Joby reveals significant progress with its all-electric air taxi and acquires Uber Elevate.
By Kenneth I. Swartz
In the year since Joby Aviation saw its valuation pass the $1B mark — known as a unicorn — the company has become more public in its quest to become first to market in the electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) air taxi market.
The recent release of photos and video showing the Joby Generation 2.0 aircraft hovering and in wingborne flight highlights the continuing advances in the aircraft’s flight test program (see "Inside Joby’s Unicorn: Flight Tests and Patents Reveal New Details," in this issue for more information).
However, these flight test milestones were overshadowed by Joby’s Dec. 8 announcement that it had received a $75M investment from Uber Technologies, Inc., as part of a transaction that would also include the acquisition of Uber’s entire Elevate advanced air mobility (AAM) program and associated technologies, as well as the transition of some key staff.
Another surprise revealed during the Elevate announcement was that Uber had already invested $50M in Joby in January 2020 as part of its Series C funding round. Uber now has a $125M stake in Joby, representing 15% of the air taxi company’s $820M in financing to date.
Joby Generation 1.0 and 2.0
Joby highlighted its Monarch electric tiltwing concept at the 2011 CAFE Foundation Electric Aircraft Symposium, its 12-propeller Joby S2 tiltpropeller eVTOL at the first VFS Transformative Vertical Flight (TVF) Workshop in 2014 and the six-propeller Joby S4 tiltpropeller at the second TVF Workshop in 2015 (see “The First Electric VTOL Unicorn: Joby Aviation,” Vertiflite, March/April 2020).
Then in early 2016, founder and CEO JoeBen Bevirt and his engineers abruptly stopped speaking in public about their eVTOL plans as the community quickly evolved from collaborative into a competitive high stakes tech business.
Joby started testing subscale prototypes in 2015 at its facilities on a wooded campus in the hamlet of Bonny Doon located about 25 minutes northwest of Santa Cruz. The team made more than 700 flights — first at the company’s innovation “barn” and, later, at its expanded base 1.5 miles (2.4 km) away at an old limestone and shale quarry that closed in 2009.
“Our kind of guiding principles [were] around... the safety, the acoustics and the... the operating costs. We wanted this to operate as an air taxi [that was] really easy to get in and out of,” said Bevirt at the 7th Annual VFS eVTOL Symposium on Jan. 22, 2020, where he gave the keynote banquet address.
The Joby Generation 1.0 prototype was officially registered with the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as a Joby Aero, Inc. model JAS4-1 in September 2017 (registration N541JA, serial JAS4-101), but the existence of the prototype was not widely known until the company announced on Feb. 1, 2018 that it had secured $100M in Series B funding. The same day, Bloomberg published an article about their observations of the full-scale aircraft flying (“Air-Taxi Startup Joby Has a Working Prototype and a Fresh $100M,” by Ashlee Vance and Brad Stone, Bloomberg, Feb. 1, 2018). In the article, they commented, “We were the first two reporters to see a demo of the prototype [which was] able to zip straight up on takeoff and then fly at twice the speed of a helicopter while making about as much noise as a swarm of superbees.”
Generation 1.0 transitioned from hover to forward flight in 2017 and flew more than 200 times before the company completed the Generation 2.0 as a pre-production prototype outfitted with a pilot’s cockpit and a four-seat passenger compartment. The aircraft was registered as a Joby Aero, Inc. model JAS4-2 in September 2019 (registration N542AJ, serial JAS4-201).
The world first saw the 2.0 aircraft on Jan. 15, 2020, when Joby revealed it had raised $590M in Series C financing and released photos of aircraft on the ground and in a low hover. The first time the aircraft was publicly seen was on July 7, being flown southbound along the Pacific coast of Monterey Bay, California, suspended from the cargo hook of a chartered Bell 205A-1 utility helicopter.
Flight tracking software revealed that the trip originated at the heliport within Joby’s Bonny Doon plant and ended 104 miles (167 km) later at a remote helicopter landing zone located in the Twin Valley Creek area of the US Army test range at Fort Hunter Liggett. At 165,000 acres (66,800 ha), Fort Hunter Liggett is the US Army Reserve’s largest training installation and has been used for large-scale joint exercises. It is also where the Generation 1.0 prototype was test flown beginning in 2017.
The next revelation came when Guy Norris of Aviation Week also received an exclusive invitation to visit the Generation 2.0 test facility. Norris published his firsthand observations in a Sept. 25 in an article titled, “Joby Unveils eVTOL Design Details and Certification,” along with new photos of the 2.0 on the ground and in flight.
