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eVTOL Leaders Begin Transitions
  • 22 Jun 2024 04:06 PM
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eVTOL Leaders Begin Transitions

By Mike Hirschberg, Director of Strategy
Vertiflite, July/August 2024

In the past several months, the leading developers of electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft made strides toward achieving their vision for advanced air mobility (AAM). Multiple companies demonstrated full transition flights, while others announced transitioning to additional funding sources to continue their development. The following represents a summary of recent activities by some of the leading developers of eVTOL aircraft. Updates of these and other companies are covered elsewhere in this issue.

Archer Aviation Midnight fuselage under construction 1st Quarter of 2024

Archer Aviation
In its shareholder report for the quarter ending March 31, 2024, Archer Aviation noted that it had flown its “P0” Midnight initial demonstrator more than 100 times, with a goal of reaching 400 flights this year. The company said that after it began transition flights, “we intend to fly the aircraft as much as 10–15 times per day, getting closer to our commercial mission tempo.” Archer also noted key systems had passed rigorous testing ahead of its “for credit” testing for the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), including battery pack drop tests, main landing gear and flight controls and avionics.

Final assembly of the first conforming Midnight aircraft (P1) has been rapidly progressing in San Jose, California. “We have made significant progress on final assembly and integration of the aircraft’s components and systems and are on track to begin piloted flight tests of this aircraft later this year,” Archer announced in the press release accompanying the report, with a photo of the fuselage (shown here).

In April and May, Archer and several other eVTOL companies participated in events in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia, respectively (see “The Middle East: Future Capital of eVTOL?” pg. 76), and made several announcements.

At the DRIFTx mobility event, Archer signed an agreement on April 25 with the Abu Dhabi Investment Office (ADIO) to jointly define an ambitious set of operational launch plans and the enabling support. The agreement covers “multi-hundred million dollar investments to accelerate Archer’s planned commercial air taxi operations in the UAE, slated to launch as soon as next year,” the company stated in a press release.

Major points of the agreement include vertiport construction, working to enable air taxi operations in the UAE and in-country manufacturing of Archer’s Midnight aircraft. In addition, ADIO will ensure local workforce development programs for Emirati talent and support the establishment of Archer’s international headquarters and a center of excellence in Abu Dhabi. Archer CEO Adam Goldstein said that the agreement “provides the catalyst to accelerate the launch of our electric air taxi service in the UAE as soon as late 2025.”

Archer also announced that it had signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Etihad Aviation Training, which lays the groundwork for a partnership to recruit and train prospective pilots for Archer’s Midnight aircraft in Abu Dhabi to fly aircraft across the UAE. The companies intend to engage with the UAE’s General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) to establish an appropriate pilot training curriculum. As part of the planned partnership, Archer intends to deliver a Midnight aircraft simulator to be housed and staffed by Etihad Training at its training center in Abu Dhabi for research and development of pilot training competencies to support the required regulatory certifications from the GCAA.

On May 8, Archer announced that it had recently completed its high-volume battery pack manufacturing line at its Integrated Test Lab and Manufacturing Facilities, in San Jose, California. The “automotive style” production line is designed to expand up to 15,000 battery packs per year, with automation to the key areas of its battery pack manufacturing process that impact quality, operator safety and data traceability. This includes cell test and load, adhesive dispensing, laser cleaning, laser welding and end-of-line testing.

This facility will produce the proprietary battery packs needed to support the ramp of Archer’s aircraft production at its high volume aircraft manufacturing facility in Covington, Georgia, which the company said remains on track to be completed later this year.

“Archer chose to vertically integrate its design and manufacturing of the battery pack itself to ensure it meets the rigorous levels of safety, performance and reliability necessary for its aviation use case,” the company stated. “Archer’s battery pack implements a proprietary and robust thermal runaway containment strategy. The battery packs use cylindrical cells as those, relative to other cell form factors, have a track record of safety, performance and scalability.”

