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Turning Point
  • 07 Jul 2021 10:13 AM
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Turning Point

By Mike Hirschberg, VFS Executive Director
Vertiflite, July/August 2021

Electric VTOL companies have continued receiving eye-popping investments and have begun adding hundreds of conditional aircraft orders.

Actor, director and activist Christopher Reeve said in a 1996 speech, “So many of our dreams at first seem impossible, then they seem improbable, and then, when we summon the will, they soon become inevitable.” This is an appropriate description of electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft development over the past decade.

When VFS began its engagement with the nascent community of eVTOL developers in 2013, most people considered it impossible. Much progress was made in the subsequent years, but by 2019, the list of “simultaneous miracles” necessary to overcome — including technology development, infrastructure build-out, pilot availability/training and lack of a regulatory framework — made companies’ aggressive timelines for urban air mobility (UAM) air taxi operations seem highly improbable (see “Commentary: Capitalizing on the Miraculous eVTOL Gold Rush,” Vertiflite, March/April 2021). In addition, the need for roughly $1B of development funding for each aircraft to reach certification was seen as a fundamental barrier to success.

However, the flood of investors funding eVTOL companies has made the success of the “Electric VTOL Revolution” seem more and more inevitable. In the first five months of this year, five leading eVTOL companies have raised a combined total of approximately $5B — in addition to an estimated $5B in investments in eVTOL development over the prior decade — with more money inbound.

In addition to the eye-popping financing, a number of staggering launch orders have also been announced over the past few months — primarily with companies who have not yet flown a large-scale technology demonstrator. All commercial aircraft manufacturers strive to obtain launch orders from strategic customers who will help validate that the aircraft and its future market is real. Electric VTOL developers are now announcing conditional orders, which is a long-established aerospace practice that was largely missing in the first decade of eVTOL development due to immaturity of the sector.

Lot of Money

This year, the eVTOL industry has been going through a turning point. Funds continue to pour in, mostly from investors from outside of the aerospace industry, sometimes with a sense akin to a “fear of missing out” (FOMO). While hoping to avoid another bubble like the dot-com boom and bust in the late 1990s, many millionaires and billionaires are looking for where to place their bets.

In addition, most major automobile manufacturers are now engaged in eVTOL, airlines and other operators are placing orders, and the developers themselves are publishing unit cost estimates and production ramp-up plans.

Beta Technologies is currently completing its second aircraft, as shown here in May. (VFS)

As highlighted in “SPACtacular Financing: Billions Coming for eVTOL” (Vertiflite, March/April 2021), a number of advanced air mobility (AAM) companies announced plans over the past six months to merge with Special Purpose Acquisition Companies (SPACs) to raise the funds necessary to bankroll future growth.

Guangzhou, China-based EHang became the first publicly traded eVTOL company after its December 2019 initial public offering (IPO) on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE). Twelve months later, helicopter booking service Blade Urban Air Mobility landed a $400M SPAC with Experience Investment Corp. (Nasdaq: EXPC) and announced plans to eventually transition to eVTOL aircraft. SPAC deals have high fees, so BLADE (now trading on the Nasdaq at BLDE) received $365M in gross proceeds.

XTI Aviation has 202 orders for its TriFan 600 and announced a $10M joint venture with Xeriant. (XTI)

Archer Aviation led the eVTOL developer SPACs, announcing its $1.1B SPAC investment from Atlas Crest Investment Corp. (NYSE: ACIC) on Feb. 10. United Airlines also revealed the first major order of an eVTOL aircraft on the same day, when it announced a $1B purchase agreement for up to 200 of its four-passenger aircraft, plus options for an additional $500M.

Joby Aviation announced a SPAC merger with Reinvent Technology Partners (NYSE: RTP) on Feb. 24 for a total cash influx of $1.6B, and a valuation of $6.6B. Joby had already been declared the first “eVTOL unicorn” in January 2020, when its valuation exceeded $1B (see “The First Electric VTOL Unicorn: Joby Aviation,” Vertiflite, March/April 2020).

