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The Electric VTOL Industry Shifts Gears
  • 24 Apr 2019 10:58 PM
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The Electric VTOL Industry Shifts Gears

By Kenneth I. Swartz
Vertiflite May/June 2019

A VFS panel and other discussions at Heli-Expo provided an opportunity for the commercial helicopter operating community to ask some tough questions about eVTOL technology.

For the second year in a row, the Vertical Flight Society organized a panel discussion at Heli-Expo to brief the civil helicopter industry and operators on electric- and hybrid-electric-powered vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft opportunities and challenges.

When the eVTOL industry was born a few years ago, it was imaginative aircraft concepts developed by start-up aircraft makers that first captured the attention of the public and popular press outlets.

In early 2019, the spotlight shifted from eVTOL start-ups to major aerospace manufacturers and suppliers now heavily investing in eVTOL/Urban Air Mobility (UAM) technology to meet future market needs, including Airbus, Bell, Boeing, Honeywell, Safran, Sikorsky and Thales.

All these companies have the talent and resources required to design, build, flight test, certify and support fleets of safe and reliable eVTOL aircraft for UAM missions.

This strong commitment to eVTOL development was on display at Heli-Expo where the Bell Nexus mock-up was swarmed by rotorcraft operators, Safran and Honeywell prominently displayed their respective hybrid-electric power systems alongside conventional turboshaft engines, and SureFly became the first company to display an actual flying eVTOL aircraft at the annual tradeshow.

The Electric VTOL Revolution

The Vertical Flight Society’s second annual panel on “The Electric VTOL Revolution” at Heli-Expo featured strong representation from the helicopter industry, with Elan Head of Vertical magazine moderating the discussion. Vertical also provided promotional and sponsorship support.

This year’s panel speakers were Mike Hirschberg, Executive Director of the VFS; Scott Drennan, VP Innovation at Bell; Zach Lovering, VP of Urban Air Mobility Systems at Airbus; Thierry Grison, VP Business Development, Hybrid New Market at Safran; Danny Sitnam, President and CEO of Helijet International; Rex Alexander, President of Five-Alpha LLC; and Michael Dyment, managing partner of NEXA Capital Partners.

VFS livestreamed the panel and the entire nearly two-hour discussion (including presentations) which can be found via Society’s Video Library webpage: www.vtol.org/videos.

The VFS eVTOL panel at Heli-Expo featured experts from “helicopter companies” telling the packed crowd of helicopter operators about the promise, progress and challenges of electric VTOL. (VFS photo)

VFS Leadership

Reflecting on the Vertical Flight Society’s six years of work nurturing electric VTOL development, Executive Director Mike Hirschberg opened the discussion by saying that the eVTOL revolution “is going to really happen. It’s not ‘if’ but ‘when.’ There is lots of technical rigor behind what is going on; it’s not a lot of glossy pictures.”

Hirschberg said that distributed electric propulsion (DEP) on VTOL aircraft can obviate the mechanical complexity of a helicopter and has the potential to significantly reduce operating costs and external noise. Despite the much lower energy density of batteries compared to liquid hydrocarbons, an eVTOL aircraft with a wing can potentially fly farther and faster than a conventional helicopter.

Why is this happening now? It’s the result of the convergence of rapidly developing technologies, including batteries, motors, advanced controls, computer modeling and simulation, composite structures, and low-cost manufacturing, combined with changes to certification regulations — i.e., Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR) Part 23. This resulted in investments toward the development of new aircraft configurations that have been funded by the technology sector and traditional aerospace companies.

In the years ahead, Hirschberg expects that electric and hybrid-electric-powered aircraft will be used for everything from small-package delivery, personal transportation (e.g. the GoFly Prize personal flying devices) and cargo delivery to inter- and intra-city flights.

By far the greatest demand is expected to come from urban air mobility (UAM), where eVTOL aircraft will be used to shorten commute times and overfly road congestion in major metropolitan areas.

Uber revealed its plans to create an urban air mobility network using eVTOL aircraft at the Vertical Flight Society’s third annual eVTOL Symposium in September 2016. VFS provided inputs to the Uber Elevate white paper that was released the following month.

