators, auto salvage and repair, and construction equipment suppliers. The company moved there in August after working at the Cotswold Airport, which is about 25 miles (40 km) to the northeast as the crow flies … or an hour by car. The new, 20,000 ft² (1,850 m²) building features offices and ample workspace for the POC and its progeny.
Engineer Lawrence Blakeley and COO Michael Darcy, along with Senior Brand & Communications Manager Verity Richardson, provided a tour and insights into the POC and current developments.
The POC aircraft was primarily built to prove out Vertical’s concept of a passenger-carrying eVTOL and develop the team’s experience. Nearly all of the components used on the POC were off the shelf — nothing was developed in house except the flight control logic. The EMRAX 268 motors and propellers were standard aerospace products; the 800 lb (360 kg) battery was designed for high power density rather than energy density.
Blakeley explained that a series of small quadcopter and multicopter drones — “Drone A” through “Drone F” — were also used to test out the flight test controllers, iterating with the flight simulator. Drone D was used to prove out the autonomy used on the POC. The iterative approach to aircraft design and development — learning from trial and error of what worked well and what didn’t, and challenging assumptions with data — were hallmarks of Vertical’s approach
During a presentation at the nearby International Powered Lift Conference (see pg. 59), Vertical Aerospace’s Chief Certification Engineer, Paul Harper, reported that the POC was a very cost-effective testbed and that company was using “multiple vehicles and prototypes to iterate on.” The company is an applicant for Design Organisation Approval (DOA) under European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) regulations, and is working with the agency on obtaining final approval. Harper noted that eVTOL developers may also find that they have significant supply chain challenges: some companies with key technologies Vertical Aerospace is using are not aerospace suppliers (e.g. motorsport) and so don’t have the necessary EASA Production Organisation Approvals. Many of the suppliers, however, see eVTOL as an opportunity for growth, so they are eager to work with Vertical Aerospace.
Looking at the regulatory framework options, Harper said they might initially certify as an unmanned cargo aircraft as a timesaving measure.
Harper also explained that certification of several important technologies will be particularly challenging for eVTOL aircraft in general; for instance, the flight controller: “It’s very, very unusual for an aircraft this size to have a full fly-by-wire flight control system. But multicopter designs will by definition need one … but they are hugely complicated and expensive systems and that raises the question: do we buy them or do we make them ourselves.”
Harper also brought up the issue of batteries, alluding to the ill-fated Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smartphone and the early problems with the battery and electrical systems installed on the Boeing 787. “These eVTOL vehicles are going to take these battery packs to a whole new level of power storage. They need to. That is going to be very, very interesting managing the thermal runaway aspects and how we justify that.”
Harper also included a warning to the powered lift audience: “If we get this wrong now, in the early stages of eVTOL and urban air mobility, we could quite easily put this technology back several years in terms of public acceptance.”