Ultimate Resource On Flying Taxis
Military endorsement could bring novel electric vehicles closer to reality. Ultimate Resource On Flying Taxis
Flying taxis, which one day may whisk passengers around town without pilots, are getting a boost from the U.S. military.
The Air Force has issued a first-of-its-kind safety endorsement of an electric-powered vehicle similar to a helicopter, opening the door to using such commercially developed equipment for military missions. This initial stamp of approval is meant to lay the groundwork for eventual civilian certification of the technology and even approval of autonomous flights crossing American cities, industry and military officials said. The current version does require a pilot.
For now, the impact of the Air Force’s decision, expected to be announced as soon as Thursday, is limited. It means Joby Aviation, a Northern California startup, will become the first maker of novel vertical-takeoff-and-landing craft providing transportation for the U.S. armed services.
The Air Force will help accelerate safety analyses by conducting flight tests, pledging to pay for contracts seeking to verify vehicle reliability and generally vetting the capabilities of vehicles through direct and indirect funding of the company.
The Air Force intends to help jump-start the budding industry to enhance American competitiveness. The process is expected to take years, but the race to develop air taxis already has attracted significant investments from companies including Boeing Co. , Toyota Motor Corp. , Hyundai Motor Group of South Korea and Airbus SE.
“We’re really competing with other nations to bring this technology to bear,” Will Roper, head of Air Force acquisitions, said in a recent interview. “Not just for military missions, but for all missions, including commercial ones.”
Based on the positive safety assessment, Joby’s vehicle will be contracted to carry cargo and people, as well as provide emergency rescue and other services, initially between military facilities in the U.S. and later around the globe. Ferrying freight among domestic locations connected by military airspace could begin as soon as early next year, according to Mr. Roper and others inside the Air Force.
The novel design features six tilt rotors above an egg-shaped body sized for four passengers, producing a vehicle that is lighter, cheaper and quieter than conventional helicopters.
In the future, it could be used for missions from slipping commandos into hostile territory to picking up injured pilots on the battlefield to carrying high-priority cargo to remote outposts, according to the Air Force. Other military services also will have a chance to assess the craft’s capabilities.
The Air Force endorsement, stemming from a year-old initiative called Agility Prime, also signals a potentially new chapter for Pentagon procurement, by harnessing for military missions equipment initially developed just for commercial markets.
“This is about retooling our system to be commercially focused, commercially agile,” Mr. Roper said. He told an industry conference during the summer that the Air Force needs to be involved “wherever innovation is happening in aviation.”
Joby said it is “excited to partner with the U.S. government to accelerate testing, development and certification,” adding that the military’s safety and performance evaluation had determined the vehicle “meets Air Force standards for flight.”
At this point, the company won’t be authorized to fly in civilian airspace or offer broad commercial services, both of which require full-fledged safety certification by the Federal Aviation Administration. But industry experts, along with military and civilian government officials, see the Pentagon’s endorsement as an important step toward that goal.
Referring to the collaboration between military and civilian safety experts, FAA chief Steve Dickson told an air-mobility conference this week, “It’s really gratifying to see how our interests align.” He didn’t discuss specific companies. Joby has said it anticipates formal FAA safety certification by 2023.
Separately, earlier this week Joby said it intends to acquire the Uber Elevate unit of Uber Technologies Inc., as part of an expanded partnership between the two companies. The latest agreement also increases Uber’s investment in Joby to $125 million as the two companies pursue plans to integrate future ground and air travel options. On Wednesday, Joby said the Air Force and Uber developments seek to accelerate its timeline for offering services to customers.
The Pentagon plans to spend roughly $100 million annually to support flight tests and pay for actual transportation as part of the overall effort to assess Joby, which is funded partly by Toyota, and other companies working on novel airborne vehicles.
The long-term goal, according to Air Force Col. Nathan Diller, who will oversee testing and evaluation, is for the military to collaborate with industry and the FAA to ensure U.S. manufacturers snare a major share of the emerging air-taxi market. Pointing to China’s dominance in commercial drones, he said, “We can’t afford to do what we did with the small-drone industry.”
Several other companies are looking for similar endorsements, formally called airworthiness evaluations, in coming months. They include Vermont-based Beta Technologies and Texas-based Lift Aircraft Inc.
The Vertical Flight Society, a nonprofit group in Fairfax, Va., that promotes urban air taxis, says roughly $5 billion has been invested in the segment since 2014. National and local governments from Europe to Singapore are devising pilot projects to promote the technology. At least $5 billion more is likely to be spent on new-vehicle development in the next few years, according to Michael J. Dyment, managing partner of Nexa Capital Partners, which funds novel aircraft development.
Singapore Set To Have Flying Electric Taxi Service By 2023
Singapore is set to host the world’s first electric-powered air taxi service by the end of 2023, according to Volocopter GmbH, which is developing the vertical-takeoff craft.
The German manufacturer is committed to starting operations within three years once it completes flight trials, evaluation and certification in collaboration with the city-state, it said in a statement Wednesday. Tickets for a 15-minute trip costing 300 euros ($364) are already on sale.
Volocopter completed a demonstration flight over Singapore’s Marina Bay area in October last year, and the first commercial route is likely to fly tourists over the same district, offering spectacular views of the skyline, the company said. Later services could including cross-border journeys.