The white paper provided a comprehensive blueprint for an integrated network. Uber not only addressed air vehicle requirements, but also took an in-depth look at the ecosystem that has to be created to support the movement of thousands of eVTOL flights a day, including vertiport and charging infrastructure, and air traffic management needs. In the subsequent Elevate Summit in April 2017, Uber outlined its plans for conducting a demonstration program in 2020 and beginning first passenger flights in 2023.

Uber has partnered with five companies for eVTOL aircraft development, but the Elevate network is only one application of eVTOL technology. Some $2B has been invested in more than 150 different eVTOL projects by startups, Silicon Valley tech leaders and major aerospace original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). VFS is tracking all eVTOL developments on its website www.eVTOL.news.


In a presentation titled “Bell — Lift as Service,” Scott Drennan explained that Bell would like to move “people, things and data from point A to point B as a customer needs, and also consider the other portions of this great opportunity beyond being an OEM and service provider to those vehicles.”

Bell said its investment in eVTOL technology is well timed, given recent forecasts on the growth in global ride sharing, urban air mobility and the expected demand for urban air taxis.

Drennan said that the aviation industry and the general public now recognize that eVTOL air taxis are going to enter service because of an unprecedented convergence of technologies that’s aligned with rising market demand.

Drennan noted that at the debut at CES in Las Vegas in January and again at Heli-Expo, a lot of people inspecting the Nexus mock-up asked Bell why the Nexus had rotating ducts. “Because we want to cruise like an airplane,” explained Drennan, adding that “the ducts in forward flight create lift and thrust,” which is why only a small wing is required.

Bell unveiled its Nexus hybrid-electric VTOL concept in January. (Bell graphic)

Bell has tested its full-scale duct in static thrust and in a wind tunnel, and has manufactured a full-scale, representative example using Z-spars to verify the company’s manufacturing processes. (Bell photos)

Bell selected a hybrid-electric propulsion system to achieve a target range of 130 nm (240 km), a speed of 130 kt (240 km/h) and a maximum takeoff gross weight of 6,000 lb (2,725 kg). A lot of thought has also gone into the passenger experience with the five-seat cabin designed to provide a high-quality ride as found in a luxury automobile or the premium cabin of commercial aircraft. Bell revealed the cabin last year at CES in 2017 and Drennan emphasized that the company was focused on designing the aircraft from the inside out. The larger cabin and hybrid propulsion system resulted in more weight and drag, which reduced the maximum speed but increased passenger comfort and safety.

Drennan said that the engineers developing the Nexus are participating in a “great adventure,” but are also going through the “hype curve” while they figure out the technical problems.

The hybrid-electric power system of the Nexus is being designed so the aircraft can use emergency battery power in the event of a one engine inoperative (OEI) event. “We’re going to bring our customers down to the ground in the event of an emergency under full power and full control,” said Drennan, adding that the battery system will also provide “transients of power as we need them during different maneuvers and gust situations.”

Bell Nexus wind tunnel subscale test.
Bell Nexus wind tunnel subscale test.

During the design phase, Bell reviewed historic data on ducts from the Bell X-22 of the 1960s. More recently, Bell tested a full-scale static Nexus duct at its Flight Research Center in Arlington, Texas, and tested a full-scale powered duct at a wind tunnel at the National Research Council of Canada facility in Ottawa. In addition, an eighth-scale-powered model was tested in a wind tunnel at an undisclosed location and Bell has begun developing its manufacturing processes.

Bell is designing the Nexus to operate as both a piloted and autonomous aircraft, but the technology demonstrator flights will all be autonomous. This approach will allow the flight test program to move faster and speed the flow of data to Bell and its partners. Bell notes that its partners have deep experience in aircraft certification and Drennan expects each of them to be represented in the Nexus flight test center.

The Nexus will be piloted when it enters air taxi service in the mid-2020s, which Bell believes is essential to help develop the new air taxi market, but will transition to fully autonomous once the technology proves itself sufficiently.