Archer announced on May 30 that KakaoMobility, Korea’s leading mobility as a service (MaaS) platform service company, had signed an agreement to partner for joint participation in the K-UAM Grand Challenge and covers the planned purchase by KakaoMobility of up to 50 of Archer’s Midnight eVTOL aircraft worth up to an approximate value of $250M, including pre-delivery payments. The Grand Challenge is a public–private joint demonstration of eVTOL aircraft intended to build public support. KakaoMobility will pay Archer $7M in 2024 as the first installment to cover early commercialization efforts in Korea, with a second installment expected in January 2025.

On May 23, the FAA published the final airworthiness criteria for Archer’s Midnight aircraft. “The finalization of Archer’s airworthiness criteria unlocks the ability for Archer to work with the FAA to obtain the remaining final approvals on its certification and test plans,” the company said. The FAA had published the proposed airworthiness criteria for the Midnight for public comment in November 2022. Archer joins Joby Aviation in now having its final criteria published.

Two weeks later, on June 5, Archer announced that it had received its Part 135 Air Carrier & Operator Certificate from the FAA for its operations subsidiary, Archer Air. This certificate allows Archer to begin operating aircraft commercially to refine its systems and procedures in advance of launching Midnight into service. Receiving the Part 135 certificate signals that Archer Air has developed, and demonstrated to the FAA its adherence to, the necessary policies and procedures to begin operating aircraft commercially in accordance with the stringent safety and operational standards set forth by the FAA. Archer previously announced that it had received its Part 145 certificate, allowing it to perform specialized aircraft repair services.

“Archer will leverage its mobile booking application, vertiport technology integrations, and proprietary operations software platform all currently under development to deliver exceptional experiences and journeys for passengers,” the company said. 

Finally, on June 8, Archer’s uncrewed P0 Midnight successfully completed a full transition (shown at the beginning of this article) to wing-borne flight, flying at speeds exceeding 100 mph (160 km/h). The company posted a nine-minute-long uncut video of the flight, with the lift/cruise propellers tilting 90 degrees forward to the horizontal.

Archer’s first-generation, full-scale eVTOL aircraft, Maker, successfully achieved transition in November 2022, 11 months after its first flight, and still flies regularly in the company’s flight test program from Salinas Municipal Airport, California, Archer said. “Just seven months after Midnight’s first flight, Archer has now successfully transitioned its production eVTOL aircraft as the company continues to build momentum towards commercialization.”

Beta Technologies ALIA-250 during a test flight

Beta Technologies
Beta Technologies completed the first full transition (shown) of its Alia A250 eVTOL aircraft at its flight test facility at Plattsburgh International Airport in upstate New York, on April 17. Nate Moyer, a former experimental test pilot for the US Air Force, initiated a vertical takeoff—powered by the four lifting propellers—and transitioned to horizontal flight, powered by the rear-mounted pusher propeller. The aircraft flew one lap in the pattern and landed. Additional piloted transition flights of the Alia followed.

This event is believed to be the first transition to fully wingborne flight of a full-scale, piloted eVTOL aircraft that is representative of the planned production configuration. Joby and Lilium have made full transitions of their vectored thrust aircraft, but only remotely operated with no one onboard. Wisk made a full transition of an early prototype—its single-seat Zee Aero Gen 3 testbed in 2017—but this was not their production configuration. Multicopter configurations like the EHang 216 and Volocopter VoloCity do not have wings and do not transition.

The transition flight and related incremental testing, “provides us with the data we need to validate our design decisions as we continue toward certifying the A250,” the company said.

Meanwhile, Underwriters Laboratory (UL)—a designated US Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratory—has certified Beta’s Charge Cube, “validating its safety and readiness for marketplace operations,” the company announced on April 18. The Level 3 DC fast-charging Charge Cube is the part of Beta’s family of electric charging products being rolled out in a connected network across the US (see “Beta Goes the Distance,” Vertiflite, Nov/Dec 2023). Beta’s electric aircraft chargers serve a diverse base of aviation customers, including the US Department of Defense (DoD), United Therapeutics, Archer Aviation, state and municipal airports, Signature Aviation and Atlantic Aviation fixed base operators (FBO), among other users.