Singapore is at the forefront of plans to introduce flying taxis thanks to a more welcoming regulatory regime than in some other countries. While the craft could replace helicopters and light aircraft on some routes, they’d also be small and nimble enough to fly deep within cities and land with minimal space.
“Singapore is renowned for its leading role in adapting and living new technologies,” Volocopter Chief Executive Officer Florian Reuter said, adding that local capabilities in battery research, material science and route validation for autonomous operations will be central to the project.
Volocopter, which counts computer chip manufacturer Intel Corp. and automakers Daimler AG and Geely as investors, plans to set up a team of 50 pilots, engineers and operations specialists to support the Singapore flights.
The craft will initially carry a pilot and one customer, though services could switch to two passengers once approvals for autonomous operation are received. Ticket prices should fall sharply once flights become more widely available, according to Volocopter.
Obtaining necessary approvals from the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency will be a prerequisite for flights, the company said.
Germany Orders Electric Air Taxis To Carry Emergency Doctors
Germany’s biggest air-ambulance operator has ordered two electric air taxis to evaluate their potential in a pioneering role speeding doctors to patients.
ADAC Luftrettung, part of the country’s leading motoring association, will begin testing the 18-rotor Volocopter GmbH aircraft from 2023 after the simulation of 26,000 emergency responses in two cities indicated that it could fulfill a rapid-transport role currently performed by a costlier helicopter fleet.
The joint announcement Tuesday provides further evidence of the commercial potential of vertical takeoff air taxis, coming less than a week after Singapore said it plans to launch the world’s first such service.
Germany may need more than 250 bases for the craft, according to ADAC, which plans to operate them alongside its choppers. Though the VoloCity model has no room for a third person in its cabin with the pilot and medic, only 25% of helicopter missions today require a casualty to be evacuated by air, it said.
Still, ADAC said that Volocopter, based in Bruchsal, Germany, might need to improve the model’s payload, a range currently limited to 22 miles, and its speed of 68 miles per hour to make a stronger business case.
Singapore plans to introduce air taxis via a venture with Volocopter by the end of 2023. Tickets for a 15-minute trip costing $365 are already on sale.
While regulations mean initial flights will feature a pilot, the manufacturer’s plans envisage that the craft will ultimately operate as a two-passenger drone.
Volocopter Seeks Approval For Electric Air Taxis In U.S. Cities
German electric air-taxi startup Volocopter GmbH is seeking regulatory approval to operate its vertical takeoff craft in the U.S.
The Federal Aviation Administration is considering a type-certification application from Volocopter, opening up the possibility of flights in cities such as Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Washington in the next two to three years, the company said in a statement Friday.
Volocopter plans to inaugurate commercial operations in Singapore by 2023, with tickets for 15-minute tourist flights already on sale for 300 euros ($360). The two-seat model, powered by multiple electric rotors, performed its first manned test in 2011 and has since completed more than 1,000 flights.
The company, whose backers include carmakers Daimler AG and Geely Automobile Holdings Limited, as well as logistics firm DB Schenker and the venture capital arm of chipmaker Intel Corp., is seeking FAA approval concurrent with an earlier application to the European Aviation Safety Agency, as well as Singaporean authorities.
Jet-Powered Flying Taxi Startup To Develop Hubs Across Florida
Lilium, working with Spanish infrastructure giant Ferrovial on at least 10 so-called vertiports, aims to be running flights in cities worldwide by 2025.
The world’s first all-electric vertical takeoff passenger jet could start operations from boutique hubs across Florida in coming years.
German startup Lilium GmbH has struck a deal to build a network of at least 10 so-called vertiports with Spanish infrastructure giant Ferrovial SE, the companies said on Wednesday. Ferrovial owns 25% of London’s Heathrow Airport and manages three other terminals in the U.K.
Lilium, which is developing a five-seat air taxi, will serve Florida’s major population centers, including Miami and Tampa. The timing of the first flights, in the southern part of the state, could be announced as soon as this spring, Ferrovial said in a statement. The companies will collaborate on the design, construction and operation of the airports and charging facilities. Lilium aims to be running flights in cities worldwide by 2025.
The company says the pay-per-ride services will be emission-free, five times faster than a car, and produce less noise than a motorbike. The aircraft’s battery will have a 300-kilometer (186-mile) range; initial flights will feature a pilot but can also operate in drone mode.
A first test flight took place in May 2019. Once the service is up and running, Lilium expects a short connection between, say, John F. Kennedy International Airport, in Queens, NY, and Manhattan would cost about the same as a top-end limousine service.
The aircraft, powered by 36 jet engines that swivel after takeoff to provide forward flight in the manner of a standard plane, uses 10% of the energy of multi-rotor drones used in helicopter technology.
The savings should allow the craft to fly longer distances, overcoming some of the range issues that are seen as a major obstacle to electric-powered planes. The model has no tail, no rudder, no gearbox and only one moving part in the engine, features, Lilium says, that make the craft safer.
Based near Munich, the company has similar deals with airports in Düsseldorf and Cologne/Bonn in Germany, and to serve a planned community in Orlando, Florida.
In early January, it appointed former Airbus SE chief Tom Enders to its board. The company became a unicorn — a startup valued at more than $1 billion — after raising $275 million last year from investors including Tencent Holdings Ltd., Atomico and later Baillie Gifford & Co.