Norris wrote that the tiltpropeller aircraft emitted “a lower intensity, lower frequency sound quite unlike the high-pitch urgent, swam-of-bees like noise often associated with drones and large multi-copters... [and] in the hover the overall noise level of the air taxi sounded significantly lower than any helicopter this editor has heard.”
Later while watching the aircraft maneuvering over the valley several hundred yards away, Norris said, “the aircraft made only a partial perceptible sound that, in this editor’s view, would almost certainly be undetectable against the everyday noise background of an urban environment.”
Finally, in conjunction with a Nov. 23 Forbes article on Bevirt, Joby Executive Chairman Paul Sciarra (one of the co-founders of Pinterest) and the aircraft, Joby posted a number of new high- resolution images on its website. One of these new photos showed the unmanned Generation 2.0 with its six tiltpropellers fully transitioned for forward flight. This is a monumental accomplishment as it shows the first known fully wingborne flight of a multi-passenger electric VTOL aircraft.
The Generation 1.0 aircraft of course had flown many times in full conversion. Upon request, Joby provided Vertiflite with a beautiful panoramic scene of the mist-covered California mountains that included the 1.0 aircraft in full wingborne flight. Bevirt had also shown this photo at the January 2020 keynote address. But it wasn’t apparent until Sciarra gave a talk at the US Air Force’s Agility Prime Launch on April 27 that the 1.0 was not “passenger capable” (see “Agile Change in Air Force 'Agility Prime’ Launch Pays Off,” Vertiflite, July/August 2020).
The Uber transaction strengthens Joby’s goal of becoming a vertically integrated vehicle developer and air taxi operator, with the stated vision “to save a billion people an hour a day.”
“It has always been our plan to operate a Joby service, rather than to provide our aircraft to others to operate. Achieving this requires the development of a customer-facing app,” said Joby in a written statement, confirming that the company has been developing an app on its own.
Throughout aviation history, only a handful of aircraft manufacturers have been actively engaged in creating the infrastructure required to support the profitable commercial operation of new transformational aircraft.
The challenge of AAM is that it’s difficult for someone to create a business model for an air service that depends on shifting ground commuter traffic to the sky, unless they have accurate data. And there are only a handful of reliable sources for urban demand data (like Uber has accumulated since 2009) that includes price and time sensitivity. This access and ability to analyze “big data” was always a signature strength of the ride-hailing company.
The Uber Elevate initiative has played a very important role in raising public awareness of eVTOL aircraft and the AAM ecosystem technology since the Uber Elevate White Paper was first released in October 2016 (see “Commentary: Uber’s Legacy: Elevating the Electric VTOL Revolution,” pg. 4).
Uber gave a very creative Silicon Valley tech-sector and financial lift to the pioneering research efforts in the nexus between electric propulsion and “on-demand mobility” undertaken by visionaries like Mark Moore (then with NASA, later with Uber).This was a huge boost to the efforts underway at the time by VFS with NASA and other societies engaged in the annual Transformative Vertical Flight (TVF) eVTOL workshops begun in 2014.
Besides widely popularizing eVTOL technology, the Uber team did a tremendous amount of foundational work to bring disparate parts together and identify important ecosystem “gaps” at its three showcase Elevate Summits, as well as countless engagements with media, industry, government and the investment community.
From the outset, Uber stated it had no desire to become an eVTOL aircraft manufacturer or a commercial eVTOL operator. These major investments would need to be made by Uber partners, while the Silicon Valley technology company focused its investment in Elevate on software development, data science and extensive market analysis, leveraging data collected from millions of monthly transactions within the Uber app.
Over its four years, Elevate had laid extensive groundwork, established partnerships with three launch cities — Dallas, Texas; Los Angeles, California; and Melbourne, Australia— announced eight eVTOL vehicle partnerships (including Joby), and developed four infrastructure partnerships and 16 ecosystem partners (see infobox). To the public, Uber Elevate was a powerful communications machine that generated tremendous momentum for the eVTOL and AAM industry, and highlighted the many benefits a futuristic aerial ridesharing service would provide to major metropolitan centers while producing no emissions (at least not from the aircraft themselves).
Uber’s holistic approach to developing the Elevate ecosystem was backed by serious engagement with political and policy leaders to help create a favorable regulatory and community environment for eVTOL operations.
The profile of a leading Silicon Valley tech company proclaiming a bright future for eVTOL aircraft played a major role in helping to raise the profile of the entire industry. And it also helped attract new investment to the ecosystem while motivating regulators to become more fully engaged with the fast pace of technological change. Uber has left a lasting legacy.
Uber raised $8.1B in its initial public offering in May 2019, but the COVID-19 pandemic upended Uber’s business strategy and plans for profitability.
