Remember life before Uber? Getting a ride from a taxi by sticking your arm out from a street corner seems almost quaint now. The same is true of delivery. While FedEx continues to drop off catalogs, the Amazon-led explosion of in-home delivery of everything you want off the internet has placed us on the precipice of a wild new revolution in getting stuff from point A to point B.
This revolution will happen above the road, and its linchpin will be shared by Uber, Amazon, and more. It’s time to meet the eVTOL aircraft.
The background — eVTOL (pronounced eee-vee-toll) is short for electric vertical takeoff and landing, and it’s not an entirely new concept.
Some might call eVTOL aircraft “flying cars,” but they’re more accurately called electric helicopters. A regular helicopter is a VTOL (as in it takes off up-and-down vertically, rather than rolling down a runway like an airplane), and if you make it electric, then it’s an eVTOL.
Basically, every modern consumer drone from DJI or Skydio is a miniature eVTOL. Those small drones are good at carrying small cargo like cameras or vaccines, but now eVTOLs are getting bigger. Much bigger.
What’s new — As startups and established aerospace firms scramble to develop their own aircraft, most eVTOL news these days is focused on fundraising and new partnerships. The technology around eVTOL has been developing almost as quickly as the tech underlying consumer drones — and the money is flowing.
For example, earlier this year, eVTOL maker Joby Aviation raised $1.6 billion via a SPAC merger, bringing in new money from Uber, BlackRock, and Fidelity. Joby also has a strategic partnership with Toyota and a recent acquisition of Uber Elevate, Uber’s nascent eVTOL division, under its belt.
This April, UPS announced plans to buy eVTOL aircraft from Beta Technologies to “more quickly and sustainably transport time-sensitive deliveries.”
Meanwhile, German eVTOL firm Volocopter recently brought former Daimler head Dr. Dieter Zetsche on as an advisor and counts Daimler, Intel, Continental, and Geely as investors. It’s raised more than €322 million to develop passenger and cargo craft. It’s also working with Singapore to launch electric air-taxi services within the city-state.
In short, cash is being exchanged and partnership deals are being signed at a prodigious pace.
And just about every major aerospace company has eVTOL plays. This includes but isn’t limited to:
- Airbus: It has its CityAirbus technology demonstrator that first flew in May 2019, and a single-seat autonomous flying craft called the Vahana.
- Boeing: It has an autonomous eVTOL joint venture called Wisk.
- Bell Helicopter: It has a passenger eVTOL called Nexus.
What does eVTOL stand for?
eVTOL is short for electric vertical takeoff and landing. VTOL is a standard term to describe helicopters and tilt-rotor aircraft (like the V-22 Osprey) that land and take off vertically instead of rolling down a runway.
The “e” means the craft is powered by electricity instead of more traditional internal combustion engines. It’s like the difference between a standard car and an electric vehicle like a Tesla.
What is a VTOL?
VTOL is a catch-all term to describe aircraft that take off vertically instead of by rolling down a runway. It even encompasses wacky craft like the thrust-vectoring Harrier jump jet or the F-35B — though both of those are typically operated as STOVL craft (short take-off vertical landing) because they can’t carry much in the way of armaments when taking off straight up, which isn't very useful for a fighter jet.
What’s the difference between a VTOL and a helicopter?
A helicopter is a type of VTOL that typically generates lift and forward thrust with rotating blades above the aircraft.
Other types of VTOL include the tiltrotor design used by the V-22 Osprey and lots of eVTOL crafts. In this case, a vertically-oriented rotor gets the craft airborne (like a helicopter), but then the rotors tilt forward to help the aircraft operate more like a regular airplane. The wings generate more lift instead of the rotors doing it solo.
How does eVTOL work?
Thanks to recent advances in materials science, electric motor, and battery technology, electric aircraft are more viable than ever. By combining several electric motors with propellers and large onboard batteries, electric aircraft can safely transport passengers and cargo as far as 150 to 250 miles on a charge, depending on the aircraft and payload requirements.
There are three different methods that eVTOLs operate.
- There’s the tilt-thrust method that the V-22 Osprey and Joby Aviation craft use. In this case, the propellers can change position from providing all the lift necessary to get the aircraft aloft to a forward-facing position. This generates propulsion, while more traditional wings provide lift.