United Airlines To Buy 200 Flying Electric Taxis To Take You To The Airport
Airline plans to buy vehicles from startup Archer for $1 billion.
United Airlines wants to fly you to the airport.
United Airlines Holdings Inc. said Wednesday that it plans to buy up to 200 flying taxis from an electric aircraft startup, as the airline industry seeks new technologies to reduce its carbon footprint.
The purchase would be worth $1 billion, according to Archer, the Palo Alto, Calif.-based company developing the air taxis. The tentative agreement is a stamp of approval for Archer, which said Wednesday that it will go public through a combination with a special-purpose acquisition company in a deal that values the combined company at about $3.8 billion.
United and Mesa Air Group Inc., a regional carrier that is joining with United on the purchase, said they envision using the taxis to whisk passengers over congested highways to hub airports. The taxis, which Archer said will be capable of flying 60 miles at 150 miles an hour, could nearly halve carbon dioxide emissions for passengers traveling from Hollywood to Los Angeles International Airport, United said.
Airlines say technology like flying electric taxis can help them reduce emissions, though they say there isn’t currently a substitute for the jet-fuel powered engines that power most aircraft. Batteries cannot match the energy density of jet fuel, and airline executives have said that electric or hydrogen-powered aircraft may only be useful for short trips.
“With the right technology, we can curb the impact aircraft have on the planet, but we have to identify the next generation of companies who will make this a reality early and find ways to help them get off the ground,” United Chief Executive Scott Kirby said in a statement.
Archer aims to begin production in 2023 and launch consumer flights the following year.
United said that it would help speed the aircraft’s development through a strategic partnership, but that the taxis must get regulatory approval and meet the airline’s operating and business requirements before a purchase is completed. United and Mesa have the option to buy another $500 million worth of aircraft under the deal.
During the coronavirus pandemic, carriers have grounded planes and slashed flying. United lost over $7 billion last year and has relied on government aid to avoid laying off thousands of workers.
But airline executives including Mr. Kirby have said they expect the environmental costs of travel to weigh more heavily on eco-conscious consumers after the pandemic. Some Europeans have said in surveys that they had cut back on travel before the pandemic for environmental reasons, and policy makers there have considered taxing jet fuel.
Newer airplanes are more fuel efficient than many older models, but until the pandemic hit, emissions were still rising as more people traveled and airlines added flights. Commercial aviation accounts for about 2% of global carbon emissions and about 12% of all carbon dioxide emissions from transportation, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation, a nonprofit research organization.
Carriers have dabbled in biofuel, but cost and availability remain obstacles to wider adoption. Many carriers have relied largely on purchasing carbon offsets—essentially paying to plant trees to remove as much carbon dioxide as their flights release—to reduce emissions.
United has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2050 and last year said it would invest in a carbon-capture project to suck carbon dioxide out of the air and sequester it underground. Mr. Kirby has criticized carbon offset programs and said more drastic action is needed to combat the effects of climate change.
Archer and Atlas Crest Investment Corp. , a special-purpose acquisition company backed by investor Ken Moelis, said they expect their deal to go public to provide about $1.1 billion in gross proceeds to the combined company. In addition to their aircraft order, United is investing $20 million in the startup, while Mesa is investing $5 million. Other investors include auto maker Stellantis NV, and former Walmart Inc. executive Marc Lore.
Also known as blank-check companies, SPACs raise money before they develop a business. They use the proceeds to make an acquisition, usually within a couple of years, that converts the target into a public company.
This Startup Wants To Fill The Skies With Cargo-Filled Robot Planes
Reliable Robotics has been flying Cessnas through a mixture of autonomy and remote control. FedEx, for one, is a believer.
There’s nothing unusual looking about the 38-foot-long cargo plane that’s been flying around Northern California for the past month. But the insides of the Cessna 208 have undergone a sci-fi makeover, resulting in a plane that’s been taxiing, taking off, maneuvering in the air, and landing without a pilot.
The machinery and software that let it fly on its own come from a startup called Reliable Robotics Corp., which has spent four years working on autonomous flight. The company has a grand total of two planes, but its long-term plan is to fill the sky with pilotless aircraft transporting cargo and passengers.
Reliable’s story begins with the self-doubt of its co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Robert Rose. His attempt to become a pilot in college ended for lack of money, but by 2016 he’d earned enough to give the cockpit another shot. Rose, who’d spent his career building autonomous cars and spacecraft for Tesla Inc. and SpaceX, expected that planes would have modernized since he last hopped in a cockpit.
But the one he took up had decades-old technology. The shock of how much the flight still relied on a human pilot hit Rose midair as he contemplated his rusty skills and mortality.
“My first thought was, ‘Wow, it’s insane that a private person is allowed to do this,’ ” he says. “You have all this navigation that you need to manage and all the communications you have to do between other planes and taking instructions from air traffic control. There’s layers and layers of stuff. All the while, you are one mistake away from a fatal accident. I kept thinking, ‘How is this OK?’ ”
Rose founded Reliable in 2017 with Juerg Frefel, an old buddy from SpaceX. The pair set up shop in Rose’s garage in Los Altos, Calif., planning to make improved autopilot technology. They hoped to tap into the mechanical and positioning systems available on most planes, buy a couple of off-the-shelf sensors, and tie everything together with clever software that could make the types of decisions usually expected of pilots.