And on March 30, Lilium GmbH announced that it will combine with Qell (Nasdaq: QELL) and was receiving an additional $830M in SPAC funding (see “Lilium Goes Big,” Vertiflite, May/June 2021). Prior to its valuation of $3.3B, Lilium had been the second company in the eVTOL industry to achieve unicorn status.

In June, Vertical announced conditional offers and options for up to 1,000 aircraft. (Vertical photo)

The Blade SPAC closed on May 7, while the SPACs with the eVTOL manufacturers are all expected to close this summer or fall.

Meanwhile, on April 7, United Parcel Service (UPS) announced that it would purchase and operate cargo aircraft from Burlington, Vermont-based Beta Technologies. UPS ordered 10 Beta Alia 250c aircraft with deliveries beginning in 2024, with the option to purchase up to 150. On April 13, Beta announced that Blade had committed to purchase up to 20 passenger-carrying Beta Alia 250 aircraft (see “Beta Announces Multiple Sales,” Vertiflite, May/June 2021).

On May 18, Beta announced that it had raised $368M in a private Series A funding round led by Fidelity Management & Research Company, and joined by Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund, aviation investor Redbird Capital, and other new and returning investors. The press release noted that the funds allowed Beta to “continue hiring the best talent, meet aggressive certification milestones, ramp up production of Alia, and accelerate the rollout of an extensive high-speed universal charging infrastructure.”

Beta said Alia can carry 1,500 lb (680 kg) of cargo or up to six people, and fly up to 250 nm (460 km). Beta has partnered with the US Air Force’s Agility Prime Program, wherein Alia secured the first airworthiness approval for a manned electric aircraft — albeit only for the electric conventional takeoff and landing (eCTOL) operations that the company has demonstrated to date (Joby’s airworthiness approval was for eVTOL but unmanned operations). In addition, United Therapeutics will use Beta aircraft as air taxis to transport its synthetic organs for human transplant (see “Electric VTOL for Organs on Demand,” Vertiflite, March/April 2019).

Thus, Beta is serving the key aviation market segments of logistics (UPS), medical (United Therapeutics), government (US Air Force) and passenger travel (Blade). Florida-based Xeriant Aerospace (OTC:XERI) announced on June 9 that it planned to launch a joint venture with XTI Aircraft. Colorado-based XTI is developing the 5,800-lb (2,630-kg) TriFan 600 hybrid-electric VTOL business jet, a $6.5M aircraft that can carry seven passengers at speeds up to 345 mph (555 km/h) and ranges up to 750 miles (1,200 km). The 50:50 partnership, led with a $10M investment from Xeriant, will be called Eco-Aero. In addition to the funds, Xeriant will also contribute its own technology and develop strategic business relationships.

Embraer is in talks for its Eve UAM subsidiary to merge with a SPAC. It has orders for 250 air taxis.

Presales for the TriFan 600 now top $1.3B, with reservations for more than 200 aircraft. The company flight tested a 65%-scale model in 2019. XTI expects that its full-scale prototype will make its first test flights by April 2023; two additional aircraft will be built to support certification by 2024.

Vertical Aerospace Takes Orders

Vertical Aerospace is a leading UK-headquartered engineering and aeronautical business founded in 2016 by energy tech entrepreneur Stephen Fitzpatrick to develop eVTOL aircraft (see “Vertical Aerospace Opens Up,” Vertiflite, Jan/Feb 2019).

Vertical announced on June 10 — the same day that Archer unveiled its Maker demonstrator (see “Archer Makes Its Mark,” pg. 62) — that it would go public in a SPAC deal with Broadstone Acquisition Corp. (NYSE: BSN). Vertical will be listed on the New York Stock Exchange following the combination, which is expected to close in the second half of 2021, under the ticker EVTL. The $2.22B deal includes a private investment in public equity (PIPE) of $89M, with stakes by American Airlines ($25M), Avolon ($15M), Honeywell and Rolls-Royce, who are all part of Vertical’s strategic partner ecosystem; Microsoft’s M12, 40 North and Rocket Internet SE also invested in the business.