Drennan said that Bell also sees an opportunity to grow its business and revenue by playing a more direct role in the operations of passenger, cargo and unmanned aircraft system (UAS) flights.

This is not a new idea. For example, United Aircraft and Transport Corporation was created in 1929 as a vertically-integrated aircraft manufacturer and air transport company. The consortium was broken up by the US government in 1934 and the components became United Aircraft Corp. (known since 1975 as United Technologies Corp.), Boeing and United Airlines. The difference today is that aerospace OEMs want to play a larger role in an emerging market that will depend on their technology.

Bell is also developing a family of Autonomous Pod Transport (APT) tail-sitter eVTOL aircraft to complement the Nexus and provide civil and military logistics and package delivery. The APT is designed to fly goods between distribution centers and, for example, between a distribution center and a kiosk. Bell has teamed with Yamato Holdings in Tokyo to demonstrate civilian aerial logistics.

Bell is designing the APT to carry a wide range of payloads. Bell is not currently considering “last mile” delivery, “but we are open to discussing it,” said Drennan.

The company is also participating in NASA’s System Integration & Operationalization (SIO) for UAS and will utilize the APT70 — with a 70 lb (32 kg) payload — to evaluate three mission sets: emergency medical supply delivery in an urban area, disaster relief and shallow water offshore drilling rig resupply. Flight testing from Arlington Municipal Airport in the complex airspace around Dallas will begin in 2020 and later at remote areas.

Airbus UAM

Airbus’ entry into the eVTOL market followed several paths including projects sponsored by the company’s Chief Technology Officer (CTO), such as Vahana, Voom and Altiscope — disruptive projects initiated by A³ (pronounced A-Cubed), Airbus’ advance projects outpost in the Silicon Valley — and CityAirbus, led by Airbus Helicopters in Germany.

“Airbus believes that future mobility is vertical,” said Zach Lovering, vice president of Urban Air Mobility Systems at Airbus UAM, who previously led development of Vahana. A “plurality of new technologies and business models will allow us to rethink aerospace rationally.”

Lovering said that DEP will improve safety by eliminating single-point failures and reduce noise; digital design and manufacturing will lead to increased automation and reduce the unit cost of vehicles; and advanced avionics, autonomy and air traffic management (ATM) will stimulate market demand for thousands and potentially tens of thousands of eVTOL aircraft.

Other factors include the development of new UAM infrastructure that will support better city integration, new connectivity options to improve accessibility and new business models that will stimulate an on-demand and shared economy.

The Vahana project began as a two-person team about three years ago with Lovering as the chief engineer, but the team has grown to 40 people. Autonomous flight tests began on Jan. 31, 2018 at a UAS test facility in Pendleton, Oregon, and by early March 2019 the single-seat, tilt-wing aircraft had flown at speeds up to 50 kt (93 km/h) and was progressing towards full-wing transition at 80 kt (148 km/h).

Airbus is also developing the CityAirbus eVTOL aircraft in Donauwörth, Germany. The unmanned demonstrator made its first ground runs in late February and will probably have flown by the time these words are read.

Last summer, Airbus made a strategic decision to established the Airbus UAM business unit in Munich, Germany, to take ownership of CityAirbus, Vahana, Voom, Altiscope and other disruptive technologies and products it is developing for the UAM market.

The Airbus UAM team is now looking beyond eVTOL vehicle technology at the other enablers and challenges that exist across the UAM supply chain and ecosystem. This includes the service and support requirements covering maintenance, repair, overhaul and spare parts; flight operations, including the operation, acquisition and leasing of urban VTOL aircraft; air traffic management, including developing and operating an ATM system for urban VTOL and UAS; ground infrastructure, including the installation of an electric charging infrastructure at existing heliports and the creation of new VTOL pads; and passenger solutions, including the flight booking technology Voom plans to deploy in three cities by 2020, including São Paulo and Mexico City.

Safran Helicopter Engines

Thierry Grison, Vice President for Business Development, Hybrid New Market at Safran said that the company is able to internally develop fully-integrated hybrid-electric systems using technical capabilities that already reside within the company.