Each step of the way, however, they discovered the existing gear for sale wasn’t resilient enough for the job. “You just could not have a serious conversation about removing the human from the plane with these parts,” Rose says. “That meant we had to build.”
These days, Reliable has an office in Mountain View, Calif., where some engineers write software and others craft the electronics, actuators, and other machinery that need to be installed in a plane. The hands-on work takes place at the company’s hangar at the nearby San Martin Airport.
During a recent visit, Rose and Frefel revealed the inner workings of their plane to a reporter for the first time, opening up the side of their Cessna to show an aircraft cabin filled with computers and high-precision global positioning systems bolted to the floor.
These communicate with custom mechanical devices that control the cables connected to the plane’s elevator, rudder, flaps, and throttle. Because the plane needs backups in case something fails, there are duplicates of almost every part.
It’s typical, of course, for planes to have an autopilot system. Pilots for large passenger jets often perform the takeoff and then let software handle flying and landing. In smaller planes, the pilot can take off, plot a course, and then have the autopilot system manage the adjustments needed to get from point A to point B.
The pilots do, however, need to take care of the communications with air traffic control and their compatriots in the air—and step in if something unusual happens. All autopilot systems have been designed with the pilot safeguard in mind; for Rose and Frefel, building a system that reached full autonomy felt more like tackling a whole different problem than making one last incremental step.
Pilot error accounts for more than 70% of fatal accidents, according to federal and commercial data. Reliable’s thesis, which is shared by others in the aviation industry, is that computers can react more quickly and safely than people in an emergency.
Pilots are trained to assess a problem and go through a troubleshooting checklist, which sometimes requires them to fumble through a physical manual during flight, finding the right page and following the instructions for whatever midair issue they’ve encountered. Software, which uses sensors and computer chips to figure out the issue, should be able to spring into action and address it immediately.
Reliable’s technology is a long, long way from facing that kind of test. At the moment, a test pilot sits inside its plane to deal with emergencies—and to make the Federal Aviation Administration happy. Communications with air traffic control are handled by a remote pilot at the company’s headquarters.
This pilot clears the plane for takeoff with the tower, gives it a route, and then sits back and watches to make sure all goes according to plan. In its test flights in February, Reliable proved for the first time that this long-distance remote operation worked.
The prototype Cessna belongs to FedEx Corp., and Reliable intends to begin flying cargo routes in remote areas first. The idea is that FedEx’s fleet of small planes could be run more often and at a lower cost if the company didn’t need to shuttle pilots around the country and deal with safety regulations limiting how long they can fly.
Instead of three pilots flying three round trips in a day, a single remote pilot could oversee the journeys of all the aircraft from behind a computer, Rose says. (The U.S. military already operates drones in a similar fashion.)
Reliable’s systems cost six figures and take weeks to install. The company expects the price to drop as its technology matures and plans to outfit and operate planes for customers and possibly to run its own fleet. It also wants to graduate from remote routes to sending cargo planes above cities, then even to picking up human passengers.
People could tap into the U.S.’s vast network of smaller airports and hop about almost as if they had a private plane. “It’s going to take a minimum of 10 years to make this vision realistic, but why can’t regular people just go to the airport, swipe their credit card, get on a plane, and have the thing fly itself?” Rose asks.
He expects that one day Reliable’s mission control will be run by people trained for the job, much like an air traffic controller today, rather than pilots. It’s a less romantic version of flying than the one that draws most people to the job, though some pilots admit there’s a practical reality at play.
“An autonomous plane is a great thing,” says Dezso Molnar, an aircraft designer and pilot. “Flying a plane is not difficult, but managing all the rules that can get you thrown in jail is the challenge that most people find daunting.”
Before it can fly autonomous planes at any scale, Reliable needs to prove to the FAA that its technology can deal with all kinds of emergencies through a combination of computer simulations and flights. It also has to get the agency to buy into the use of remote pilots, a concept that has its skeptics.
“Remote pilots don’t have contextual understanding when problems occur and can often cause as many problems as they can fix,” says Mark Moore, an aerospace expert who spent decades at NASA and later worked on Uber’s flying taxi technology. “Plus, their survival instincts are not engaged.”
The FAA is under pressure to address not just Reliable’s technology but also an increasing number of new aircraft. Dozens of startups have appeared in the past five years, making electric planes that can take off and land vertically, new types of rockets, and other vehicles.
In the robotic realm, Reliable’s competitors include Xwing and Merlin Labs Inc. In a statement, the agency said it was up to the challenge. “The FAA has many initiatives in place to ensure skills of our technical workforce adapt to the ever-changing aerospace system,” said spokeswoman Crystal Essiaw.
For the foreseeable future, Reliable, which has raised more than $30 million, will focus on conducting its autonomous tests and gathering data to present to the government. It also needs to reduce the cost and weight of its equipment. There are other details to sort out, too, such as building computer vision systems that will let the planes drive themselves from the hangar to the runway and back.
Despite these obstacles, Rose hopes to conduct cargo flights by the end of 2022 and considers it inevitable that robotic planes will one day be commonplace. “Pre-Covid, we were moving more stuff and more people around through the air than ever before,” he says. “I think as the costs come down, because of this technology, you are going to see four to five times more flights per day.”
Reliable Robotics has built much of the technology needed for a fully autonomous passenger plane, but government-approved flights remain far away.
