This was during the beginning of the fledgling industry’s proliferation phase—a phase that triggered a staggering volume of diverse electrically powered aircraft. Some were designs that, for one reason or another, never progressed much beyond the paper-napkin phase. Even today, TransportUp, a news website that tracks everything from eVTOLs to electric hoverbikes, posts a “Hangar” that touts 117 new designs in the works. In the past five years a few hydrogen-powered vehicles have emerged. We’ll save them for a separate discussion, but electric- or hydrogen-powered, this new generation of eco-friendly aviation currently dubbed urban air mobility (UAM) or advanced air mobility (AAM) faces some big challenges.
That’s because, as with any aircraft, it takes big money to conceive a workable design, test it, certify it, manufacture it, develop its infrastructure, and bring it to market. It’s these sorts of challenges that give big advantages to the most savvy, well-connected, and financially shrewd. That’s why we’re seeing the beginnings of e-aviation’s next phase: the financial shakeout. Several companies have recently exhibited signs of progress worth noting.
Joby Aviation has attracted a large share of venture capital over the past year. Uber Elevate, the ride-sharing giant’s air taxi concept, decided to walk away from that idea and throw support amounting to $75 million to Joby’s S4, a 170-knot, 150-nautical-mile, five-seat eVTOL. Toyota, Intel, and JetBlue anted up another $820 million. Joby’s Santa Cruz, California, factory has reportedly been expanded, and the company said it expects to hire 1,600 employees. Joby has raised some $1.5 billion. Reports indicate that the FAA has approved a certification pathway for the S4. Joby also says that pilot certification, airframe, and airspace regulations are in the works with the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). Certification and entry into service are expected in 2023.
Two German designs have also apparently been making great headway. Lilium, maker of what it calls five- and seven-seat eVTOL “jets,” says that certification for both designs is in progress with the FAA and EASA. These are powered by 36 electrically driven, tiltable ducted fans set in the canard and wing trailing edges. Cruise speed is advertised as 150 knots, maximum altitude as 10,000 feet, and maximum range as 135 nm. Certification is expected in 2024, with entry into service in 2025. So far, Lilium has raised a reported $390 million. The company said it plans a network of “vertiports” that will let passengers fly between key cities in Florida. The first vertiport will be somewhere in South Florida.
Bruchsal, Germany-based Volocopter is offering its VoloCity (two-passenger, 95-knot, 23-nm) and VoloConnect (four-passenger, 98-knot, 55-nm) eVTOLs. The VoloConnect uses a combination of six vertical rotors and two horizontally oriented fans—all of which are electrically powered. The VoloCity, like the original Volocopter prototype, uses a circular array of 18 motor/rotors. The VoloCity has had public demonstration flights in Singapore, Dubai, and Helsinki. Last word was that the VoloCity project had raised $150 million, and that EASA certification was in process. Like Lilium, Volocopter plans to establish its own set of what it calls “VoloPorts” in major urban locales.
Hyundai Motor Group has also proposed a vertiport infrastructure for its eVTOL offering—the SA–1. The idea is to use autonomous bus-like shuttles Hyundai calls PBVs (purpose-built vehicles) to bring passengers to vertiport hubs. Hyundai may have no shortage of funds, but so far there have been no reports of the SA–1’s first flight. However, the company has said entry into service will come in 2028.
EHang Holdings, a Chinese company that makes the EH216 AAV (autonomous aerial vehicle), made news this past March when its stock plunged from a high of $124 per share to $42 per share. A report by Wolfpack Research asserted that sales to prime customer Kunxiang Intelligent Technology Co. Ltd. were inflated to boost EHang’s stock price. Accusations were that Kunxiang was a sham customer and that the false sales amounted to stock manipulation. Wolfpack said that EHang has lied about its products, manufacturing, partnerships, and revenues. EHang countered by saying it upholds the highest standards of corporate governance. In any event, the two-seat, pilotless EH216 has been in the works since 2017 and has been demonstrated in dozens of flights in China and eight other nations. Even though it’s autonomous, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) has said the EH216 will be certified by “mid-2021.” FAA and EASA certification could be more problematic, given that the design is pilotless. Despite any stock shenanigans and its minimal performance (a maximum endurance and range of 25 minutes and 19 nm) EHang is listed on NASDAQ (ticker: EH) and the company says it has earned revenue of $18 million.
Newcomer Archer Aviation of Palo Alto, California, shook things up when it introduced its Maker eVTOL demonstrator in 2021, and soon thereafter secured an order for a fleet of 200 from United Airlines and Mesa Airlines. United will work with Archer to certify the 130-knot, 55-nm Makers, use them as air taxis connecting outlying suburban centers with major metropolitan airports, and demonstrate its commitment to greener transportation.
In other eVTOL news, Brazil’s Embraer spun off an independent company—Eve—to establish its own urban air mobility design. Although details are sketchy, it’s another indication that major airframers are taking electric aviation seriously. Another air-taxi project—Wisk—is a joint venture involving Boeing and Kitty Hawk, a startup created by Google founder Larry Page. Airbus has its four-seat CityAirbus, and Bell has its five-seat Nexus. Both of the latter use ducted-rotor technology.
