There are few aspects of an electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft that are more critical to the aircraft’s success than the electrical components themselves. Amid the rapid rise of the advanced air mobility (AAM) industry, electrical suppliers have sought to meet the demand from customers for high-voltage and high-bandwidth cables, connectors and other components. One such company, TE Connectivity (TE), is working to develop solutions to help power the aircraft of today and those that follow in the decade to come.
To better understand the opportunities and challenges created by eVTOL aircraft, Vertiflite spoke with Martin Cullen, Senior Business Development Manager at TE Connectivity.
Founded in 1941 as Aircraft-Marine Products (AMP), TE Connectivity has long served as a leader in the field of electric components. Uncas A. Whitaker, the founder of the company, developed a design for wire connections known as a crimped termination, which allowed electricians to rapidly complete connections and forgo the burdensome process of soldering. After World War II, AMP continued to pioneer advances in the field, with its technology even appearing in the Slinky, the popular post-war children’s toy.
Tyco International acquired AMP in 1999, before Tyco Electronics, Ltd., now TE Connectivity, separated from its parent company in 2007. With its global headquarters in Schaffhausen, Switzerland, TE Connectivity continues to specialize in a range of electrical components for a wide variety of industries and products, from industrial machinery to sports cars. Its Aerospace, Defense and Marine (ADM) division accounts for around $1.1B of the company’s $14.9B in annual sales. ADM headquarters is in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and ADM has several engineering and manufacturing sites in North America, Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and the Asia-Pacific region. Commercial activity comprises around 25% of ADM’s activity, with the remainder primarily focused on defense.
An Opportunity Emerges in eVTOL
The company began taking an interest in eVTOL aircraft in the late 2010s, years before the concepts would become well known. “I could see a huge potential for us to leverage everything we do on electric vehicles to see whether this is a perfect match for us to really be at the forefront of a revolution in aerospace,” said Cullen.
TE reoriented its product line from conventional aircraft to the future of aviation, namely eVTOL aircraft and the AAM industry. Its offerings include electrical and fiber optic for an aircraft’s power distribution, avionics, infotainment and cabin, and structures. TE is continuing to develop new products designed specifically for eVTOL aircraft. In September, TE unveiled its Raychem USB 3.1 cable, which it says is engineered to allow high-speed, 10 GB/s data transfers in an eVTOL aircraft and other next-generation vehicles.
In developing solutions for eVTOL aircraft, TE has had to balance customer demand for ever-lighter products and the unique operating conditions of the aircraft. “The biggest aspect that we get challenged on is going to smaller and smaller gauge wire,” said Cullen. “After safety, the three top priorities for these aircraft from an aircraft manufacturer’s perspective are weight, weight and weight.” By adopting smaller gauge wiring cable, a prospective eVTOL developer could reduce the weight of the aircraft, thereby potentially creating opportunities to add to its range or cabin capacity.
However, smaller gauge wires may not be suitable for handling the rise in temperature generated by the huge amounts of power needed during takeoff and landing. “Temperature rise is the first safety aspect you’ve got to manage on a component level,” Cullen stressed. Conversely, the larger gauge wiring cable creates an excess weight burden for an eVTOL aircraft’s cruise mission, which requires vastly less power than takeoff and landing.
“Also adding to weight challenge is the thickness (i.e., weight) of insulation material around the conductor,” he said. “TE technology optimizes insulation material to minimise weight and maximize wire flexibility, whilst having sufficient insulation to avoid electrical arcing and partial discharge (ionised air particles around the wire seen as a blue aura) caused by high voltage and low air pressure at altitude.”
Designing for eVTOL Aircraft
To overcome these challenges, TE has sought to develop solutions that are tailored to the design and size of eVTOL aircraft and take into consideration the rigorous operating conditions of AAM vehicles. One approach, for example, is to encourage developers to adopt flat cables instead of round. “Moving from a round cable to a flat cable has a weight benefit because you can go down a size relatively speaking because you have a better thermal characteristic, and it also fits better within the airframe because of the surface area to volume phenomenon,” said Cullen.
TE has been able to draw on its expertise in the aerospace and automotive industries to offer eVTOL developers a portfolio of off-the-shelf products. These include flexible, high-voltage cable, relays and contactors, and connectors designed to be flight standard. At the same time, the company has sought ways to advance the technology as the unique size, weight and power constraints of eVTOL aircraft become better understood. “We have been getting good development opportunities to optimize existing connectors that we have in aerospace for slightly higher voltages — to 1,000 volts or more,” said Cullen.
Aside from the technical challenges posed by eVTOL aircraft themselves, TE has also sought to help guide the influx of electrical engineers into the aerospace industry. Many of the electrical engineers that joined eVTOL developers, observed Cullen, arrived with a background in the automotive industry and technology startups, and were not familiar with the certification and safety qualifications required for flight. As a result, TE has sought to offer guidance to engineers at eVTOL primes in the types of development cycles in aerospace, as well as the unique safety requirements of aircraft.
A Catalyst for Aviation
Still, the rapid emergence of AAM vehicles has required TE, along with the industry as a whole, to adjust to the new possibilities created by eVTOL aircraft. “I think we’re still learning how this is all going to work — not just in terms of the technology, but the ecosystem and the end user,” said Cullen. “We [the Industry] have a vision, but I’m not sure we’re going to end up there in two- or three-year’s time.”
While much of the existing eVTOL aircraft rely on off-theshelf technology, Cullen believes that will change in the next generation of vehicles. “The technology [today] is not that innovative, the application is innovative,” said Cullen. “What’s really going to be interesting is the second generation, the aircraft that start designing with all these lessons we’ve learned today. We’ve got some great ideas of how to optimize cables and connectors and to integrate our components with system functionality.”
For Cullen, eVTOL aircraft offer an exciting pathway towards fully electrifying the entire aviation industry in the 2030 timeframe: “This is a great steppingstone to make that leap, to try out and innovate with all the learnings we get from this first generation.” With its long history working in aviation, TE believes it is well positioned to support both the development of the next generation of eVTOL aircraft and the broader transition away from carbon-based aviation fuels.
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