Commercial partnerships and individual conditional pre-orders were signed by American Airlines, Virgin Atlantic and Avolon for up to 1,000 aircraft in total (worth up to $4B in sales), providing a direct route to market and the opportunity to work together on key workstreams to go to market. The world’s largest airline, American, has agreed to pre-order up to 250 aircraft with an option for an additional 100 aircraft. Dublin, Ireland-based aircraft leasing company Avolon has agreed to pre-order up to 310 aircraft with an option for a further 190, and Virgin Atlantic has an option to purchase between 50 and 150 aircraft.

In addition, all parties will work together towards the prompt certification and deployment of aircraft in commercial operations. In the US, American Airlines expects to work with Vertical on passenger operations and infrastructure development. In the UK, Virgin Atlantic and Vertical expect to work together to explore the joint venture launch of a Virgin Atlantic-branded short-haul eVTOL network, including operations and infrastructure development.

Vertical’s ecosystem approach draws on research and development commitments — and the commercial and manufacturing expertise — of partners such as Rolls-Royce, Honeywell, GKN and Solvay, alongside the company’s “in-house focus on high value-add design and proprietary technology, creating an asset-light business model with highly attractive unit economics,” the press release stated. “These strategic partnerships accelerate Vertical’s path to certification, de-risk execution, allow for a lean cost structure, and will enable production at scale.”

Embraer Grooming Suitor for Eve

On the same day, June 10, Cleveland, Ohio-based Zanite Acquisition Corp. (Nasdaq: ZNTE) confirmed that it was in talks to merge the SPAC with Embraer’s Eve Urban Air Mobility business unit. The Brazilian aviation giant spun off the Melbourne, Florida-based subsidiary in October.

Zanite was launched in November by business aviation entrepreneur Kenneth C. Ricci, Principal of Directional Aviation Capital, and Steve Rosen, who is co-CEO with Ricci of Resilience Capital Partners (and was previously in talks to merge with Lilium). Bloomberg reported that the Eve SPAC would value the combined company at around $2B.

In addition, Eve unveiled a string of announcements during early June.

On June 1, Eve announced a partnership with Ricci’s Halo Aviation, a leading premium helicopter travel provider in the US and UK. Halo was acquired by Directional Aviation’s OneSky Flight in May, just three months after OneSky acquired New York City-based Sikorsky S-76 charter operator Associated Aircraft Group from Lockheed Martin’s Sikorsky. The Eve-Halo partnership is focused on developing UAM products and services in the US and UK, and includes an order for 200 aircraft, with deliveries expected to start in 2026.

This collaboration will benefit from the work that Eve has already invested in the UK market as the leader of a consortium that is solving the regulatory and operational issues to bring eVTOL operations to London. In collaboration with the UK Civil Aviation Authority´s “innovation sandbox” program, Eve and Halo’s partnership will be one of the first operators to build on this work and continue to develop London as a viable and attractive market for UAM operations.

Beyond the initial order and collaboration to develop a new eVTOL operation, Eve and Halo will also partner on the continued development of Eve’s Urban Air Traffic Management (UATM) system, as well as the fleet operations and services product offerings that Eve offers as an ecosystem integrator for UAM operations. “The strength of Halo’s international operations, together with Eve’s UAM portfolio, will be an important demonstration of how such partnerships can increase accessibility and affordability as these two companies work to safely scale UAM operations around the world,” Eve stated in the press release.

On June 10, Eve also had a regularly scheduled press release that announced a partnership with Singapore-based Ascent Flights Global focused on accelerating the development of the UAM ecosystem in Asia-Pacific markets. The partnership will advance the entry of Eve’s eVTOL aircraft into Ascent’s technology platform, which allows users to book charter flights or flights by the seat.