Air-Taxi Startup Volocopter Unveils Four-Seater Suburban Shuttle
Volocopter GmbH unveiled a larger, longer-range electric aircraft to expand planned travel offerings outside city limits.
The new VoloConnect offers seating for up to four people and a range of 100 kilometers (62 miles). The aircraft, which takes off and lands vertically, is designed to connect suburbs to city centers, the German air-taxi startup said Monday in a statement.
The new model has a cruising speed of 180 kilometers per hour (112 mph) and represents the company’s third model, including a cargo drone. The company aims to certify its new design within the next five years.
Volocopter seeks to start commercial operations in Singapore by 2023 and has already sold 1,000 reservations for 15-minute tourist flights. The VoloConnect complements the shorter-range VoloCity, a two-seater based on a design that performed its first manned test in 2011 and has since completed more than 1,000 flights.
Volocopter has raised 322 million euros ($391 million) from backers including Daimler AG and Geely Automobile Holdings Ltd., as well as logistics firm DB Schenker and the venture capital arm of chipmaker Intel Corp. The company is also seeking regulatory approval to operate its vertical takeoff craft in the U.S.
Flying Taxis Could Take Off In Europe by 2024, Regulator Says
Electric flying taxis may be cleared for takeoff in European skies by 2024 or 2025, according to the region’s top air-safety regulator.
Piloted craft that take off vertically could see commercial use carrying packages before passengers, Patrick Ky, executive director of the European Union Aviation Safety Agency, said in an online event on Wednesday.
Autonomous drones will take at least five more years, Ky said, with larger aircraft following.
EASA has just started to work with companies on how to address unmanned flight, the regulator said. The agency is working on a coordinated approach with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and other international regulators.
With autonomous passnger transport, it’s easiest to start with air taxi vehicles, “because we’re looking at smaller scale aircraft,” Ky said. With companies, “we’ve not gone too far because it requires a lot of thinking on how you want to deal with the autonomy concepts.”
EASA also published the results of a survey on urban air mobility, which polled 4,000 citizens in six European cities. They found that 83% of respondents had a positive initial attitude, with uses like emergency and medical transportation getting strong support.
Craft that fly in crowded cities are likely to require higher safety standards, and regulators will have to contend with nuisance concerns like noise and visual clutter, Ky said.
Denso, Honeywell Join To Make Motors For New Electric Aircraft
Denso Corp. and Honeywell International Inc. have formed a 10-year partnership to build electric motors for new aircraft designed to move cargo and people across congested cities.
Denso, the top supplier to Toyota Motor Corp., and Honeywell, which makes engines and cockpit controls for jets and helicopters, have teamed up to tap an urban air mobility market the Charlotte, North Carolina-based industrial giant estimates could be worth $120 billion by 2030.
The companies expect to have their first electric motors ready for flight tests about this time next year and they are in “advanced discussions with current and prospective customers,” according to a statement.
Large aircraft manufacturers, including Boeing Co. and Cessna-maker Textron Inc., and dozens of startups are racing to build electric-powered aircraft that take off like helicopters and fly like airplanes over longer distances as a way to alleviate congested roads.
While the new designs would revolutionize how people and goods are transported, the aircraft have to win over regulators and overcome limitations from battery duration and weight.
Denso and Honeywell said their electric motors will help make these new aircraft safer, more efficient, quieter and cleaner for the environment when compared with traditional helicopters and small aircraft. The partnership takes advantage of Denso’s “ability to produce quality components at mass scale” coupled with Honeywell’s aerospace experience, the companies said in the statement.
Joby’s Plan For Air Taxis Takes Shape
The startup, which is using a SPAC to go public, plans a commercial launch in 2024.
Joby Aviation’s prototype electric aircraft looks less like a fantastical flying car from vintage science fiction than it does a buzzing insect large enough to carry a few human passengers. One morning in May, the empty five-seat airplane rose from a dirt field straight up to about 1,000 feet, its tinted windshield reflecting the midday sun.
Then, as one Bloomberg News reporter watched from a chase helicopter and another from the ground, the aircraft’s six propellers tilted forward, and it zoomed ahead at a brisk 90 miles per hour, emitting a mechanical purr about as loud as a rooftop air conditioner. The vehicle, controlled by pilots on the ground, circled over a California military base while a bald eagle followed, regarding it skeptically.
Joby, an 12-year-old startup headquartered in Santa Cruz, is one of dozens of companies racing to realize the promise of an eVTOL—an electric airplane that takes off and lands vertically. The company’s rivals include aerospace giants such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Airbus, as well as startups like the Vermont-based Beta Technologies, which recently won backing from Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund and Fidelity, and Germany’s Volocopter, which has been testing its two-seat aircraft for the last three years in Singapore.
The cottage industry is aiming to change how people get around every day, promising to transform cities and reduce carbon emissions in the process. In the U.S., Federal Aviation Administration head Steve Dickson recently told a House appropriations subcommittee hearing that he expects such advanced urban aircraft to be approved by 2023, with the first flights taking place the following year.
Many analysts expect a massive industry will develop, though they say investors might have to wait patiently for more than a decade to see it flourish. In May, Morgan Stanley predicted the eVTOL market will hit $1 trillion in 2040.
