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Archer Makes Its Mark
  • 23 Jun 2021 08:15 AM
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Archer Makes Its Mark

By Mike Hirschberg
Vertiflite, July/August 2021

The XR technology made the Maker appear to fly over mountains, deserts and oceans. (VFS photos except where noted)

Note: More than 35 detailed photos from the unveiling are available in the VFS Vertical Flight Gallery.

On June 10, Archer Aviation unveiled its two-seat Maker electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) demonstrator during a special effects show at Hawthorne Municipal Airport in Los Angeles County, California.

With more than 100 attendees — required to show a valid COVID-19 vaccination card or be subjected to a rapid nasal swab test — it was the first significant, in-person gathering of the eVTOL community since the pandemic shut down much of the world in March 2020. The guest list included investors, partners, media, celebrities, social media influencers, newcomers and long-time eVTOL leaders, such as Nikhil Goel and Mark Moore, the co-authors of the Uber Elevate white paper that first launched eVTOL into the public consciousness in October 2016.

Archer chief engineer Geoff Bower told Vertiflite this past March that Maker is an 80%-scale demonstrator supporting the development of Archer’s yet-to-be-named, four-passenger (plus pilot) production aircraft, adding that, “the fuselage cross-section probably won't inflate when we go to a five-seater, but it'll stretch, and the wing and rotors will roughly scale.”

Sideview of the Archer Maker demonstrator.

Archer’s Maker — and its operational aircraft — features a total of 12 rotors: six tilting, five-bladed, variable-pitch propellers in front of the wing for lift plus cruise, as well as six non-tilting, two-bladed, fixed-pitch propellers used only for hover and the transition to and from cruise.

The all-electric design uses six independent lithium-ion battery packs, which Archer calls its Meru batteries. Archer began flight worthiness testing on them earlier this year. Archer notes on its website that Maker will use 74 kWh of energy, with a maximum power of 672 kW and cell voltage will range from 2.9 to 4.4 volts.

The Story So Far

Santa Clara, California-based Archer Aviation was founded by Brett Adcock and Adam Goldstein, and publicly launched on May 21, 2020, when it revealed obscured images of its five-seat eVTOL vision vehicle (see “Archer Flies Out of Stealth,” Vertiflite, July/August 2020). It unveiled its two-seat Maker demonstrator and updated images of its vision vehicle this February (“Archer Advances eVTOL Commercialization,” Vertiflite, March/April 2021), when it announced it would merge with Atlas Crest Investment Corp. (ACIC), a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC), in a $1.1B financing deal to commercialize its as-yet-unnamed air taxi (see “SPACtacular Financing: Billions Coming for eVTOL,” pg. 48).

The Maker demonstrator fuselage, showing the locations of the main compartments and systems. (Archer graphic)

In 2013, Goldstein and Adcock co-founded Vettery, a software-as-a-service company designed to help technology and financial service companies recruit the top talent when they were inundated with resumes. Initial outside investment in Archer came from serial entrepreneur Marc Lore, the former President and CEO of Walmart US eCommerce. He was previously the founder and CEO of Jet.com (sold to Walmart in 2016 for $3.3B) and co-founder and CEO of Quidsi, Inc. (sold to Amazon in 2011 for $550M). PitchBook reports that Archer secured $6M in early-stage venture capital (VC) funding in June 2020, followed by $30M in Series A funding in July 2020 — including investments by celebrities Jennifer Lopez and Alex Rodriguez (see infobox, “A-List A-Series Investors).

Archer hired most of the Airbus A³ Vahana engineering leads when that program ended at the end of 2019, including Bower. Archer’s vice president of engineering, Tom Muniz, was hired out of a similar role at Wisk, as were many former Wisk employees who are now at Archer.

FlightHouse was hired in 2019 to develop eVTOL concepts, with this “12-tilt-6” configuration being selected.

On April 6 of this year, Wisk Aero filed a lawsuit against Archer, alleging theft of intellectual property and trade secrets, stating that three outgoing Wisk employees downloaded significant amounts of data from its servers prior to resigning and leaving the company for Archer; Wisk noted, in particular, the similarity of its as-yet unbuilt design filed in a January 2020 patent application and the Archer design (see “Electric VTOL News,” Vertiflite May/June 2021).

Archer denied the allegations that it used Wisk’s intellectual property in developing its Maker eVTOL design. In its June 1 response, Archer requested that the court dismiss the case, arguing that it is “entirely baseless” and that the design architecture was set before the first employee from Wisk, Munoz, started on Dec. 6, 2019. Archer had hired eVTOL consultancy FlightHouse Engineering in September 2019 to conduct initial designs and by that time, FlightHouse was actively conducting simulations on that design, with 12 total propellers, of which half of them tilted and half did not, dubbed the “12-tilt-6” approach.

