The future of VTOL for short legs is electric.
By Owen Davies
It has been a while since we surveyed the frenetic world of electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft. (See Professional Pilot, Mar 2022, p 22).
The field has evolved since then. In January, the Vertical Flight Society’s publication Electric VTOL News tallied some 950 designs under development by more than 400 companies. Six months earlier, the count was 800.
Investors are taking note. At the 2023 Paris Air Show, consulting firm McKinsey & Company reported that eVTOL companies had received $4.8 billion in disclosed funding in the first 6 months of the year, and nearly $20 billion in the previous decade. Five eVTOL makers are even listed on the New York Stock Exchange, 4 on the NASDAQ.
For decades, much of the progress in rotorcraft has been funded by the US military. In May 2020, the Air Force’s AVWERKS, an in-house equivalent of DARPA, allocated $25 million to support development of eVTOL aircraft.
The program, a typical competition for contracts, is called Agility Prime. It began with 27 entrants. At the end of 2023, 4 had received military flight certification – a clear route to FAA certification – and further support.
Joby Aviation. The S4 eVTOL hexacopter is a “lift + cruise” design with 4 electric rotors on its wing and 2 on a V-tail. They rotate up for lift and forward for cruise flight.
The S4 can move a pilot and 4 passengers up to 150 nm at a top speed of 170 kt. The US Air Force received its first S4 in September 2023. That delivery was 6 months ahead of schedule. Under $131 million in contracts, Joby will deliver up to 9 multicopters to the USAF and other federal agencies. The second example is due early this year.
In November 2023, the S4 was about 2/3 of the way through Part 135 certification. Joby hopes to begin commercial passenger service in 2025.
Beta Technologies. The ALIA-250, another lift + cruise aircraft, has a pusher motor, V-tail, and 4 rotors on booms extending fore and aft from 50-ft wings. It can carry 5 passengers or 1000 lb of cargo at cruise speeds around 100 kt. Its official range is 175 nm, but it once flew 292 nm.
However, the first aircraft delivered to EGI (Eglin AFB, Crestview FL) was the rotorless CX300, dubbed an eCTOL, for “electric conventional takeoff and landing.” An ALIA aircraft delivered in October 2023 also flew from runways. The aircraft has not yet transitioned from vertical to horizontal flight.
The trip from PBG (Plattsburgh NY) to EGI covered 1400 miles. En route, the aircraft recharged at 13 Beta network charging stations.
A 14th was installed at EGI, and the company plans to have nearly 150 online by 2025. In January 2024, Atlantic Aviation agreed to install Beta charging stations at its 102 FBO locations.
Beta hopes to certify the CX300 in 2025 and the ALIA-250 in 2026. It has orders for 70 ALIA-250s, with 280 more reserved.
Lift Aircraft. Hexa is a single-seat multicopter with 18 rotors on an overhead framework, a motor below each rotor and, uniquely, a swappable battery beneath each motor. Its chunky landing gear can serve as floats in a water landing. And a 5th float is mounted under the cabin.
By mid-2023, some 15,000 people had given Lift deposits, but they can’t buy a Hexa. Lift intends it to be company-owned and flown only by amusement-seekers from Lift vertiports. The first opened late last year in Austin TX. Beginners are limited to altitudes no more than 40 ft, speeds of 15 mph, and a geofenced flight area.
Lift Founder & CEO Matt Chasen speculates that the military could use a cargo version to move supplies and ammunition up to 15 miles, or employ it for emergency response and quiet extraction of special ops forces.
Airev. This Israeli startup has a base in Fort Worth TX. Its Air One is a 2-place winged multicopter. It sports twin tails and 4 pairs of contrarotating props on booms extending from the fuselage. It has a 550-lb payload capacity, a top speed of 155 mph, and a 1-hr max flight time. It also has, the company points out, only 8 moving parts – the motors themselves.
CEO Rani Plaut envisions the Air One moving 500 lb of supplies to the front lines – a job that would otherwise require a Humvee and a helicopter for security. He hopes the company will be able to certify the Air One under FAA’s proposed MOSAIC rule for light sport aircraft in time to begin customer deliveries in the US by early 2025.
At the end of 2023, Airev had more than 800 pre-orders and a waiting list. Plaut estimates that 10,000–15,000 people will want to buy recreational eVTOLs regardless of price in the first year that they can.
Archer Aviation. The Midnight air taxi is a lift + cruise multicopter with the usual V-tail and 6 pairs of motors on booms extending from a wing. The front motors tilt up for takeoff and forward at cruise. Aft motors are fixed vertically.
With a payload of over 1000 lb, it can carry the pilot and 4 passengers at speeds up to 130 kt. Range is 87 nm, but the craft is optimized for flights of 17–45 nm. Archer hopes to certify the aircraft this year and begin service in 2025. It has orders for 300 aircraft and tentative orders or options for 200 more.