This was apparent in second-quarter 2020 financial reports that showed Uber’s mobility revenues dropping below its food delivery services revenues. Customers were traveling less, but ordering a lot more takeout food through the Uber Eats app. This was reflected in Uber’s third quarter financial results, which showed mobility revenue had declined 53% year-over-year (to $5.91B) as delivery revenue grew 125% (to $8.55B).
Trying to position itself to survive in the pandemic, Uber announced layoffs of 14% of its worldwide workforce in May 2020, started investing more than $2.65B to buy rival food delivery companies, and began shedding some of its best-known mobility tech bets.
Uber unloaded its Jump micromobility subsidiary to Lime as part of a transaction that also saw Lime receive $170M in fresh investment from an Uber-led consortium of companies. In early December, Uber sold its self-driving technology unit called Advanced Technology Group (ATG) to Aurora Innovation and invested $400M in the start-up.
On Oct. 16, news site Axios posted a 100-word story, entitled, “Uber is seeking strategic alternatives for its Uber Elevate business, including strategic partnerships or a partial sale.” This came out shortly after Elevate co-founder and product manager Nikhil Goel announced that he was leaving Uber to pursue a new venture (see “Leadership Moves,” Vertiflite, Nov/Dec 2020). More speculation came out over the following several weeks, with a second story by Axios on Dec. 2 identifying Joby as the expected buyer.
By that time, Joby had conducted interviews with most of the staff and the ones who were seen to advance were offered jobs to begin in early 2021, when the transaction was expected to close.
2023 Entry into Service
So, how will the acquisition of Uber Elevate support the entry into service of the Joby aircraft by 2023?
“At its core, Uber Elevate was a team of technologists who shared Joby’s passion for bringing the dream of fast, quiet and affordable air taxi services to riders worldwide. For the past several years, Uber Elevate brought together an ecosystem of investors, aircraft designers, real estate developers, civic leaders, community partners, and many other stakeholders, both big and small, to advance this shared vision,” Joby told Vertiflite.
“Along with developing ecosystem partnerships, Uber Elevate also developed a set of exceptional software technologies, including market simulation tools to model pricing, infrastructure siting and network design, automation tools for airspace systems, and on-demand aerial ridesharing dispatch tools for serving customers via Uber Copter. Bringing these tools, and experts, into the Joby fold allows us to rapidly accelerate our go-to- market strategy and readiness to start commercial operations in 2023,” said Joby.
During its four-year existence, Elevate established partnerships with 10 aircraft developers to support development of their all- electric winged eVTOL aircraft to meet Uber’s performance, payload, noise and operating cost requirements. In addition to Joby, Uber had announced partnership agreements with Aurora Flight Sciences (a Boeing Company), Bell, EmbraerX, Hyundai, Jaunt Air Mobility, Overair (a spinoff from Karem Aircraft) and Pipistrel Vertical Solutions. Two other companies (rumored to be Beta Technologies and Vertical Aerospace) had apparently also partnered with Uber but had not been announced.
Although these partnerships will now come to an end, all of the companies have been vocal over the years about looking beyond Uber to find customers for their aircraft.
There’s an App for That
“Joby’s app-sharing agreement with Uber is not exclusive in either direction,” the company said in its press release. “Uber remains an open marketplace and there’s nothing to prevent other aircraft manufacturers from operating their own services on the Uber platform. Ultimately, we believe this deal will better serve consumers by speeding up the path to market for these new technologies. And, conversely, Joby retains the flexibility to partner with other demand-generation partners in both US and overseas markets.”
The idea of an air carrier also owning a booking platform is not new. In 1960, American Airlines established Sabre Corporation to develop a computerized reservation system for its call centers and had captured about 38% of the reservations market by the early 1990s.
Uber has been very focused on beginning air taxi service in 2023 in its three warm-weather launch cities once the first eVTOL aircraft was certified. For its own part, Bevirt highlighted the benefits his aircraft might provide to San Francisco Bay Area commuters during his January 2020 keynote address.
Just which city will be the first to launch Joby air taxi service is now an open question. “We’re excited to maintain the dialogue that was established under the Uber Elevate platform as we integrate that team’s perspectives into our own go-to-market strategy. No decisions on launch cities have been finalized,” Joby told Vertiflite.
The same day as the Uber announcement, Joby announced it had established a strategic supplier agreement with Toray Advanced Composites to provide raw composite material to Joby’s future vehicle production line. Toray is known as global leaders in delivering composites that meet the rigorous safety and performance requirements of the aerospace sector.
Just how Uber’s ecosystems partners might fit into Joby’s business plans has yet to be determined. “We’re currently looking at each of the technology partnerships that existed within the Elevate platform and will make decisions on them on a case-by-case basis,” Joby told Vertiflite. Uber’s four major real estate partnerships in the US and Australia will likely be the subject of a review as well.