EHang 216-S test flight over an airport

EHang Holdings Limited announced several agreements and partnerships over the past few months.

This spring, the company showcased its autonomous, passenger-carrying EH216-S eVTOL aircraft—certificated by the Civil Aviation Authority of China (CAAC) in October—in the Middle East (see “The Middle East: Future Capital of eVTOL?” pg. 76). It first flew in Abu Dhabi (shown) on April 25, followed by the first passenger-carrying eVTOL flight in UAE and the Middle East on May 6. Similarly, the EH216-S made its debut flight in Saudi Arabia on June 12, with a demonstration in Mecca. The company has partnered with Front End Limited Company, a Saudi-based enterprise specializing in advanced solutions for various industries, for “shaping a faster, more efficient, and sustainable annual Hajj pilgrimage.”

EHang has also partnered with the financial technology (fintech) group, Multi Level Group (MLG), and ADIO to “drive eVTOL development in the UAE and beyond.” EHang said it is looking to set up their regional headquarters in Abu Dhabi to promote business activities with local partners, including manufacturing; flight operations; research and development; training; and maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) facilities.

The company also announced that it had formed a strategic partnership with ultra-fast charging-focused Guangzhou Greater Bay Technology Co. Ltd. for the research and development of the world’s first Ultra-Fast Charging (UFC)/eXtreme Fast Charging (XFC) battery solutions for EHang’s eVTOL aircraft. The partnership is to promote the research and development, as well as industrialization, of eVTOL power system components and modules in the UAM sector, laying an ecological foundation for commercial operations of the low altitude economy.

Meanwhile, EHang announced on May 31 that it had signed an MoU with Taiyuan Xishan Ecological Tourism Investment Construction Co. Ltd. to jointly develop the low-altitude economy in Taiyuan City, Shanxi Province, China. Xishan Tourism also placed a purchase order for 50 units of EHang’s EH216-S and has paid the total contract price of RMB113M (USD$15.6M) to EHang. Xishan Tourism also signed a purchase plan agreement for an additional 450 units of EH216-S over the next two years. These aircraft will be deployed for aerial tourism, passenger transportation, and other low-altitude use cases to facilitate adoption and operations of pilotless eVTOL in North China.

Eve Air Mobility proof of concept in hanger

Eve Air Mobility
Embraer spinoff Eve Air Mobility made several announcements over the past several months.

On May 8, the company released a teaser video and photo of its first full-scale eVTOL non-conforming, proof-of-concept demonstrator (dubbed POC2), which is still in assembly at its facility in the state of São Paulo, Brazil. The current configuration is a lift-plus-cruise aircraft with four pairs of propellers for vertical lift and a single pusher propeller for forward flight.

This is the second flying demonstrator that Eve has revealed. In March 2021, the company showed a video clip with a subscale model of an earlier configuration in flight (see “eVTOL News: Embraer Takes Flight,” Vertiflite, May/June 2021). The company also unveiled a non-flying, full-scale iron bird propulsion system rig at that time.

The configuration has evolved through several iterations since the first design was unveiled in 2019, so this POC2 (shown) is the first significant step forward in advancing a production design. Eve stated that it has letters of intent for nearly 3,000 eVTOLs and it expects the aircraft to enter into service in 2026.

On June 5, Eve named several additional suppliers for the production aircraft. KRD Luftfahrttechnik GmbH (KRD) of Germany will supply custom-designed KASIGLAS windows, including the cockpit and passenger door windows. Latecoere, headquartered in France, will supply the doors. RALLC and Alltec, both headquartered in Brazil, were selected to supply various fuselage components.