Safran has 40-year global aerospace vision that includes six electric-propulsion categories ranging in power from 100 kW to more than 10 MW, with the hybrid propulsion group at Safran Helicopter Engines responsible for development of motors in the 100 kW to 3 MW class. Safran wants to be active in all hybrid-electric architectures in this power range, including distributed hybrid propulsion, hybrid propulsion, and electric assistance to a gas turbine engine.

Over the past three years, Safran has conducted several market surveys for hybrid-electric engines that have identified three emerging markets for aircraft that it expects to enter service in about 2025. The first is unmanned logistics UAS designed to carry payloads between 330 lb to 1,100 lb (150 kg to 500 kg) that will require hybrid-electric motors in the 100 kW to 600 kW range.

The second is eVTOL aircraft capable of carrying at least five people that will require 300 kW to 600 kW motors for the vertical flight UAM market. And the third is fixed-wing commuter aircraft that will require motors between 600 kW to 3 MW to fly nine to 19 passengers on UAM flights primarily linking secondary cities.

Grison said that that the success of eVTOL operations requires the social acceptance that will come with significant noise and emissions reductions, a high level of safety, and low direct operation costs that have never before been achieved by helicopters.

Safran sees a market for hybrid-electric power for the next quarter-century. (Safran graphic)

Safran believes the significant cost savings will be achieved by running the turbine driving the generator at a constant speed. This should result in a significant increase in the time between overhauls (TBO) of the turbine, which will drive down hourly direct operating costs.

In contrast to other companies, Grison’s slides predict only very slow adoption of hybrid and fully-electric propulsion solutions. Safran sees hybrid-electric power still necessary for five-passenger UAM aircraft even after 2040.

The hybrid-electric propulsion architecture Safran is developing for the distributed electric propulsion system on the Bell Nexus has four main components, including a turboshaft engine driving an electrical generator, a distribution core that provides power management by monitoring the hybridization level, and propellers driven by electric smart motors that provide lift, speed and flight control.

During flight, the power management system works to ensure that electric energy is available to drive electric smart motors. The ratio of power coming from the batteries as a main or additional power source will vary depending on the particular phase of flight.

Grison said he is often asked how the development of eVTOL aircraft with impact their business. He said that Safran believes the eVTOL impact or cannibalization of helicopter missions will be very limited “because this is a new market.”

He believes that helicopter use for UAM missions over major cities is quite limited and that eVTOL aircraft will actually be competing for passengers with surface transportation systems — trains, buses and subways — adding, “we believe that helicopters will have a long life… there is no better aircraft than a helicopter for all missions that require hovering capability.”

Safran Helicopter Engines was founded as Turbomeca in 1938 by Polish-born engineer Joseph Szydlowski and celebrated its 80th anniversary in September 2018. In the UAM era, Safran wants to be a partner in writing a new chapter of vertical flight history.

Helijet International

On Nov. 27, 1986, Helijet launched scheduled service on a 32-minute helicopter route linking downtown Vancouver with downtown Victoria at the south end of Vancouver Island in British Columbia (BC), Canada.

Helijet, North America’s only successful helicopter airline, has started an eVTOL division, and is looking at short-range routes connecting passengers to its base in Vancouver and a possible hub in Seattle. (Helijet graphic)

Now celebrating 33 years in service, Helijet has boarded 2.5 million passengers to become the largest scheduled helicopter airline in the world.

Company President and CEO Danny Sitnam said that Helijet’s goal was a day/night helicopter service that could operate in inclement weather and compete with car ferry, airport-to-airport and seaplane flights.

The risk was great “and seven months in we were broke,” recalled Sitnam. The company faced an uncertain future. It could increase fares by 100% or could layoff the 19 staff, terminate the lease on a Bell 412 and heliports and close for good. Much to the surprise of Helijet management, customers didn’t flinch when the airline increased it fares “and priced our product where it should be.”

Helijet eventually replaced the single Bell 412 with a fleet of Sikorsky S-76s. Helijet survived its early challenges and today operates 300 weekly flights linking three BC coastal cities — as well as serving high-end fishing resorts in northern BC — with a fleet of 13 Sikorsky S-76s with a 99%-dispatch reliability.