The partnership aims at enabling the progressive entry of Eve’s aircraft throughout the region for air taxi, cargo and air medical services. Ascent currently includes a database of air operator Embraer is in talks for its Eve UAM subsidiary to merge with a SPAC. It has orders for 250 air taxis. 68 July partners that are dedicated to UAM operations, throughout Thailand and the Philippines, and is set to expand its presence in the region. Additionally, the parties expect that Eve´s UATM services will be fully integrated with Ascent’s technology to ensure secure and scalable operations.

Meanwhile, on June 7, Eve and Helisul Aviation, one of the largest helicopter operators in Latin America, announced a partnership that will focus on creating an ecosystem-wide approach to prepare for UAM operations in Brazil. In addition to collaborating on a suite of products and services, the partnership includes an order for up to 50 aircraft with deliveries expected to start in 2026.

Over the past few years, Eve and Helisul have been collaborating to evaluate how to create solutions for UAM in Brazil, leveraging the country’s existing air taxi infrastructure — one of the largest in the world — for the use of Eve’s eVTOL aircraft. Helisul and Eve plan to begin their partnership working together in a proof of concept (POC) operation, using Helisul’s fleet of Airbus and Bell helicopters to validate parameters that will apply to the future eVTOL operations. “This partnership aims to develop new services and procedures that, together with communities and other industry stakeholders, can create a safe and scalable operating environment for eVTOL operations to expand, focusing on critical aspects to design for all users, including how to maximize accessibility and inclusiveness in vertiports and eVTOL boarding operations,” the press release stated.

Finally, as this issue was going to press, Eve announced that it had formed a partnership with UK-based vertiport company Skyports to focus on vehicle-vertiport operations in early adopter markets in Asia and the Americas. The agreement extends the relationship between the two organizations, which began in early 2020. As UAM nears initial launch in multiple markets around the world, the companies say they will use Eve’s zero-emissions and low-noise eVTOL vehicle, UATM software, and UAM services to develop a concept of operations that will inform operational procedures, as well as vehicle and services development. Together, the companies aim to rapidly advance and disrupt the industry by bringing Eve’s innovative eVTOL vehicle to the market, where passengers will experience the future of electric transportation and a new model of sustainable mobility.

As part of this collaboration, Skyports will contribute to a market readiness exercise and a vehicle concept of operation study in Brazil, furthering Eve’s development of the UAM market in the region. The organizations have already worked together developing a concept of operations with Airservices Australia and are currently collaborating to develop UAM operations in the UK.

Volocopter Grows Wings

Bruchsal, Germany-based Volocopter GmbH, founded in 2011 as e-volo GmbH, was the first eVTOL company to conduct eVTOL flights that were publicized. Today, the YouTube video of the Oct. 21, 2011, first flight of the VC1 “flying yoga ball” has garnered more than 27 million views.

Over the past decade, the company developed and flew successively larger and more sophisticated multicopters, including the two-seat VC200 (with its first manned flight in March 2016) and 2X demonstrators, as well as the current VoloCity production aircraft and VoloDrone unmanned cargo eVTOL.

With a calculated range of 22 miles (35 km) and an airspeed of 68 mph (110 km/h), the VoloCity is designed to serve as an on-demand, inner-city air taxi. Like the VC200 and 2X, the VoloCity is powered by 18 electric propellers and has seats for two passengers. However, the VoloCity has a number of refinements, including increased flight efficiency through more aerodynamically shaped propeller support beams and a stabilizer for increased lift and additional stability in forward flight.

The operational VoloCity was unveiled last year, on Aug. 21, 2020, but Volocopter had not announced whether or not it had flown yet, as of press time.

Volocopter unveiled its four-seat lift+cruise VoloConnect in May. (Volocopter)

To expand beyond the limited potential from its two-seat, short-range VoloCity, Volocopter announced on May 17, 2021, that it had designed a longer-range, four-seat eVTOL aircraft, the VoloConnect, for people traveling between the suburbs and the city. Volocopter filed a European patent on June 27, 2019, for a similar propulsion architecture (see “Volocopter Spreads its Wings in China, Too,” Vertiflite, May/June 2021). Volocopter stated they have been working on the aircraft for over two years in Munich, Germany, and had conducted flight testing with multiple scaled prototypes.