At the Future Aviation Forum in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (see “The Middle East: Future Capital of eVTOL?” pg. 76), Eve and Saudia Technic, a leading MRO service provider in the Middle East, announced they would explore the potential demand of MRO activities for eVTOL aircraft in the region. The agreement includes eVTOL MRO training and the evaluation of the infrastructure requirements and processes for the potential reassembly of Eve’s eVTOL in Saudi Arabia, the company stated on May 21.

Meanwhile, Eve signed a letter of intent with AirX Inc., Japan’s largest public helicopter air charter service, for up to 10 firm and up to 40 optional aircraft, the companies announced on April 17. The order will support the continued development and scaling of innovative transportation operations in Japan. Eve was also named a member of Japan’s AAM Public-Private Committee, responsible for evaluating and making recommendations to the relevant Japanese agencies on AAM regulations and policies.

Joby Aviation Marina facility aerial view

Joby Aviation
On April 25, Joby Aviation announced a multilateral MOU signed with three Abu Dhabi government departments that lays the groundwork for Joby to establish and scale air taxi services in Abu Dhabi and beyond (see “The Middle East: Future Capital of eVTOL?” pg. 76). The agreement “builds on Joby’s existing commitments to the UAE, which include the exclusive right to operate air taxi services in Dubai, which the company expects to start as early as next year,” Joby said in a press release. “The agreement also unlocks the potential for inter-emirate air taxi services, for example between Abu Dhabi and Dubai.”

The agreement covers “the potential to develop a full air taxi ecosystem, including training, infrastructure development and flight operations, as well as a manufacturing presence in Abu Dhabi.”

In May, Joby announced an MOU with Mukamalah, a wholly owned subsidiary of petroleum-industry aircraft operator, Saudi Aramco, to introduce Joby’s aircraft to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. “The direct sale of aircraft to business customers such as Mukamalah and government partners like the U.S. Department of Defense forms one pillar of Joby’s commercialization strategy,” Joby stated, “alongside the direct operation of Joby aircraft in core markets such as the U.S. and the United Arab Emirates, and partnered operations in other markets.”

Meanwhile, on April 29, Joby announced that it had broken ground on the expansion of its Pilot Production Line in Marina, California. The expansion will more than double Joby’s manufacturing footprint at the Marina Municipal Airport (shown) and is expected to begin operations next year. The expanded facility is designed to support a target production rate of 25 aircraft per year and will also house a range of key operations facilities, including an expanded pilot training and flight simulation center, as well as aircraft maintenance facilities that are designed to support the scaling of Joby’s commercial operations, the press release stated.

During a ceremony at the groundbreaking, Joby also showcased its second production prototype aircraft, which was recently completed there. It will join Joby’s first production prototype aircraft at Edwards Air Force Base later this year. Two additional aircraft were also in final assembly.

A few days later, on May 2, Joby announced that it had successfully completed its pre-production prototype flight test program and was now focused on the next phase of flight testing, during which the company will use its production prototype aircraft to prepare for upcoming for-credit flight testing. Joby first began flying full-scale, pre-production, prototype aircraft more than four years ago. The two pre-production aircraft completed more than 1,500 flights, spanning a total distance of over 33,000 miles (53,000 km), including more than 100 flights with a pilot onboard, Joby said.

Finally, on June 4, Joby announced the acquisition of the autonomy division of Xwing Inc., “an industry leader in the development of autonomous technology for aviation.” Founded in 2016, Xwing has been flying since 2020, using the Superpilot software it has developed in-house, with some 250 fully autonomous flights and more than 500 autolandings completed to date. “The acquisition brings Joby to the forefront of aviation autonomy and complements the Company’s 2021 acquisition of Inras GmbH, a company developing lightweight, high-performance radar sensor technology,” Joby said.

Lilium Jet seven seat, high side view

At the end of April, the state of Bavaria, Germany, rejected requests from Lilium and Volocopter for loan guarantees from both the state and federal governments. Both companies bitterly decried the lack of government support of the indigenous eVTOL industry. As the company transitions to building and testing its first seven-seat Lilium Jet prototype, both near-term and long-term funding support is needed.