While the race is still in its early stages, Joby can lay claim to leading the pack. It’s been working with the FAA for three years, longer than any of its competitors have, and recently received a checklist to certify it to carry passengers.
The company has also raised more money than its rivals, including $400 million from Toyota Motor Corp., which will help it with manufacturing. It recently took over Uber Technologies Inc.’s flying-car division, through a deal in which the ride-hailing company also invested $75 million and committed to adding Joby’s air taxis to its app.
The company will go public this summer by merging with a SPAC created by LinkedIn Corp. co-founder Reid Hoffman. The transaction will raise an additional $1.6 billion to help finance operations through 2024. That year, Joby plans to begin commercial service for passengers in cities such as Los Angeles, Miami, New York, and San Francisco.
That’s assuming it can navigate the inevitable regulatory hurdles and public opposition. Ride-hailing has brought a spate of controversy when its drivers use existing roads; it stands to reason there’ll be a completely new set of objections when companies start releasing fleets of newfangled aircraft into urban skies.
Then there’s the risk of facing so many well-heeled rivals. “I wouldn’t be surprised if a number of the big names don’t make it, while a number of other ones we haven’t heard of yet do,” says Robin Riedel, a McKinsey & Co. partner who leads its aerospace practice.
This month, Joby is announcing a few modest steps forward. It recently reached an agreement with Reef Technology Inc. and Neighborhood Property Group to negotiate long-term leases for takeoff and landing pads atop some of Reef’s 5,000 parking garages and other sites in North America and Europe.
It’s also planning to open a pilot training program in the next few years. Joby foresees a future where its vehicles operate autonomously but says there’ll be a significant transition period when pilots will still need to be on board, if only to reassure passengers who grip their armrests tightly even on conventional flights.
JoeBen Bevirt, Joby’s founder and chief executive officer, says he sees pilots as “our ambassadors, helping people to get comfortable with this new mode of transportation.”
Bevirt, who founded Joby in 2009 after selling two successful technology companies, started dreaming about building flying cars when he was a kid growing up under Santa Cruz’s redwoods, five miles from the nearest school bus stop. He leads engineering; Executive Chairman Paul Sciarra, who also co-founded Pinterest Inc., handles business operations and strategy.
It was Sciarra who reached out to Hoffman and his investing partner, Mark Pincus, the co-founder of Zynga Inc., about the SPAC. There’s mounting skepticism about such deals, which critics see as a way for investors to cash in on unprofitable companies that can’t withstand the scrutiny that comes with a conventional initial public offering.
Sciarra says Joby’s deal is more responsible, citing a provision keeping major investors from selling for five years, and until Joby quintuples its market value, to more than $30 billion. “It’s not an exit for anyone,” Sciarra says.
When Joby does begin trading publicly, it will have at least one paying customer. The United States Air Force, which certified Joby vehicles for use late last year before also approving ones from competitors Beta and Lift Aircraft, wants to start testing up to 10 Joby aircraft by next year.
The chief benefits to using the aircraft, says Colonel Nathan Diller, the director of the Air Force’s venture capital arm, Afwerx, are financial: Joby estimates its vehicles operate at about a quarter of the cost of conventional helicopters.
Diller says the lack of emissions and robust safety features are selling points, too. Joby’s vehicles have six propellers, and two can fail without compromising flight—a significant improvement over the two-propeller helicopter design that’s been standard for 50 years.
The electric aircraft will be used mainly for medical evacuations, disaster relief, and humanitarian crises—but not in battle. They aren’t designed for it, and Sciarra and Bevirt say they oppose building combat vehicles on moral grounds.
Even now, with the Air Force partnership and the company finally bearing down on its goal of electric urban aircraft, Bevirt says he has plans to work on electric aircraft capable of traveling between cities. That project presents significant technical challenges that will require advances in battery density and lightweight materials.
For now, his investors want him to focus on keeping his feet on the ground. Hoffman says Joby’s North Star is to eventually offer rides within cities at about the price of an Uber X. But Uber is still trying to figure that out with earthbound cars.
McKinsey’s Riedel wonders if air taxis are destined to be seen as a “toy for the rich.” Part of Joby’s challenge will be figuring out airline-like operations, such as minimizing downtime, filling most every seat, and remaining easy to book via smartphone. In retrospect, making a prototype and showing it off to journalists in the desert was the easy part.
Airlines Plan To Plow Billions Into Flying Taxis
Flying taxis moved a step closer to becoming a fixture buzzing across urban skyscapes, as a closely watched effort was unveiled in Los Angeles and startups in the U.K. and Brazil made commercial breakthroughs.
Vertical Aerospace Group, based in Bristol, England, won conditional orders for as many as 1,000 electric aircraft that could total $4 billion from buyers including American Airlines Group Inc. and Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd., it said late Thursday.
Meanwhile, Brazil’s Embraer SA said it’s in talks to merge its unit developing electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft into a public company, sending the stock surging.
And in California, startup Archer Aviation Inc. showcased its future eVTOL after nabbing a $20 million investment from United Airlines Holdings Inc. The carrier plans to buy as many as 200 of the aircraft, dubbed Maker.
While none are certified for commercial use, approvals for electric flying taxis could come as early as 2024, according to Europe’s top aviation regulator. Airlines are placing orders because they see the potential to develop a new business tied to local transport, as their main activity shuttling people on longer trips comes under pressure over carbon emissions and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We believe that this is the beginning of the next big evolution of urban air mobility,” said Domhnal Slattery, chief executive officer of aircraft lessor Avolon Holdings Ltd., which is investing $15 million in Vertical Aerospace. “This is probably as significant as the jet age.”
