Electric VTOL is Taking Off. Beware the Hyper-Hype Cycle.
By Mike Hirschberg
Vertical Flight Society Executive Director
Vertiflite, Sept/Oct 2018
One of the reasons why members of the nascent helicopter community decided in early 1943 to establish the American Helicopter Society was because they didn’t feel that they were being taken seriously by the aviation establishment. The founders of the helicopter industry established the Society to be a catalyst for rapid technological advancements because it created a community open to collaboration and innovation.
The majority of aeronautical engineering professionals at the time, however, were dismissive of the helicopter’s potential. They only saw the existing capabilities of the fledgling rotorcraft through the lens of the much more mature fixed-wing aircraft, which were generally focused on maximizing speed and range.
In contrast, early inventors and the public began to hype the helicopter for personal use. “Any intelligent person who can learn to drive a car will be able to fly a postwar helicopter after a few easy lessons,” Frank Piasecki told The Los Angeles Times in 1944 after he and his PV-2 appeared in the newsreel film, “An Air Flivver in Every Garage.” Bell famously bought 500 Franklin engines in advance for its Model 47B that was styled like a luxury car, but it cost 10 times more and didn’t sell. Other inventors jumped on the helicopter bandwagon and by 1950, scores of inventors began working on their own design to meet the expected explosion in demand for personal air travel that never happened. Cost, performance, reliability and safety were just a few of the factors that doomed these early visions.
During the Korean War and the Vietnam War, the American helicopter industry boomed, as did the use of the helicopter for new and unexpected civil applications (see, for example, “Mountain Rotors,” Vertiflite, March/April 2018). World helicopter production peaked during the late 1960s. But the focus of helicopter development in the 1950s and 60s was primarily performance, not affordability. Perhaps the most significant enabling technology for the modern rotorcraft was the fielding of a completely new propulsion scheme: the much higher power-to-weight turboshaft engine enabled much larger and much more capable rotorcraft, though at a much higher cost than piston models.
Later inventors like Frank Robinson reimagined the helicopter as a more personal aircraft. Robinson Helicopter is one of the most successful helicopter companies in the world, with more than 12,000 aircraft delivered to date. The peak of nearly 900 helicopters produced in 2008 is a testament to the demand for more affordable transportation. But the world financial crisis and a decade of slow economic growth, coupled with a less tolerant society, has made that milestone a distant memory. Today, the civil market is still recovering and growing, but combined worldwide piston and turbine production barely exceeded 1,100 units last year, while more expensive military rotorcraft units decline towards half that number (see “The World Rotorcraft Market, 2018–2027,” Vertiflite, May/June 2018).
The Hype Cycle
The global research and advisory firm Gartner, Inc. developed the so-called “Hype Cycle” for representing the maturity, adoption and social application of innovative technologies. Not actually a cycle, the curve is a graphical presentation of the maturity of emerging technologies through five phases, depicting expectations over time after an “innovation trigger.” There is a very rapid, nearly vertical rise to a “peak of inflated expectations,” followed by nearly as rapid a descent into the “trough of disillusionment.” This is nonetheless followed by a gradual “slope of enlightenment” and an asymptotic “plateau of productivity.”
Noted futurist Dr. Roy Amara summed up a similar insight in what is now known as “Amara’s Law” — “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.”
The civil helicopter certainly went through this “Hype Cycle” immediately after World War II and wasn’t until the 1950s that building rotorcraft became a profitable business and reached this “plateau of productivity.” The impact of the helicopter on the world over the past 75 years cannot be overstated. From millions of lives saved, to millions of dollars and millions of hours saved annually, to enabling the accomplishment of military objectives, vertical flight is an indispensable asset whose value is broadly acknowledged.
The Future is Electric
As of this writing, the Society’s website on electric and hybrid-electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft (www.eVTOL.news) catalogs more than 120 air vehicle concepts, though some approaches are clearly less plausible than others and many have limited funding. The “power by wire” of electric VTOL throws out many constraints of shaft-driven systems and facilities new configurations, from personal flying devices to multi-passenger aircraft, that weren’t possible before. Despite the obvious challenges, the promise of “reinventing the helicopter” is attracting innovators and investors from across the spectrum, including electronics, software, unmanned aircraft systems — and even aerospace. Electric VTOL has the potential to broaden the vertical flight market, by creating a number of completely new product categories that don’t exist today.
Like many on the leading edge of technology, the Society recognized the potential of an electric VTOL revolution early, initiating efforts in 2013 to support this new area of interest. The first “Transformative Vertical Flight Workshop” was held the following year, and a growing number of articles covered electric VTOL technology in Vertiflite.
The hype, however, really took off after Uber publicly announced plans for its Elevate initiative in October 2016. Over the past two years, the field of innovators has exploded. Venture capitalists have poured well over $1B into promising startups, while nearly every major aerospace manufacturer is either testing the waters or jumping wholeheartedly into eVTOL.
One eVTOL company CEO told me last year that he couldn’t see why anyone would develop a non-electric aircraft when electric propulsion was clearly so superior. Some analysts have forecast that eVTOL will enable a $30B urban air mobility market. Uber has forecast thousands of flights per city per day of their electric air taxis. Though it is easy to dismiss the entire electric VTOL revolution because of the overheated hype by some innovators who are new to aviation, some form of electric-enabled urban air mobility seems destined to happen in the coming years.
The potential of electric VTOL aircraft disrupting the current aviation landscape rests on the belief that they will be cleaner, safer, quieter, cheaper, more reliable and/or faster than traditional rotorcraft. While a few early entrants — most notably Ehang, Joby Aviation, Kitty Hawk, Opener and Volocopter — have conducted robust flight testing, including manned flights, the vast majority of innovators are still discovering the unique challenges of vertical flight.
The Vertical Flight Society
Seventy-five years ago, the pioneers of the vertical flight industry recognized that collaboration and knowledge sharing was essential for the helicopter to achieve its full potential. Today, new entries to the vertical flight industry have a unique opportunity to draw on the Society’s time-tested body of knowledge and resources.
Recently, VFS corporate membership passed the 100-company mark as many eVTOL developers have recognized the immediate benefits of being a full member of the world’s largest collaborative community of vertical flight experts. Our mission is to help all of our members be as successful as possible.
One eVTOL company co-founder noted, “VFS has been on the front lines of supporting the emerging eVTOL industry since its inception. With events that blend technology, research, networking, and business considerations, and one of the most relevant publications in the space, VFS is a key catalyst for eVTOL and urban air mobility development.”
For 75 years, the Society has worked to advance vertical flight technology. We are on a mission to help electric propulsion — and all forms of vertical flight — reach its full potential. But we must all be wary of the Hype Cycle, with a clear-eyed scientific approach to the challenges of eVTOL.
Hype is great to build enthusiasm and gain investment. Innovation brings in new ideas and technologies from other domains. But at the end of the day, the laws of physics require good engineering and a solid understanding of the unique challenges of vertical flight to bring the promise of eVTOL aircraft to market and change the world.