Sitnam is looking forward to the introduction of eVTOL aircraft and tiltrotors like the AW609, but cautions that “winning the hearts and minds of passengers requires a lot of patience, especially when you operate in an urban environment. You have got to remember that your future customers are busy, they are distracted, and they are bombarded with information. So, they don’t need another test flight experience. All they want is a nice, safe, reliable, seamless, affordable travel without stress…”

Sitnam announced plans for a Helijet division named “Integrated Vertical Mobility” and said that the arrival of new disruptive eVTOL technology “is like starting over for us 33 years ago.”

Based on Helijet’s extensive scheduled helicopter airline experience, Sitnam believes that for any eVTOL service to be successful a number of challenges will need to be overcome.

First, “patient capital needs to be sourced” by any company considering introducing eVTOL aircraft, and “employee groups need to be assured that the vision of an eVTOL service is clear.” Second, “manufacturers, developers and designers, scientists and suppliers need to wring out every risk on their program and product during early trials and they cannot be influenced by who gets out of the gate first with a commercial product.” And third, “the service and safety standards … has to be impeccable.”

Helijet subsidiary Pacific Heliport Services manages three large, certified BC heliports that are used for scheduled S-76 passenger service and by other helicopter operators. Sitnam believes that heliports and vertiports that are going to be used by future eVTOL aircraft need to be located in a “non-obtrusive proximity that are close to business centers and residential communities, and ease of access is probably the utmost of importance. For people to change their travel habits, eVTOL passenger service must provide an enhanced and positive experience not only for the traveler of the future with vertical lift, but also for the people who live below — the non-travelers.”

Sitnam said that future eVTOL operators “must also work with city fathers and communities to gain the understanding, trust and respect needed for new eVTOL landing sites so they can be designed to stick around for the long haul, like airports. Operating on short-term tenure and high risk is a very high-risk proposition that leads to poor planning and it comes with the belief that the whole concept is temporary.”

“And lastly, the owners and managers [of future eVTOL services] need strong determination through a long-lasting commitment, and they can’t waver from it, because it will take many, many long hours to get it off the ground,” Sitnam warned.

Current Helijet S-76 routes link downtown Vancouver with Nanaimo and Victoria on Vancouver Island, and the company is considering re-launching scheduled S-76 service to Seattle.

“Our customers are already asking us if there is any way to reduce their commute time to our heliport in Vancouver,” said Sitnam. Helijet envisions a compact hub-and-spoke network using eVTOL that would connect with its mainline S-76 routes.

At Heli-Expo, Sitnam showed a route map showing 15 potential eVTOL routes serving communities within a 20-mile (32 km) radius of the Vancouver Harbour Heliport and another 15 routes to communities within 20 miles (32 km) of Boeing Field in Seattle.

The drive time versus fly time appears attractive since many of these routes cross bodies of water in both cities.

“We see the potential for eVTOL aircraft to fly shorter routes feeding our mainline routes at our hub in Vancouver and potentially a new hub in Seattle,” adding that, “light helicopters don’t have the operating economics to serve these routes, and the short distances mean you can’t fly high to reduce the noise.”

Like any airline, Helijet has a comprehensive understanding of its costs, and a good idea of the cost per seat-mile required for UAM routes.

Five-Alpha LLC

Rex Alexander is a pilot, airframe and powerplant (A&P) technician, aviation entrepreneur and industry leader with more than 40 years of military, general and commercial aviation experience.

During a 20-year career flying as an emergency medical service (EMS) pilot, Alexander got involved in infrastructure when he observed that architects and engineers were building infrastructure that posed a risk to helicopter operations: “Infrastructure should not try to kill you if you blink. They should be forgiving.”

As the aviation industry prepares for the introduction of eVTOL aircraft to serve the UAM market, Alexander said that it is more important than ever to understand the regulatory environment for heliports and future vertiports, and where gaps might exist when it comes to data, regulations and standards.

