Most of the aircraft concepts being designed for urban air mobility take off and land vertically, like helicopters. But a California startup launched in 2019 by five former Airbus staffers who worked on that firm’s Vahana project aims to build something much more like a traditional airplane.
Airflow, based in San Francisco, announced on June 10 its ambitious vision for creating an aerial logistics network to move cargo quickly and efficiently over distances ranging from 20 to 500 miles, known in the supply chain logistics world as “middle-mile logistics.” Five founding team members brought with them from Airbus more than 60 years of combined experience in aerospace design, and that informed their view that electric short takeoff and landing aircraft can more efficiently address many of the needs of UAM, and cargo transportation, than electric vertical takeoff and landing designs.
Designing, building, and certifying new aircraft for this mission is an expensive proposition likely to delay the realization of UAM dreams, notwithstanding the enthusiasm and investment of major corporations.
Airflow co-founder and CEO Marc Ausman said in a June 10 press release that he and fellow team members believe they can shave about $500 million off the cost of developing a new aircraft simply by switching from eVTOL to eSTOL, and relying more heavily on proven components and designs rather than creating something that looks like it flew off the set of a science fiction movie.
“The demand for same-day e-commerce continues to rise, and we’re building a new low-cost aerial capability to enable that growth,” Ausman said. “Our approach from the beginning is to focus on a simple aircraft design with well-defined new technology.”
Airflow’s eSTOL concept aircraft is expected to require less than 150 feet of a 300-foot runway to take off or land, about the size of three helipads side by side, or a football field minus the end zones. Powered by an electric motor and flown by a single pilot, this short-hop specialist would be able to tote 500 pounds of cargo at a time, and can be certified under Part 23 with plenty of well-proven design elements, along with some “new technology that is focused on enabling short-field capabilities.”
The Airflow website offers a few more clues, including that the new aircraft will have a distributed electric propulsion design, a detail that calls to mind NASA’s X–57 Maxwell An intriguingly named “Virtual Tailhook” is another feature, described as “a pilot assistance system that provides safe, repeatable landings on very short runways.”