The German federal and Bavarian governments commissioned the state-owned development bank KfW to conduct due diligence on Lilium as part of their customary investment process. Lilium hoped for total loans of around €100M ($107M). Once this is completed in the coming months, the company stated, “Lilium expects to receive guarantees from the Federal Government and the State of Bavaria as security for a loan, from the German state bank.”

In addition, Lilium is in advanced discussions toward a French government guarantee-backed loan, which would be non-dilutive. Lilium estimates this funding will be around €200M ($215M), with the disbursements tied to investment by Lilium to develop and expand its industrial footprint in France. Lilium plans to use the funding to build high-volume production facilities in France, including a final assembly line, a battery pack assembly line and maintenance facilities. “Lilium continues to engage in active dialogue with sovereign entities, strategic partners, prospective customers and stakeholders for further funding initiatives,” the company said.

Lilium has also launched a Chinese legal entity as part of collaboration with the Bao’an District of Shenzhen. Lilium has established its Asia-Pacific regional headquarters in the district by way of its recently created Chinese entity (强力之翼 ),meaning “Powerful Wing.” Lilium is currently in the process of opening its regional headquarters in the Bao’an Low Altitude Economy Industry Public Service Center and is the first European eVTOL manufacturer to base a regional office in the district. The regional headquarters will support Lilium Jet sales, services, and support in China and the region. Lilium will also undertake certification and validation in China, which is expected to account for approximately 25% of the global eVTOL market.

Meanwhile, Lilium announced on May 29 that it had concluded a capital raise of $114M of new gross proceeds with participation from strategic and existing investors. “The net proceeds from this capital raise provide additional capital needed to support Lilium’s operations to achieve the first manned flight test of the Lilium Jet, targeted to occur in late 2024,” the company stated in a press release.

In the shareholder letter for the first quarter of 2024, the company said that production of the first Lilium Jet prototypes has advanced significantly. First aircraft, MSN-1, had advanced into final assembly, while the fuselage, wings and canards of MSN-2 had also been assembled. In addition, the advanced propulsion unit test bed was nearly complete, while construction had begun on Lilium Jet certification test facility at its headquarters Munich, which was on track to be operational by the end of the summer. The 26,000-ft² (2,400-m²) test site will house a complete, fully integrated aircraft and be used for testing the avionics, flight controls, propulsion system and electrical power system. As part of the Lilium Jet’s certification campaign, the facility will be used to simulate flights and verify the performance of the aircraft through multiple flight profiles, Lilium said.

Lilium’s commercial order pipeline has now grown to more than 780 aircraft, and the company announced several new partnerships. Lilium, UrbanV, and Aeroports de la Côte d’Azur plan to create a vertiport network in the French Riviera. UK based eVolare signed purchase agreements for four Lilium Jets, with potential deliveries of up to 12 additional aircraft. US airline startup UrbanLink signed a firm purchase order of 20 Lilium Jets, with an option for 20 more (with scheduled pre-delivery payments), utilizing the network of South Florida vertiports that Lilium and its partners have been working on over the past five years.

In addition, Lilium announced an expansion of its partnership with Luxaviation Group, one of the largest business aircraft and helicopter operators in the world. The expansion will leverage ExecuJet’s network of existing and planned FBOs to create electrified ground infrastructure for the Lilium Jet in key markets, initially across Europe, with further sites in the Middle East planned.

In other news, Lilium announced on April 16 that it had begun production of the high-performance battery packs for the Lilium Jet prototypes. “Lilium’s unique, pioneering battery pack is comprised of lithium-ion cells with silicon-dominant anodes that will allow for higher energy, power, and fast-charging capabilities than graphite anode cells,” the company said. The battery packs are being assembled at Lilium’s purpose-built battery factory, located at Lilium’s headquarters outside Munich, “with the aid of new generation digital tools that enable process control, efficient data collection and traceability.”