The VoloConnect eVTOL aircraft has an estimated cruise speed of 180 km/h (110 mph) and a range of 100 km (60 m). It uses three downward-thrusting propellers arranged on a boom on either side of the aircraft, as well as two rear ducted fans for forward flight, a high-wing and tricycle wheeled retractable landing gear.

Volocopter estimates that the VoloConnect eVTOL aircraft will be certified and in service by 2026, and is targeted for both passenger and cargo service.

EHang Grows Wings, Too

Guangzhou, China-based EHang exploded onto the public consciousness at the beginning of 2016, when it unveiled its single-seat 184 AAV at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada (see “How EHang Built an eVTOL for the World,” Vertiflite, July/Aug 2020). The next year, the company returned to CES, announcing that it would soon begin an operational taxi service in Dubai, but the demonstration flights were not promising in the extreme hot temperatures.

Over the years, various other models were derived from the 184, including the two-seat 216. The company has conducted thousands of flights over the years and had delivered more than 130 of its 216 eVTOL aircraft by the end of 2020, while awaiting certification approval from the Civil Aviation Authority of China. The company also conducts regular demonstrations around the world, signing partnerships with cities and localities, most notably in Europe and Asia.

EHang reports that the 216 has a cruise speed of 100 km/h (62 mph), a range of only 35 km (22 miles), and a flight time of 21 minutes (though it’s unclear if this includes any reserves).

The two-seat EHang VT-30 has wings and a lift+cruise configuration for longer range. (EHang)

After many months of rumors and speculation, EHang acknowledged in March that it had been developing a “longrange” eVTOL vehicle for years. On May 25, EHang revealed pictures and more details of its VT-30 model. The VT-30 is a lift-plus-cruise aircraft, taking off vertically with four pairs of coaxial lift propellers and then transitioning to wingborne forward flight using a single pusher propeller. EHang said the predicted performance includes a range to 300 km (186 miles) — a nearly ninefold increase — and a flight time of 100 minutes — a threefold increase. Two other aircraft with a similar configuration were announced at the same time: the larger VT-25 with a range of 400 km (250 miles) and the VT-20 drone with a flight time of more than three hours.

EHang and Volocopter apparently both came to the conclusion that the performance that might have been enough for an eVTOL novelty four or five years ago is far less compelling in a competitive eVTOL landscape with many competing, higher performance aircraft in development (even if few have actually flown to date). Expanding their product line to include higher performance aircraft is a prudent move for future growth and opportunities.

Joby Leads the Pack

Santa Cruz, California-based Joby Aviation was founded in 2009, and publicly revealed its eVTOL tiltwing Monarch personal air vehicle (PAV) at the CAFE Foundation’s 5th Annual Electric Aircraft Symposium (EAS) in April 2011 (see “The First Electric VTOL Unicorn: Joby Aviation,” Vertiflite, March/April 2020). After years of design refinement and subscale testing, the cockpitless, first-generation Joby S4 flew in April 2017 and was the first full-scale eVTOL aircraft in the world to demonstrate transition flight that summer. The second-generation Joby S4 made its first flight (unmanned) in December 2019. Between the two of them, they have now made some 1,000 flights, and have flight testing agreements in place with the US Air Force’s Agility Prime initiative and NASA’s Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) National Campaign.

Joby 2.0 second air taxi prototype, with black propellers. (Joby)

Since Joby announced its SPAC, the company has been more open and has also submitted the required paperwork to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), which has provided unprecedented public insights into the previously painfully private company.

Joby says its production five-seat air taxi has a maximum range of more than 150 miles (240 km) and a top speed of 200 mph (320 km/h), and is more than 100 times quieter during takeoff than a helicopter — 65 dBA vs. 93 dBA from a distance of 328 ft (100 m) — and near silent in overhead flight, registering only 40 dBA at (1,640 ft) 500 m.

