Imagine personal hover cars and other small flying transports navigating the skies just above major cities. It may sound like the backdrop for a science fiction movie or an episode of Star Trek, but as aircraft designs and technology continue to evolve, we are moving ever closer to that reality.
The fledgling Urban Air Mobility sector is advocating for the use of specialized low-altitude aircraft to move passengers and cargo across the skies over densely populated areas. This means everything from flying taxis to expanded drone parcel delivery service and even emergency medical response.
Interest in this sector has grown substantially in recent years and is continuing to expand as we all dream of a world with urban air taxis flying us smoothly over the backlog of rush hour ground traffic below while generating a smaller carbon footprint. When that dream becomes a reality, it will be thanks to eVTOL aircraft technology.
What does eVTOL stand for?
The acronym eVTOL stands for electric vertical take-off and landing. Many pilots are already familiar with VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) crafts, and the flight characteristics of eVTOL aircraft are similar. Both VTOL and eVTOL are designed to hover, takeoff, and land vertically without the need for a runway. The difference is that eVTOL craft do so using electrical propulsion much like a scaled-up version of a drone.
How does eVTOL work?
eVTOL aircraft are powered by an electric form of propulsion. Today’s prototype models typically use multiple advanced lithium-ion batteries to support short-distance flights of 50-200 miles. Battery modules are distributed into packs which run in parallel to power eVTOL aircraft.
Fast charging technology will also come into play to get aircraft back in the air quickly after each flight. For example, Lilium, one of the industry leaders, is targeting a battery system that can recharge to 80 percent in just 15 minutes and 100 percent in 30 minutes.
eVTOL craft have unique flying characteristics since they take off in helicopter mode, transition into airplane mode for flight, and then land in helicopter mode again. This allows eVTOL craft to take off and land in smaller spaces without runways.
How large is the eVTOL market?
Fortune Business Insights estimates that the global eVTOL market was $1.11 billion in 2020 and $5.41 billion in 2021. It is projected to grow to $23.21 billion by 2028, with investors eager to get in on the ground floor of the burgeoning new technology.
What companies are designing eVTOL aircraft?
The list of eVTOL companies includes dedicated eVTOL-focused businesses plus backing from some of the most well-established names in aviation and transportation. In December 2021, Reuters reported that Boeing, Embraer, Airbus, United Airlines, Toyota Motor Corporation, and Stellantis were all investing funds into eVTOL development. Many of these larger corporations are participating in the fledgling industry by financially backing the top eVTOL developers listed below.
This UK company launched its VX4 eVTOL aircraft in 2020 and has already secured more than 1,350 pre-orders. Backers include American Airlines and Honeywell International. The Vertical Aerospace VX4 has a maximum speed of 202 mph and can carry 4 passengers plus the pilot.
This California developer’s first eVTOL craft, the S4, is in the FAA certification process now and has already become the first eVTOL aircraft to receive airworthiness certification from the U.S. Air Force. The performance is rumored to be similar to the Vertical Aerospace VX4 with a top speed of around 200 mph and the capacity for 4 passengers in addition to the pilot. Joby has solid financial backing from Toyota and was the first large eVTOL developer to become a publicly traded company.
Another California-based developer, Archer is currently conducting hover tests on its Maker eVTOL craft. The Archer craft has 12 motors vs Joby’s 6, and top speeds for the Archer Maker clock in at 150 mph compared to Joby’s 200. Archer’s list of notable financial backers includes United Airlines and Stellantis NV. Like Joby, Archer has also become a publicly traded eVTOL company.
Burlington, Vermont’s Beta Technologies is hard at work conducting manned test flights of their prototype Alia eVTOL craft which is said to have a range of 250 miles. Big name investors like Fidelity Management and Amazon’s Climate Change Fund are providing financial backing for Beta which already holds pending aircraft orders from Blade (a medical mobility and organ transport company), UPS, and the U.S. Air Force.
Know someone who is looking for a creative way to cover the costs of flight training? Free flight training is one of the major perks currently offered to all Beta employees regardless of their position within the company.
This German eVTOL developer is focusing on larger passenger designs with its seven-seat Lilium jet. The eVTOL jet is expected to be capable of a 175-mph cruising speed and a max range of 155 miles. Lilium even has plans to scale up to a 16-seat regional eVTOL transport jet, though critics have expressed concern about the high-power requirements needed for the hovering portions of flight in such an aircraft.
While many eVTOL designers are setting ambitious targets for passenger capacity, range, and cruise speed, Airbus has been much more conservative with its CityAirbus NextGen design. The NextGen seats just three passengers, has a range of 50 miles, and a cruise speed of 75 mph. The goal here is for simplicity of design and efficiency of operation.
Types of eVTOL aircraft designs
Current eVTOL aircraft designs fall into three categories based on their methods of lift and thrust.
The most popular eVTOL design is the lift-thrust which uses position-changing propellers to get the aircraft into the air. Once there, fixed wings provide lift.
Lift and Cruise
Some eVTOL craft use propellers to provide lift (much like a helicopter) and a fixed motor for forward propulsion.
The multirotor eVTOL design uses multiple fixed rotors to generate both upward lift and forward thrust. The thrust is created by tilting the craft forward.
Best eVTOL aircraft
More than two hundred companies are racing to develop their versions of eVTOL aircraft, but some are further along than others. The Archer Maker, the Beta Alia, and the Joby S4 are expected to be the first aircraft to achieve FAA type certification.
Are eVTOL aircraft safe?
Safety is one of the primary concerns with powered lift eVTOL aircraft. Prior to receiving final certification, designs will go through intense scrutiny plus unmanned and manned testing.
The FAA has been working on how to address the “new and complex safety challenges” these power lift aircraft present. In early May 2022 the agency announced it will certify eVTOLs as powered-lift aircraft rather than light aircraft as it originally had indicated. Even with the shift in category, Archer, Beta, and Joby are still on track to be granted type certification of their new eVTOL designs by 2024.
Stay up to date on all the latest exciting eVTOL news and developments at evtol.com.