- Then there’s a lift and cruise version where several props provide lift like a helicopter, while a second fixed motor provides forward propulsion.
- Finally, there’s the multirotor system that works like the DJI drones that you might fly around your neighborhood, with multiple fixed rotors providing both upward lift and forward thrust by tilting the vehicle forward.
All the methods have their pluses and minuses, but tilt-thrust is the more popular option by eVTOL firms developing vehicles for moving passengers and cargo over long distances. Tilt-thrust promises longer range and higher payloads than other designs, with tradeoffs mostly relating to engineering complexity that appear to be solvable thanks to recent advancements in electric motor design.
“Tilt-thrust, whether it be through a full rotation of the engine, or just the hub and blades, is incorporated for a few simple reasons,” Guidehouse Insights senior research analyst Christian Albertson tells Inverse. “By rotating the thrust forward, or disengaging vertical thrust and engaging forward thrust through additional engines not only increases the speed of the aircraft but the range as well.”
“If you look at the designs of this type of aircraft, they have wings, and fly like a standard aircraft in forward flight, allowing the increase in speed. This also allows for the increase in range as it takes less power to keep an aircraft in forward flight versus a hover or forward flight in an extended helicopter type configuration,” Albertson says.
What companies are working on eVTOL?
Both traditional aerospace companies and new startups are working on eVTOL aircraft for a wide variety of applications. There are too many to list here, but some of the larger firms include:
- Joby Aviation has raised more than $1 billion and is publicly traded on the NYSE. It has more than 1,000 successful test flights, a strategic partnership with Toyota, and is developing a commercial air taxi network for launch in the US in 2024 before expanding globally.
- Lilium is working on a 7-seater craft with 36 ducted fans on tilting banks and a 14-location air-taxi service beginning service in Florida in 2024.
- Beta Technologies has inked a deal with Uber-For-Helicopters startup Blade to provide 20 aircraft, as well as a deal to sell aircraft to UPS for cargo delivery, with the first units arriving in 2024.
- Airbus, the giant European aircraft manufacturer, is working on a wide variety of eVTOL projects.
- Wisk Aero, a joint venture between The Boeing Company and Kitty Hawk Corporation.
- Bell Helicopter, a leading helicopter manufacturer.
- Volocopter, a startup with big names (former Daimler CEO Dr. Dieter Zetsche is a board member) and big-name investors including Daimler, Continental, and Intel’s VC arm.
- EHang, a Chinese startup.
- Jaunt Air Mobility uses a more traditional helicopter-type rotor with additional forward-facing rotors for propulsion.
What uses does an eVTOL aircraft have?
If you think of the eVTOL as a (greener) flying helicopter, the uses are similar — though the hope is that flying them will be significantly cheaper than current-day choppers.
They could be used to move passengers and cargo around and between cities; by police, fire, and EMS first responders; or a wide range of military and scientific applications.
Basically, if you need to put someone or something in the air, the eVTOL could do it.
When will I be able to fly in one?
There are still many moving parts (pun intended) to the eVTOL equation, but the biggest obstacles are regulatory. To get approval for commercial passenger travel, aircraft manufacturers need to prove to government agencies like the Federal Aviation Administration that their aircraft are incredibly safe.
For new aircraft like eVTOLs, this process will likely take many years. That said, several eVTOL firms, including Joby Aviation, believe they can begin commercial passenger travel as soon as 2024.
How far and how fast can an e-VTOL go?
They’re all a little different, but Joby Aviation’s craft is fairly representative of a tilt-thrust eVTOL. The company says its five-seat craft will have a maximum range of more than 150 miles and a top cruising speed of 200 miles per hour.
It has a 38-foot wingspan, is 21-feet long, and can operate at up to 15,000 feet above sea level. It sports six tiltable electric motor units that make just 65 dBA of noise at a distance of 100 meters while hovering. It has a gross weight rating of 4,800 pounds.
The company says its aircraft could take passengers from LAX to Newport Beach in Orange County, a drive of some 44 miles, in just 15 minutes. A 20-mile commute from Plano, TX to downtown Dallas could be made in under 10 minutes.