For those who knew to look for it as something potentially revolutionary — rather than some crazy idea for a far-away future — electric VTOL almost broke into the mainstream this year.
On Monday, Feb. 26, the day before Heli-Expo began, AHS Executive Director Mike Hirschberg gave a press briefing, entitled, “The Future of Vertical Flight,” providing a perspective on the global vertical flight market and technological development, including the potential of eVTOL.
On the show floor, there were three companies exhibiting eVTOL aircraft concepts. Most visible among them was the hybrid-electric Bell Air Taxi. Those attending the show had the opportunity to try the Air Taxi experience, which involved a virtual “elevator” to the top of a skyscraper to enter the cabin and use the virtual reality headset to experience how it will work in the future.
Airbus had a large-scale model of its all-electric CityAirbus quadcopter, though it appeared to be largely ignored by the booth staff, who seemed largely ignorant of what it was. Nonetheless, comments by outgoing Airbus Helicopters CEO Guillaume Faury and by Grand Prairie, Texas-based Airbus Helicopters Inc. CEO Chris Emerson made it clear that the company was doubling down on all types of urban air mobility.
Across the aisle from Airbus, first-time exhibitor Terrafugia had an unconventional exhibit, which unveiled its TF-2 eVTOL concepts. The company achieved widespread publicity after its first aircraft in 2009: the fixed-wing Terrafugia Transition is heralded as “the world’s first practical flying car” and the company is now ramping up for production. In May 2013, Terrafugia unveiled its vision for a four-seat hybrid electric VTOL flying car, calling it the TF-X, which the company continued development at a low-level over the years while it focused on the Transition.
In late 2017, Terrafugia was acquired by Chinese automotive company Zhejiang Geely, which owns the Volvo, Lotus and other car brands. This injected significant capital into the Transition and gave new urgency to the company’s eVTOL development. As announced at Heli-Expo, the company is studying two competing concepts under the designation of TF-2. Both are considered to be compatible with the Uber Elevate concept. Passengers board a transportation pod, which is moved by ground vehicle to the aircraft and connected prior to liftoff, so the passengers never have to de-board.
But it wasn’t just the OEMs who were talking about eVTOL. Each of the major engine suppliers — General Electric, Honeywell, Pratt & Whitney, Rolls-Royce and Safran Helicopter Engines — are developing applications of turboshaft engines to hybrid-electric propulsion. Pratt, Rolls and Safran all included hybrid-electric VTOL propulsion discussions in their press briefings. Meanwhile, Honeywell has already developed the hybrid-electric propulsion for the Aurora Lightning Strike (see “Thinking Outside the Box Is Inside the Box at Aurora Flight Sciences,” pg. 48), while Safran was selected to demonstrate the hybrid “Eco Mode” on the Airbus Racer compound helicopter.
Finally, on Wednesday, Feb. 28, AHS hosted a press conference panel, called “The Electric VTOL Revolution,” discussing the promise, progress and challenges of eVTOL aircraft development. Hirschberg highlighted a few of the 60+ companies currently developing eVTOL aircraft, which industry experts expect to enter the market in the next 5–10 years and expand the operational opportunities for rotorcraft operators, due to their extremely low noise and low operating costs. Featured on the AHS panel were Michael Thacker, EVP Technology & Innovation, Bell; Mark Moore, Director of Aviation Engineering, Uber; Greg Bowles, VP for Global Innovation & Policy, General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA); and Dr. Mike Romanowski, FAA Aircraft Certification Service’s (AIR) Director of the Policy & Innovation Division (AIR-600).
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