Advanced Air Mobility Prepares to Take Off
Ground mobility is undergoing a profound transformation driven by distinct, yet converging trends including electrification, software/AI, sharing platforms and autonomous driving. A parallel transformation is impacting air mobility, not only leveraging similar fundamental technologies but also bringing about innovative architectures and propulsion systems. Multiple companies supported by massive funding are developing aircrafts with various form factors, powertrains, ranges and use cases as well as matching ground infrastructure. Advanced air mobility is preparing to take off.
These new modes target mainly urban mobility, in particular across large, congested metropolitan areas, e.g. across Los Angeles or between San Francisco and Palo Alto (where I live), a 10-minute ride in the sky vs. 90 minutes or more for the 50 km on the road when traffic is dense. Other target markets will be regional mobility, urgent medical transportation, tourism and cargo.
Disruption Paths for Air Mobility vs. Ground Mobility
Some of the issues future ground mobility and air mobility are solving for are identical, such as road congestion, global warming and low asset utilization. However, equitable access to mobility will be addressed exclusively by the former for the foreseeable future. For reference, Archer, one of the leading advanced air mobility companies, announced a target of $3.30 per passenger-mile with its four seater — though no timeframe or operating mode have specified -- which compares with $2-3 per vehicle-mile for an Uber-type ride.
Whereas new ground mobility is using essentially the same form factors as yesteryear and will continue to operate on the same infrastructure, advanced air mobility will introduce much more transformative form factors (Lilium above, Vertical Aerospace below) and leverage mostly untapped, low altitude urban air space.
Yet, air mobility and ground mobility are experiencing other similarities. In particular, autonomous driving and urban air mobility still have significant legislation and certification hurdles ahead of them before we can expect any significant deployment. Both also face technical challenges to guarantee sufficient safety levels and enable accelerated scaling.
eVTOL or (e)STOL
The broad development of drones in the recent years has triggered the emergence of vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircrafts capable to transport passengers or large loads. Various form factors are used, , including aircrafts with fixed wings, tilt wings or tilt rotors, as well as flying cars (not covered in this article). These different configurations will significantly impact flight safety, hurdles with certification bodies. A common denominator is the larger number of direct-driven propellers to provide redundancy and minimize noise pollution for urban deployment.
The capacity of the products presented to-date range from two (e.g. Volocopter) to seven seats for the smaller ones. Larger VTOL concepts have also been presented by Kelekona and GKN Aerospace (SkyBus concept) with a capacity of 30 to 50 passengers — the former could also be designed to carry 5t of cargo. At the other end to the spectrum is the interesting jet-propelled, single “passenger” FlyBoard from Zapata Industries (below).
Among the most mature VTOL companies, only one, i.e. Wisk, focuses exclusively on autonomous flights — no onboard pilot. However, the latter certainly have this mode on their roadmap as it will have a significant impact of cost (no pilot) and revenue (one more seat to sell). For instance, Archer plans FAA approval around 2028 to operate without an onboard pilot.
Significant disruption is also happening with aircrafts taking off and landing horizontally. In some instances, products will require a much shorter take-off and landing (STOL) strip than for conventional aircrafts. For instance, the Electra’s STOL (below) will only need a 30 m strip. Besides, new form factors and clean(er) propulsion solutions are being introduced.
Advanced Air Mobility goes Battery Electric, Hybrid or Fuel Cell Electric
The elimination of emissions is at the core of the transformation of mobility and transportation across all modes. Electrification is the solution provided the electricity is largely produced from renewable energy sources. Otherwise, increased accessibility to air mobility will translate in higher seat-miles and potentially high carbon intensity.
Yet, battery technology is currently a limiting factor for aircraft ranges as batteries offer much lower energy density (Wh/kg) than fossil fuels or hydrogen.
As a result, aircrafts under development opt for either a pure battery electric solution, a hybrid powertrain (with a turbogenerator and an internal combustion engine) or a fuel cell electric solution depending on the targeted range. The former option is suited for shorter distance and used for electric VTOLs — or eVTOLs, the announced range being in the tune of 250-300 km or even 450 km for Beta’s Alia.
Hybrid and fuel cell solutions are typically used for STOL or aircrafts with regular take-off and landing characteristics. For instance, the Electra 8-seater STOL (above) will offer 800 km of range. Ampaire is working towards full electric aircrafts. Yet the startup is first retrofitting existing turboprop regional vehicles with a hybrid powertrain, providing fuel, emission and maintenance savings. The startup estimates that an energy density of 450-500 Wh/kg will be required at pack level (vs. ≈165 Wh/kg for best-in-class Tesla Model 3 currently) to make electric aircrafts viable. In the fuel cell camp, ZeroAvia announces 800 km for its future hydrogen-powered, 20 seater aircraft.