Each Lilium Jet uses 10 independent battery packs, for range and redundancy. The first units off the battery assembly line at Lilium’s headquarters will be used for verification testing ahead of first flight.

Vertical Aerospace Cotswold, aircraft assembly

Vertical Aerospace
On May 2, the UK Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) published its detailed investigation report on the crash of the Vertical Aerospace VX4 prototype (G-EVTL), designated “VA-1X.” The aircraft hit the ground following a propeller blade release at Cotswold Airport in Gloucestershire, on Aug. 9, 2023 (see “eVTOL Leaders Continue to Partner for Growth,” Vertiflite, Sept/Oct 2023). A summary of the accident was presented at the VFS Forum 80 on May 9 in the Special Session on Progress in Electric VTOL (see “Forum 80: Ideas Earn Their Way,” pg. 26).

The second aircraft (shown) is now in assembly at the company’s Vertical Flight Test Centre. This is a dedicated facility at Cotswold Airport and will be the home of the VX4’s flight test campaign again later this year.

The company also announced on May 1 that Stuart Simpson, Vertical Aerospace’s CFO, was promoted to CEO (see “Leadership Moves,” pg. 84). Founder and current CEO, Stephen Fitzpatrick, will continue as a Board member, focused on business strategy and delivering on the company’s vision.

Volocopter VoloCity test flight

As noted above, Volocopter had been unsuccessful in gaining loan guarantees from the German federal and state governments to assist in completing certification of its two seat VoloCity (shown) to the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) SC-VTOL airworthiness standard.

On June 4, however, the company revealed that several existing shareholders had provided the necessary financing to get to certification in a new funding round, but declined to provide any more detail, Aviation International News (AIN) reported. “This year, Volocopter is determined to achieve our development milestones toward type certification and fly in Paris in the summer when all eyes are on the city,” the company stated, according to AIN. Volocopter had hoped to have the VoloCity certified before the start of the Paris Summer Olympic Games, which begin July 26, but may still be allowed to fly demonstrations.

In March, Volocopter had said it “welcomed our French partners Groupe ADP and Direction Generale de l’Aviation Civile in Bruchsal today to discuss our upcoming flight operations in Paris.”

Volocopter hosted EASA and FAA representatives at its headquarters in Bruchsal at the end of May, conducting 25 flight tests with its 2X demonstrator. The purpose was to demonstrate the ability to land the aircraft precisely within the dedicated parameters of the landing site—“a critical maneuver affecting flight safety, pilot training, and smooth vertiport operations,” the company stated in social media posts.

Volocopter also noted that it had made over 2,000 flights since the company was founded in 2011. “Since then, we have flown several prototypes remotely and crewed, and now our Pilots are in the deep crewed flight testing phase to certify the first EASA conforming eVTOL aircraft in the world,” the company stated on social media.

Wisk Aero wind tunnel testing at Boeing’s Vertical/Short Take-Off and Landing Wind Tunnel (BVWT) in Ridley Park, Pennsylvania, USA
Wisk Aero wind tunnel testing at Boeing’s Vertical/Short Take-Off and Landing Wind Tunnel (BVWT) in Ridley Park, Pennsylvania, USA

In May, Wisk’s parent company, Boeing, announced that it would invest an addition C$95 (USD$69M) in Montréal to expand Wisk’s staff and presence in the area (see “Aéro Montréal Highlights Sustainability Innovations,” pg. 44).

In June, Wisk published a blog post that it conducted wind tunnel tests at Boeing’s Vertical/Short Take-Off and Landing Wind Tunnel (BVWT) at its plant in Ridley Park, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia. The wind tunnel is one of the largest in the country and is purpose-built for testing rotors and propellers.

Wisk noted that “the data we gather is crucial for ensuring our certification aircraft meets or exceeds all required safety standards. These tests also provide valuable insights into aerodynamic efficiency and noise reduction, helping us create a quieter, more efficient aircraft.”

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