Joby’s Elevate Team
Many of the Uber employees that are being hired by Joby Aviation have known their future colleagues for years and may have worked or studied together in the past. Joby currently has more than 400 employees and Elevate is believed to have employed about 80 people when the acquisition was announced; speculation is that about a third will move to Joby.
Elevate head Eric Allison will be leading Joby’s Product team. After obtaining his PhD in Aeronautics and Astronautics from Stanford University in 2006, Allison worked as an aerospace scientist for Stanford’s Prof. Ilan Kroo at Desktop Aeronautics, Inc. He then joined Kroo when Zee.aero (later part of Kitty Hawk and now Wisk) was founded in 2010 and funded by Larry Page, co-founder of Google.
During the first five years at Zee, Allison was the director of engineering, followed by three years as CEO. There, he oversaw the development of the Zee.Aero Proof of Concept (aka “MUTT”), Z-P1, Z-P2 and Cora. Notably, the POC made its first unmanned hover in Dec. 2011, and completed its first transition in Feb. 2014. The Z-P2 made its first flight in late 2016; in August 2017, the Z-P2 made the world’s first transition of an eVTOL aircraft from vertical takeoff to wingborne cruise and back to vertical landing — the so-called “verti-circuit” (see “Cora + Boeing = Wisk,” Vertiflite, Jan/Feb 2020).
With Zee.aero evolving into the Wisk joint venture with Boeing, Allison was recruited to lead Elevate in March 2018. During his time at Uber, Allison oversaw the Elevate Summits in May 2018 and July 2019 and expanded the existing partnerships with Aurora, Bell, Embraer and Pipistrel, signed agreements with Overair (formerly Karem), Jaunt Air Mobility, Hyundai and Joby in 2018 and 2019. Importantly, Uber made significant progress during this time in transforming the idea of a future of electric flying taxis from a fringe concept to conventional wisdom.
At the beginning of 2020, Joby was renovating three hangars of about 30,000 ft² (2,800 m²) each to support aircraft production at Marina Municipal Airport (airport identifier OAR). It had also started construction of a 55,000-ft² (5,100-m²) aviation tent on five acres (2.0 ha) of the airport apron, which is intended to house an initial aircraft assembly line. When the novel coronavirus threatened to overwhelm the Monterey County in the spring, Joby offered to make the tent available to local health authorities to treat COVID-19 patients, but, “thankfully, it was never needed for this purpose,” the company said.
The airport was originally established as Fritzsche Army Airfield in the early 1960s in the northern portion of Fort Ord, which closed in 1994. The airport is now home for the US Navy’s Center for Interdisciplinary Remotely-Piloted Aircraft Studies (CIRPAS), which is a research center of the US Naval Postgraduate School (NPS), based in nearby Monterey.
In March, the Marina Planning Commission conducted a positive site and architectural review for Joby’s proposed new 580,000-ft² (53,900-m²) aviation manufacturing building at 3200 Imjin Road on the 25 acres it has optioned for future growth at the airport. Joby now expects to break ground in the first half of 2021.
Joby has also been heavily engaged in the US Air Force’s Agility Prime initiative, which is a non-traditional program seeking to accelerate the certification and entry into service of commercial AAM aircraft, while also assessing the value of early adoption and fielding by the military.
As this issue was going to print, the Air Force revealed that Joby was the first eVTOL developer to receive “airworthiness approval” from the Department of Defense.
This opens the door for Joby to conduct flight demonstrations for the Air Force. The company told Vertiflite that this “gives us the opportunity to learn alongside each other what it takes to bring an eVTOL to commercial type certification and to demonstrate a range of utility uses for this new era of aviation. Achieving this milestone permits us to fly our aircraft in a non-commercial context, allowing us to collect invaluable data on performance, which will inform the certification process with the FAA.”
At the Air Force’s AFWERX Accelerate virtual event’s Agility Prime day on Dec. 10, Joby’s Bevirt and Beta Technologies CEO Kyle Clark took part with Air Force officers and community leaders in a virtual ground breaking at Springfield-Beckley Municipal Airport (airport code SGH) for an AAM technology simulator facility. The facility is sponsored by the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, 11 miles (18 km) to the west.
The ceremony also included a ribbon cutting for an electric charging unit at the airport designed for use by eVTOL being evaluated by the Air Force. The airspace around the airport has also been approved for testing beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) capabilities of unmanned aircraft and drones.
More on the Agility Prime events — and the progress of Joby, Beta Technologies and other leading eVTOL developers — will be covered in the next issue.