The trial is set to begin on July 7 in the US District Court for the Northern District of California.

Unveiling the Vision

From left to right, Brett Adcock, Marc Lore and Adam Goldstein.

After an hour or so of hors d’oeuvres and drinks, the attendees were led inside the Hawthorne Hangar Operations (HHO) hangar to purpose-built bleachers around a big curtain. The sound system and additional large-screen monitors provided additional information and graphics. Archer co-founders Goldstein and Adcock gave a masterful overview of the problem they were working to solve, including highlighting the company’s data-tracking software, dubbed Prime Radiant, which determines optimal trip locations, cost and the customer experience. “It will help us build air taxi technology that’ll change how people move within and around cities,” the company says on its website. They then cued the curtain raising and gave an introduction to the Maker aircraft and their design philosophy.

Both the wall behind the aircraft and — notably — the floor were video screens that created an immersive environment. During a simulated flight, the Maker appeared to be flying (albeit without tilting or spinning propellers) over the desert, mountains, beaches and other simulated backgrounds. Organizers noted that these special effects were the same XR technology used for the hit Star Wars show, “The Mandalorian,” and other filming productions. The event was also livestreamed, though the effects within the 2,400 ft² (220-m²) volume XR space were apparently not appreciated on small screens.

Closeup of the right-side outboard propellers.

Attendees were then invited to inspect and sit in the Maker demonstrator. The aircraft was so shiny due to the vinyl wrap and extremely well fitted that some initially speculated that it was only a mockup. However, it was the actual flying demonstrator, albeit not yet ready to fly. Adcock and Goldstein noted that the demonstrator aircraft would fly before the end of the year (fourth quarter of 2021).

Visibly, the aircraft looked complete, including the 12 motors, built by MAGicALL, tilting mechanisms, etc. However, aviation journalist Jon Ostrower tweeted that, “By the team’s acknowledgment, there is a considerable amount of systems, wiring, instrumentation installation yet to be done.” Although the cockpit display was powered up for a later video tour on social media, it was not the unveiling; presumably no batteries have been installed and there was no electrical socket in the video screen floor.

“As the first vertically integrated electric airline company, Archer will move people throughout the world in a quick, safe, sustainable, and cost-effective manner,” read the company’s vision in a media handout. The sheet included a number of statements about the two-seat Maker, which is “fully autonomous demonstrator aircraft” — the company clarified that it will be flight tested without a pilot onboard.

Maker will “fly at 150 mph [240 km/h] for distances of up to 60 miles [97 km]. Its purpose is to advance our work on certification and development of our key enabling technologies.” Maker will test out the hardware and software for its operational aircraft, which Archer will begin manufacturing in 2022. Maker has a 40-ft (12.2-m) wingspan and weighs around 3,300 lb (1,500 kg).

The electric propeller tilting mechanism.

“When cruising overhead at 2,000 feet [610 m] above the ground, we anticipate Maker will be 100x quieter than a helicopter generating only 45dB of sound,” the media sheet stated. Traditional helicopter rotors have a tip speed of Mach 0.7, while Maker’s are below Mach 0.4. Maker’s progeny is designed to operate out of existing infrastructure including heliports and airports, and Archer expects the low noise will be a key enabler for use within cities and noise-sensitive areas.

“Beyond just commuters, this revolution in air mobility will usher in the age of the micro explorer, untethering people from their daily lives and allowing mankind to take to the sky.” This theme of “exploration” was highlighted during the unveiling as well.

The Way Ahead

Despite having to-date only flown a subscale demonstrator and built the 80%-scale Maker, the company states that it plans to fly its full-scale demonstrator next year and launch commercial operations in 2024.

Prior to Maker, Archer had flown a subscale model of the configuration. (Archer)

In February, United Airlines announced, as part of the SPAC, its plans to invest in Archer and placed an order for $1B of Archer’s aircraft, with an option for an additional $500M. Archer’s planned merger with Atlas Crest and these commercial orders values Archer at $3.8B.

The company also noted its agreement with Stellantis — the world’s fourth largest automotive manufacturer, including Fiat, Chrysler, Peugeot, Citroen and other brands — provides Archer with access to the low-cost supply chain and advanced composite material capabilities needed to produce aircraft at the scale. In order to usher in the adoption of eVTOL and promote sustainable travel, Archer has also partnered with the cities of Los Angeles and Miami to begin development on networks for city travelers.

Check out more than 35 detailed photos from the unveiling in the VFS Vertical Flight Gallery.  

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