Alexander said that some of the key organizations having oversight of heliports and vertiports include the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and, in the US, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the departments of transportation in each state, local municipalities and local fire marshals.

Surprisingly, Alexander said that local municipal governments and fire marshals often have more oversight than the FAA when it comes to heliports, because the vast majority of heliports in the US are privately owned and the number of public use heliports is quite small, especially away from airports.

Currently there are no vertiport design standards in the US, but the FAA is showing a willingness to work with industry groups and the standards association, ASTM International, to develop a suitable standard. ICAO is also looking at ASTM standards.

His recommendation is that any new vertiport facility be designed with growth in mind so that it can accommodate eVTOL aircraft of various sizes and performance characteristics, as well as support strong traffic growth in five, ten or 15 years.

When it comes to commercial operations, air carriers flying FAR Part 121 scheduled services can only land at a FAR Part 139 certified airport, but companies flying under Part 135 charter operation rules can land at any adequate facilities, which don’t require FAA certification.

Another challenge facing future-UAM operations is that the national database of aviation facilities is incomplete and out of date. For example, Alexander said that there are 5,869 heliports in the FAA database, with 664 public-owned heliports (including military) and only 60 public-use heliports (1%). In addition, he said that only one heliport in the US that wasn’t at a major airport has accepted FAA Airport Improvement Program (AIP) grants since 2007— so only one heliport over which the FAA has explicit authority. “The FAA cannot protect private airspace. Period,” he said.

In addition, there are an estimated 1,900 hospital heliports in the US that don’t appear in the FAA Form 5010 airport master record. This will pose an operational challenge because these heliport facilities that could pose traffic risk to new UAS and UAM services because there is no official FAA record of their location: “So when we talk about autonomous operations, if you don’t know where these heliports are — some of them are big heliports; they’re not in the 5010 system — how do you know what to avoid?” he asked.

The FAA has limited authority over heliports. In addition, there are about 1,900 hospital heliports in the US that aren’t in the FAA database. (5 Alpha graphic)

When it comes to flight operations, Alexander also noted that heliports are generally designed to meet the flight performance of the aircraft that are going to be using them. However, this is a challenge because the performance characteristics are unknown for the 150+ different eVTOL models in development. This underscores the need for reference aircraft models that designers can use to help sizing facilities. Heliport size requirements today are based on helicopter rotor diameter and length, which is not applicable for eVTOL aircraft since they have smaller-diameter propellers and overall width is often greater than their length.

It will also make a big difference whether existing infrastructure like buildings and high-rise rooftops are converted into vertiports to support UAM network development or new facilities are built. Pure-electric eVTOL aircraft will require rooftop charging infrastructure, and hybrid-electric aircraft will need both fuel and fire protection systems to meet fire code. The cost of running electrical, fuel and water standpipes (for firefighting) from the ground to the roof of an existing building could be cost prohibitive, compared to adding these features to new greenfield building sites.

Finally, Alexander noted that helicopters and eVTOL aircraft operating in built-up areas will be subject to winds and turbulence. This means that aircraft designers not only have to address the power management, maneuverability and pilot workload of eVTOL aircraft in urban canyons, but then must also consider the ride quality from a passenger’s perspective.

NEXA Capital Partners

NEXA Capital Partners is an investment bank and consultancy that has previously raised millions of dollars to finance the ABS-B network in the US, as well as Aireon’s space-based ADS-B tracking network.

NEXA Capital Partners, led by Michael Dyment, is conducting a comprehensive study on UAM market opportunities and infrastructure, partnered with VFS and other leading experts. (VFS photo)

Managing partner Michael Dyment believes there is a tremendous opportunity for investors to fund the infrastructure required to create dynamic UAM networks, but today it’s hard to determine which communities have the greatest potential for eVTOL services and the best infrastructure investment opportunities.

To answer these questions, the company’s research arm has initiated a comprehensive study, “Urban Air Mobility (UAM) — Economics and Global Markets,” to forecast UAM infrastructure and market opportunities over the next 20 years by analyzing more than 75 of the world’s largest metropolitan areas.