AutoFlight is a Chinese startup with a subsidiary in Germany. It is developing a lift + cruise aircraft for a pilot and 3 passengers. Called Prosperity I, it has 2 long booms mounted on the wing, joined by a canard. Six lift rotors are located on the booms – 2 at the front, 2 forward of the wing, and 2 behind it – with vertical fins and pusher props at the rear.
The aircraft can fly 135 nm at 108 kt. Entry into service is not expected until 2027, but the company already has orders for 205 aircraft.
EHang. China’s FAA-equivalent gave the EH216-S autonomous 2-pax air taxi its type certificate in October. The first “commercial” passengers flew for free in Hefei and Guangzhou a week later. Certification carried flight limits – no flights in dense cities, beyond sight of ground observers, or at high altitude. This effectively limit it to rural sight-seeing. With a 19-nm range at 54 kt and a 2-hr recharge, its utility seems limited. List price is only $330,300 at current exchange rates.
Eve Air Mobility is a subsidiary of Embraer. It already has 3000 orders for its unnamed lift + cruise air taxi. The aircraft mounts 8 rotors on 4 booms extending from the wing. At the rear, the inner booms are joined by a horizontal stabilizer beneath outward-canted fins. Behind them is a 6-bladed pusher prop. So far, the 6-passenger (4 with pilot) octocopter exists only as a scale model used in wind-tunnel tests last year. However, flight tests with a full-scale prototype are expected this year. Type certification is anticipated in 2026.
Lilium Jet, well known to Pro Pilot readers, is on track to receive certification in both Europe and the US. Last December, the company’s final-assembly facility in Wessling, Germany, received its first full-size fuselage for mating with the wings and canard. It was the first of 7 Lilium Jets to be completed for certification testing. At the end of 2023, the company had received firm orders and MOUs for up to 745 of the aircraft, which are priced at $7–10 million. Some professional pilots are likely to fly this one.
Vertical Aerospace has tested vertical flight in the VX4 lift + cruise octocopter, but not yet horizontal flight. A second prototype is due to fly this year. The design is familiar – 8 rotors on booms fore and aft of the wing, and a V-tail. For cruise, the front rotors will fold down as tractor propellers. Designed for a pilot and 4 passengers plus baggage, the VX4 will cruise at up to 130 kt with a range of 88 nm. UK certification is expected in 2026.
Volocopter manufactures the VoloCity air taxi, with 18 rotors on an overhead framework. It can carry a pilot and 1 passenger. Autonomous operation is planned. Its range is 19 nm at speeds up to 60 kt. Its batteries can be swapped for fresh ones in 5 minutes. Even before receiving certification, the VoloCity has permits to fly in Dubai, Helsinki, Hamburg, and Singapore. Volocopter is building its first vertiport in Paris, where it hopes to begin service this year.
The long-distance VoloRegion will carry 4 passengers up to 54 nm at speeds up to 135 kt. It has 2 wings – one is an inverted gull design, joined by booms that carry 6 rotors. Propulsion is by 2 ducted fans. The craft first flew in 2022. Certification is expected in 2026, with service beginning that year.
XPeng AeroHT says it will offer the Voyager X2 flying car for sale this year. With 4 pairs of rotors on folding booms that extend from the fuselage, it will carry 2 passengers and luggage about 40 nm at 70 kt. It lacks wheels, but is the size of a car. Small dollies will get it into a garage and out of the weather. Serial production is due in 2024, but the Voyager X2 has yet to receive certification, even in China.
Investment banking company Morgan Stanley estimates that the eVTOL market will be worth $1 trillion in 2040. It is not clear who will capture substantial pieces of that pie. It’s also unclear who will hang on to them.
Models from well-funded companies with flying prototypes seem most likely to reach service in the near future. Obvious candidates include Archer Aviation, Beta Technologies, Joby, and Volocopter.
For the longer term, some much heavier hitters intend to enter the market. None have released much information about their plans.
This January, Supernal – a division of Hyundai Motor Group – unveiled the S-A2 – a typical lift + cruise design intended to carry a pilot and 4 passengers at around 110 kt for distances of 22 to 35 nm.
Honda is working on a winged octocopter with 2 pusher props. Two models are planned – 1 with battery power and a range of 54 nm, the other a gas turbine hybrid with a range of about 216 nm.
Suzuki and Japanese aircraft maker SkyDrive have agreed to manufacture a 3-seat lift + cruise air taxi. The project was announced only in June 2023, and yet they hoped to have their craft in production this spring.
In 2020, Bell showed off a concept design for the Nexus 4EX – a pilot-plus-4-pax eVTOL powered by 4 ducted fans. The project was taken over by Textron eAviation, which began wind-tunnel testing a highly modified design in July 2023.
With the exception of Suzuki and SkyDrive, none of these companies has announced a target service date. Yet it is clear that today’s eVTOL manufacturers need to establish their markets fast.
With competitors like these entering the field, their head starts might not mean much.