Ecosystem Approach and Necessary Private-Public Collaboration
eVTOLs and STOLs will need bespoke access in urban areas. So-called verti-ports will be either dedicated facilities or adapted rooftops. Partnerships will be required with real estate, charging, as well as ground mobility companies in order for urban air mobility to become viable.
Such infrastructure will likely be shared across operators eventually, like airports are carrier-agnostic today — tough a proprietary network of verti-ports may give a pioneer a competitive advantage. To this end, UK-based startup Skyports is dedicated to ground infrastructure for urban air mobility; Aéroports de Paris and Deutsche Bahn have both invested (verti-port proposal by Lilium below).
Public-private collaboration is critical to make advanced air mobility a reality, especially in urban settings. Issues at stake include the construction of landing pads, operating permits, grid upgrade (high kW requirement) and regulations regarding noise pollution — a key characteristic for OEMs. Also relevant to the public sector will be the contribution of this new mode to equitable mobility, which will be a challenge given its inherent higher cost structure than ground mobility.
Significant Fund Raising at Massive Valuations
Startups in this space have raised billions. The most mature ones have recently gone (or have announced plans to go) public, mainly reverse merging with SPACs. This is the case for Joby (SPAC at $6.6B valuation), Archer (SPAC, $3.8B), Lilium (SPAC, $3.3B), Vertical Aerospace (SPAC, $2.2B) or Embraer’s Eve Urban Air Mobility (SPAC, $2B). Some of them have generated over $1B in cash in the process.
Others have remained private while achieving unicorn status (>$1B valuation) such as Beta Technologies and most likely Volocopter given that they have raised $370M to date.
These very significant funds will be required to finalize design, to test and obtain certification and deploy and progressively scale starting which will happen no earlier than 2024 for the most advanced companies. It should be noted that some players have received orders. Archer has booked 200 units from United Airlines at a reported value of $1B, UK-based Vertical Aerospace has 1,000 conditional pre-orders and options from American Airlines, Virgin Atlantic and a leasing company for its 5 seater aircraft, and Embraer’s Eve Urban Air Mobility booked up to 50 units from a Brazilian helicopter operator.
What are Incumbent Aircraft Manufacturers Doing
Airbus has probably been the most active in this space, with the objective to disrupt itself. Visible initiatives include the single-passenger Vahana, the 4-seater CityAirbus which underwent its first test flight last year. The Pop.Up concept (see below) presented in 2017 provided seamless mobility between found and air.
Boeing created NeXt, a subsidiary dedicated to advanced air mobility but closed the unit in 2020 due to financial hardship. The Seattle giant has also partnered with Wisk, one of the leading eVTOL startups as well as Kitty Hawk, a semi-autonomous eVTOL startup backed by Larry Page. Bell presented the eVTOL concept Nexus at CES in 2019 and 2020. Last, Embraer’s wholly owned Eve Urban Air Mobility is working on an eVTOL — see above.
Ground Transportation OEMs Mobility Providers Get Involved
A few light vehicle OEMs see advanced air mobility as a set of potential modes they may eventually be involved in as a complement to their ground-based modes.
Hyundai has probably been the most vocal about their plans to move to the 3rd dimension. The Korean OEM revealed its concept eVTOL (see below) at CES 2020 and recently announced plans to invest about $1.5 billion in urban air mobility by 2025. At CES 2021, GM presented its own concept eVTOL, a small 2-seat aircraft.
Daimler has partnered with German eVTOL Volocopter in which the OEM first invested in 2017. Daimler shareholder and Chinese OEM Geely has also invested and partnered with Volocopter with the aim to introduce urban air mobility to the Chinese market. Similarly, Toyota invested $350M in Silicon Valley-based Joby, and Stellantis participated in Archer’s recent fund raising and signed a collaboration agreement related to supply chain and assembly.
When Can We Expect to Experience Advanced Air Mobility?
When will these new services operate? This will depend not only on technical maturity but also on certification, which will be geography-specific. Lilium is targeting the launch of its commercial operations in 2024. Archer intends to introduce urban air mobility in Los Angeles the same year, Hyundai is talking about 2025 for their launch. For Joby, 2024 will be when they certify their aircraft. In general, operations will start with few select verti-ports / rooftops and routes which will provide knowledge that can be used to enhance both aircrafts and operations before the service is further deployed. This is exciting!
Managing Director, Orsay Consulting
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