The analysis uses an econometric model with a wide range of inputs to forecast demand and a software mapping tool (with 28 layers of data) that can be used to help identify the most promising locations for vertiports and high-demand UAM routes.

The Vertical Flight Society has partnered with NEXA to bring its expertise and insights to the study results.

Sikorsky UAM

Sikorsky is one of the few helicopter manufacturers in the world that also owns a helicopter company that provides private charter, fractional ownership, aircraft management and maintenance.

Prior to Heli-Expo, Sikorsky announced that its Associated Aircraft Group (AAG) subsidiary and Fly Blade, Inc. (“BLADE”) signed an agreement to provide a new on-demand urban mobility option in the New York City-metro area, utilizing AAG’s fleet of Sikorsky S-76s. AAG has been providing executive charter services in the New York area for 25 years and has logged over 58,000 safe flying hours.

Sikorsky’s Chris Van Buiten (right) announced that the company is also studying UAM, partnered with The Spaceship Company, with TSC President Enrico Palermo (left) and UTC’s Otis Elevator. (VFS photo)

Blade is a New York-based helicopter booking platform that sells seats on helicopters, but doesn’t operate any helicopters of its own. The company has attracted a number of investors, including Airbus.

Blade has become the largest arranger of helicopter flights for civilian travel in the US and now provides helicopter travel on 22 core routes in seven US states, recently launched a connecting service to American Airlines flights at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport, as well as service for Silicon Valley elites in March and around Mumbai, India, in April.

Then at Heli-Expo, Sikorsky announced it was working alongside The Spaceship Company (TSC) and Otis Elevator Company (part of United Technologies Corp.) to explore new UAM business opportunities.

TSC is a vertically-integrated, rapid-manufacturing enterprise responsible for designing, building and testing the fleet of carrier aircraft and spaceships for Virgin Galactic. Otis Elevator moves more than two billion people each day, and is innovating with digital connectivity and security.

Sikorsky was a pioneer in the development of electric-powered helicopters when it developed the FireFly a decade ago. Some of the building blocks it has to pursue UAM opportunities include the MATRIX autonomy system installed on S-76B and UH-60A Black Hawk demonstrators, and fleet-wide data intelligence utilizing health and usage monitoring systems (HUMS) installed on the S-92A.

Honeywell Hybrid-Electric

Honeywell debuted its prototype hybrid-electric propulsion system at Heli-Expo; it combines the flight-proven 1,000 shp (745 kW) class HTS900 engine with two compact, high-power density generators. Each generator provides 200 kW to power electric motors, high-capacity batteries or both.

In January, Honeywell announced it is working with Pipistrel Vertical Solutions of Slovenia to develop systems for an eVTOL air vehicle that will eventually be capable of fully autonomous flight. Pipistrel is one of Uber’s vehicle developers.

In early April, Honeywell and Volocopter in Germany signed an agreement to jointly test and develop new navigation and automatic landing systems for Volocopter’s eVTOL aircraft, with the first system to fly in 2019. The agreement leverages Honeywell's extensive autonomous sensing and flight technologies, including inertial measurement units, attitude heading reference solutions and potentially other UAM innovations.

Honeywell’s hybrid-electric turbogenerator uses two 200 kW generators (left) powered by its HTS900 engine. (VFS photo)


SureFly became the first manufacturer to display an actual flying eVTOL aircraft at Heli-Expo. Parent company Workhorse received major orders for battery-powered lightweight last-mile delivery vans, but it has been very costly to become a production-oriented vehicle manufacturer.

In early 2019, the company received a $35M loan and the board replaced founder Steve Burns as chief executive. Burns remains a consultant, but is now dedicating his time leading the effort to develop the eVTOL and sell the SureFly business unit.

SureFly eVTOL at Heli-Expo 2019


The hype regarding eVTOL aircraft and UAM was not started by the major aerospace companies but their recent investment in the development of certifiable eVTOL aircraft signals that the sector is more than science fiction. Heli-Expo provided the major companies an opportunity to demonstrate that eVTOL makes sense as a concept and emerging business.

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