Flying taxis are designed to accommodate just a few passengers, akin to an electrified helicopter. But they are quieter, more agile and emission-free, utilizing multiple small electric rotors.
The aircraft are designed to make short trips, with a range of 100 miles (160 kilometers) or less, and are expected to ferry well-heeled commuters above congestion-plagued urban spots — to the airport, for example, or a weekend getaway. Many eVTOL makers plan to eventually transition to pilotless aircraft.
The popularity of special purpose acquisition vehicles has been a catalyst to the budding industry.
Vertical Aerospace is going public through a reverse merger with Broadstone Acquisition Corp. in a SPAC deal that values the combined companies’ equity at about $2.2 billion.
Archer, based in Palo Alto, California, plans to merge with a SPAC run by investment banker Ken Moelis later this year that would value the combined company at about $3.8 billion. Archer expects the Maker will make its first flights in the fourth quarter and begin commercial production next year, assisted by the automaker Stellantis NV. Service is projected to start in Los Angeles and Miami in 2024.
“There’s definitely a really big long-term industry here,” said e-commerce entrepreneur Marc Lore, Archer’s largest individual investor. “I don’t really think anybody would disagree with that.”
Embraer surged 15% Thursday after confirming that it’s in talks to merge its Eve Urban Air Mobility division with blank-check company Zanite Acquisition Corp., giving it a valuation of about $2 billion.
Two other eVTOL companies, Joby Aviation and Lilium GmbH, have agreed to go public through SPAC mergers. Another German startup, Volocopter GmbH, has backing from airport operator Atlantia SpA and others.
Last week, Eve said it struck a partnership with Halo Aviation Ltd., a helicopter travel provider in the U.S. and U.K., with delivery of 200 aircraft starting in 2026.
Commercial use of eVTOLs is expected to begin with carrying packages before passengers are added to the cabins.
And automated flights, without pilots, will come around five years later, as global regulators work out their approaches to safety.
The Skies Will Be Crowded With Flying Taxis
The massive amounts of capital flowing into eVTOLs is great news for commuters, but not all these companies will succeed.
SPACs are striking in their herd mentality. Once one decides to take a new type of business public, then a whole bunch of similar firms do the same. This happened with electric vehicles and related technology, and now it’s the turn of flying taxis.
This week Vertical Aerospace Group Ltd., a British manufacturer of what’s technically known as electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft or eVTOLs, revealed plans to go public. It will do so via a merger with Broadstone Acquisition Corp., a blank-check firm set up by entrepreneur Hugh Osmond, the founder of pub operator Punch Taverns Ltd.
Rivals Joby Aviation, Archer Aviation Inc. and Lilium GmbH have already agreed to SPAC deals and a blank-check transaction involving Embraer SA subsidiary Eve Urban Air Mobility is reportedly in the works. Chinese eVTOL manufacturer EHang Holdings Ltd. went public the traditional way. If aircraft aren’t your thing, there’s Blade Air Mobility Inc., which plans to operate heliports for these new contraptions. I’ve no doubt there’ll be more such listings.
Those who fear the City of London is losing out on technology listings will take no comfort from Vertical’s plans to list on the New York Stock Exchange. However, for those whose dream of flitting around the skies like the Jetsons, the huge amounts of capital flooding into this space is very encouraging. Plus, eVTOL makers promise they’ll be safer than regular helicopters. And they’ll be much cleaner and quieter too.
Going by their regulatory filings, these manufacturers expect to be wildly successful. They have all made rosy financial forecasts — a handy yet controversial feature of going public via a SPAC. But with so much competition — not to mention the massive technological, regulatory certification and social acceptance challenges at hand — the reality is that some of them probably won’t succeed. The battle has already turned ugly: Archer and rival Wisk Aero LLC, are slugging it out in the courts in a dispute over the alleged theft of trade secrets.
To avoid disappointing neophyte public market investors who flock to futuristic ventures, it would be better if they had remained private for longer. But once one raises a big gob of capital, the others fear competitive disadvantage unless they quickly do the same. Developing an aircraft is hugely capital-intensive: The $394 million that Vertical is raising looks pretty underpowered compared to the $1.6 billion Joby is generating from its SPAC deal.
Still, the $1.8 billion enterprise valuation attributed to Vertical is pretty punchy when you consider the first test flight of its VA-X4 aircraft won’t happen till later this year and it won’t begin deliveries until 2024, a similar timeline to rivals. That’s almost one-quarter of the enterprise value of Leonardo SpA, one of the world’s largest helicopter manufacturers. The Italian company is expected to generate 14 billion euros ($17 billion) of revenue this year. Right now Vertical has zero.
In fairness, Vertical has some experienced engineers and financial backing from big firms like Microsoft Corp., Rolls-Royce Holdings Plc, American Airlines Group Inc. and Honeywell International Inc. (The latter is hedging its bets: Honeywell announced an investment in Lilium this week.)
Flying Taxi Startup Whisper Aero Aims To Keep Noise Levels Down
Founded by a former NASA engineer, the company is disclosing some of its plans to eliminate a key source of annoyance.