On June 2, Joby announced that it had partnered with REEF Technology and Neighborhood Property Group (NPG) to develop takeoff and landing sites for its aerial ridesharing service, launching in 2024. REEF is the country’s largest parking garage operator focused on transforming these underutilized assets into multi-use mobility hubs. REEF’s assets include more than 5,000 sites across North America and Europe and reach more than 70% of the American public. NPG is a real estate acquisition company affiliated with REEF for the targeted acquisition of mobility hubs across the US.

A summary of the four announced eVTOL SPACs as of June 2021, created for VFS by Tornike Laghidze (@TornikeLaghidze).

Through the partnership, Joby will gain access to an unparalleled range of rooftop locations across all key metropolitan areas in the US, as well as a mechanism to fund the acquisition and development of new skyport sites. The companies will focus initially on Los Angeles, Miami, and the New York and San Francisco Bay metropolitan areas.

In its June 3 Analysts Day briefing (which was filed with SEC and is available on the company’s website), Joby revealed a number of new details.

Joby has received $40M in contracts from the US Department of Defense, with more than $100M of contracts currently in discussion. The Joby air taxi received military airworthiness in 2020 and the company says there are “additional opportunities to provide on-based logistics in the future,” as many military bases (e.g. Edwards Air Force Base) can span hundreds of square miles.

Joby 2.0 battery (green) and motor (purple) locations, showing redundancies. (Joby)

The company has more than 100 people working in certification “with 1,400+ years of combined experience certifying and developing aircraft.” In addition, Joby recently added the former acting administrator of the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Dan Elwell, to its advisory board. The company is working on its Part 135 Air Carrier Certificate, which it expects to receive in mid-2022.

The briefing gave details on Joby’s batteries, which uses lithium-nickel-cobalt-manganese-oxide (NM) lithium-ion batteries, specifically an 811 NMC cathode and graphite anode, proven technology used today for automotive and power tool applications worldwide. The aircraft has six variable-pitch propellers, with each powered by a redundant motor, powered by two separate inverters. Each inverter is wired to a separate battery pack. There are four isolated and redundant battery packs on board — the aircraft could continue to fly if any single propeller, inverter or battery pack failed.

The company, which now has more than 800 employees also showed the first photos of its second air taxi pre-production prototype, as well as images of its production configuration with new, fixed landing gear.

The Joby production configuration, with a fixed landing gear. (Joby)

In addition to the announcement with REEF and NPG, Joby’s Analyst Day presentation also included the logos of Signature Aviation, Related Companies and Macquarie Capital as strategic infrastructure partners. Signature is the world’s largest provisioner of ground-based aviation services at commercial and general aviation airports. Related is a global real estate company with more than $60B in assets owned or under development and is the largest landlord in New York City. Macquarie Capital is the world’s largest infrastructure asset manager with a history of investing in and managing transportation-focused projects. The company clearly has multiple options to create an extensive network of urban and airport skyports.

Summary

Some $5B had been invested in eVTOL over the past decade, which a near-doubling of that in 2021. More than 1,400 eVTOL aircraft have been ordered, though obviously all of these are contingent about the companies actually certifying their eVTOL aircraft with whatever performance, cost and schedule metrics were promised.

In the first phase of eVTOL aircraft development, companies operated with a high degree of secrecy to protect their intellectual property. In today’s SPAC driven market, companies are revealing a lot more detail regarding their technology and forming more partnerships with infrastructure providers and potential fleet operators.

Regardless of whether a company is vertically integrated or dependent on a lot of partners, eVTOL manufacturers recognize they need to play a direct role in creating the ecosystem required to meet ambitious entry-into-service targets.

Electric VTOL holds the promise for an exciting future of vertical flight — the potential for low-cost urban or regional travel, without contributing to noise or air pollution, with a safe, reliable, and affordable travel experience that provides a lucrative return on investment for developers, operators, and investors. We are many years away from proving out that promise — with only a handful of aircraft actually flying — but we are getting closer every day.

To paraphrase Christopher Reeve, the eVTOL industry has summoned the will and investments necessary to realize the seemingly impossible dream of commercial electric vertical flight — a dream that is looking more and more like it will soon become inevitable.

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