Vertical-lift and multicopter eVTOLs didn’t make all the e-aviation news in the past year. Electrically powered aircraft with conventional wings and propellers are also making progress. Denver-based Bye Aerospace continues a schedule aimed at certification of its two-seat, $489,000 eFlyer 2 trainer and $627,000 eFlyer 4 four-seater under new FAR Part 23, Amendment 64 rules, which allow day and night VFR operations. Bye reports more than 726 purchase deposits split between the two designs, giving it a realistic chance at being the first U.S. manufacturer to put electrically powered lightplanes in widespread service.
In early 2021, Bye introduced yet another design, the eight-seat eFlyer 800, which will have twin, wing-mounted engines, a cruise speed of 320 knots, and a range of 500 nm. Bye says the eFlyer 800 will have an autoland system, optional solar cells, and, like the other eFlyers, a full-airplane emergency parachute system. Launch customer for the eFlyer 800 will be fractional ownership sister companies Jet It and Jet Club, which Bye said had signed purchase agreements for a “fleet” of eFlyer 800s and made purchase deposits for “a number” of eFlyer 4s.
It’s these sorts of challenges that give big advantages to the most savvy, well-connected, and financially shrewd. That’s why we’re seeing the beginnings of e-aviation’s next phase: the financial shakeout.
Pipistrel, a Slovenian company with a heavy emphasis on research and development in electrically powered aircraft, continued to make news when its two-seat Velis Electro earned its EASA day/night VFR type certification that also allows intentional spins. Pipistrel says that an earlier two-seat design—the Alpha Electro—meets ASTM light sport aircraft standards, is approved for use in training in several nations, has applied for EASA certification, and that the company is working with the FAA on an exemption to allow pilot training in the United States. Pipistrel is also developing its Nuuva V300, an autonomous, hybrid/electrically powered drone capable of hauling cargo loads of up to 1,000 pounds.
Flight Design introduced its new F2 series of LSA and Part 23 airplanes, and revealed plans for its F2e—an F2 powered by a Rolls-Royce electric motor. The F2e is in flight testing and EASA certification is expected in 2022. Flight Design says that as soon as a United States certification path is established for electrically powered aircraft, it’ll move ahead to bring the F2e to these shores.
Another conventional-configuration twin-engine electric airplane, the Eviation Alice, has had to change course after an electrical fire during ground charging destroyed the original prototype. (A ground fire also damaged a Lilium Jet.) The latest version of the Alice has aft-fuselage-mounted engines, relocated from the first prototype’s wingtip mountings. The Alice is being marketed as a nine-passenger commuter airplane, and Eviation lists a maximum cruise speed of 220 knots, maximum range of 440 nm, a maximum payload of 2,500 pounds, and a ceiling of 32,000 feet.
Still other examples include legacy airplanes such as the de Havilland DHC–2 Beaver, fitted out with electric propulsion systems. That’s what Harbour Air Seaplanes, a Vancouver-based airline, is doing in a partnership with MagniX, maker of a 560 kW/750-horsepower electric motor; the MagniX motor has also been tested in a Cessna Grand Caravan. And Ampaire, which had been testing its hybridized Cessna 337 Skymaster. The Skymaster’s stock 210-horsepower Continental IO-360 forward engine is replaced with an electric motor; its batteries are in a belly-mounted pod. Prototypes were to be tested by Hawaii’s Mokulele Airlines on inter-island test hops. In February 2021, Ampaire was acquired by California’s Surf Air Mobility.
Perhaps the most intriguing developments in the past few months are the way some eVTOL enterprises have attracted truly huge levels of investment—Joby, Archer, and Lilium in particular. They’ve all made use of special purpose acquisition companies (SPACs) as methods of obtaining stock market listings without facing the scrutiny involved in advancing traditional stock initial public offerings (IPOs). SPACs merge with companies they deem promising, then take a majority stake in a company already listed on a stock market. This tactic is sometimes called a “reverse merger.” Usually, it’s the listed, public company that buys private companies. With SPACs, it can be the other way around.
When finalized, Joby could receive a tidy $1.6 billion from an SPAC merger with Reinvent Technology Partners (NYSE: RTP) that valued Joby at $6.6 billion; Joby says it will be listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Lilium was valued at $3.3 billion in a deal with SPAC Qell Acquisition Corp. (NASDAQ: QELL). Archer agreed to a merger with SPAC Atlas Crest Investment Corp. NYSE: ACIC) that valued the company at $2.7 billion; it stands to raise as much as $1.1 billion and should also be listed (NYSE: ACHR). Volocopter got $239 million from a merger with BlackRock (NYSE: BLK).
Buying one of these stock offerings, like any investment, implies a level of confidence in the company’s future. Soon we’ll see how the markets react. However, it may be difficult to cultivate trust in the Wild West atmosphere of today’s e-aviation. So, are you ready to step up to the bar?
Any hesitancy would be understandable at this point. To be sure, the excitement is attractive. But there’s a culture of secrecy that surrounds most of these startups, and plenty of information hoarding. When companies present themselves as little more than a website and some terse press releases, you wonder if they’re hiding something, and why. It makes reporters skeptical.
But we in general aviation are a hopeful bunch, more than willing to give new technologies a fighting chance. That said, there’s a “seen it before” groupthink. Remember flying cars, ultralights, and very light jets? Even so, we’ll continue covering this evidently burgeoning trend as it continues to evolve. One person on our staff is enthusiastic about one-person hoverbikes, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.