Endless encounters with swarms of bees.
This is the cacophonous scenario that we might be rushing towards as investors pour heroic amounts of money into companies developing ever better drones and their bigger cousins, vertical take-off and landing passenger vehicles.
Because, while the underlying technology behind these machines has improved at impressive speed, the simple fact remains that, big or small, these aircraft produce a lot of noise and not much has been done to curb it. If a drone has ruined your peaceful day at the beach, imagine your nerves with 10,000 flying taxis overhead.
A startup called Whisper Aero, which is disclosing its plans for the first time, thinks it may be well on its way to solving this noise problem. The company was founded in mid-2020 by Mark Moore, a former National Aeronautics and Space Administration engineer turned executive within Uber Technologies Inc.’s once bustling flying vehicle division.
While declining to reveal what he has come up with in full detail out of intellectual property protection concerns, Moore is convinced that Whisper has hit on a new “thruster” design that will result in consumer drones right on up to large passenger vehicles blending into the background noise of a city as they fly.
“Half the people think drones are cool, and half of them are so annoyed,” Moore says. “They’re annoyed because there is this really aggravating noise source that should not be there. It sounds like a flying Cuisinart and makes people really uncomfortable. If you want the public to buy into the idea of more and more of these things appearing, you can’t annoy them, and you can’t scare them.”
Few, if any, individuals would be better suited to try and crack such a long-standing issue in this field. Moore spent thirty years within NASA’s research groups, working on cutting-edge designs around drones and electric aircraft.
In 2010, he published a paper that focused on the possibilities of all-electric aircrafts that could take off and land vertically, and his research helped kickstart interest in the so-called eVTOL machines now pursued by dozens of start-ups. In 2017, Moore joined Uber Elevate to try and help Uber create a giant fleet of flying vehicles that could soar over traffic.
As the pandemic set in, however, Uber abandoned its sci-fi plans last year and sold off its Elevate technology to Joby Aviation, a startup backed by Toyota and recently valued at $6.6 billion that some people regard as the most promising eVTOL contender.
Rather than stay on at Joby, Moore opted to pursue ideas he’d been tinkering with for five years around ways to make quieter vehicles.
He used some of his Uber money to buy a distressed resort in Crossville, Tennessee, and set it up as Whisper’s secluded headquarters and research and development compound. “The bank was foreclosing on it, and I got a steal of deal,” Moore says.
“It’s 16 acres and has a lake with a beautiful beach and is right next door to a great little airport.”
According to Moore’s count, there are about 400 companies trying to make eVTOL aircraft. Many of these vehicles are being built by hobbyists and small teams, while a couple dozen companies have received substantial funding to really go after the market.
Most of the early versions of these vehicles look similar. They’re basically small planes that have electric motors running somewhere between four and twelve propellers. The big race at the moment is to make prototypes that work and have the vehicles certified as safe to fly by regulators.
Moore is convinced that the noise produced by this first wave of eVTOL vehicles will limit their success. While they’re quieter than helicopters, the aircraft still produce that swarm of bee-like buzz. Part of the problem, as Moore sees it, is that companies declined to deal with the noise in their rush to get aircraft to market. “Everyone is taking the path of least resistance,” he says.
While reticent to describe Whisper’s technology, Moore said that the company is creating a new type of thruster design. This includes a novel take on propellers, motors, control systems and how all of these components fit into a vehicle’s airframe. Whisper has been running experiments with its technology on drones as part of a contract with the Air Force.
Engineers take their prototypes to the resort’s tennis and basketball courts and surround them with microphones to measure the noise signature. So far, the technology has been working with the devices’ hum blending into the surroundings. “Right now, the industry is in the propeller age,” Moore says. “We will take it into the electric jet age.”
Whisper will reveal more about its technology in the coming months, Moore says, as its patents work their way through the approval process.
The company plans to start selling its first products by 2023 and expects them to be purchased by drone makers. From there, it wants to sell the thrusters to eVTOL makers, which will be no easy feat. The companies will likely need to redesign their aircraft and possibly re-certify them with regulators because of the addition of the new technology. Whisper says the technology eventually can carry over to other industries.
Seongkyu Lee, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at University of California, Davis, is skeptical that there will be an instant breakthrough on the noise reduction front. Drones and eVTOL aircraft produce a type of higher frequency noise — known as broadband noise — that is particularly annoying to humans.
“The next steps in noise reduction will be gradual,” Lee says. “I don’t think we can get a 10 or 20 decibel reduction in one shot. But, if we want to move these things into neighborhoods, we will have to figure out how to make them quieter.”
So far, Whisper, which has 11 employees, has raised $7.5 million from investors, including Robert Downey Jr.’s FootPrint Coalition Ventures. “Creating unchecked noise pollution for the sake of electric aviation’s vital future is a problem,” Downey said in a statement. “The future needs to be as considerate as it is compelling.” Because, of course, Iron Man wants his air taxis to be quiet air taxis.
Other investors include Menlo Ventures, Lux Capital and Kindred Ventures. Shawn Carolan, a partner at Menlo Ventures, concedes that Whisper faces plenty of “hard engineering problems” ahead but believes that just about every drone and eVTOL company will flock to the company’s products if they work as billed. “Every once in a while, you see one of these things that I call technological inevitabilities,” he says. “This has the potential to change the world dramatically.”