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eVTOL Leaders Continue Steps to Production and Certification
  • 08 Jul 2023 10:48 AM
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eVTOL Leaders Continue Steps to Production and Certification

By Dan Gettinger
Vertiflite Jul/Aug 2023

Since the last issue of Vertiflite magazine, several of the leading developers of electric VTOL (eVTOL) aircraft have revealed important milestones in their efforts to test, certify and produce the latest generation of sustainable commercial aircraft for advanced air mobility (AAM) applications. The following represents a summary of recent eVTOL news.

Archer Aviation

On May 11, Archer Aviation announced that it has completed final assembly of the first prototype for its production configuration, the Midnight. The milestone, the Santa Clara-based eVTOL developer said in a press release, allows Archer to perform critical testing to “accelerate and reduce risk on its certification program” with the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Archer expects to begin ground testing the aircraft ahead of a planned first flight this summer. In addition, the company is targeting the fourth quarter of 2023 to complete the final assembly of its initial conforming Midnight aircraft, before beginning piloted flight tests with that aircraft in early 2024.

Meanwhile, Archer has formed a government services advisory board to manage what it has called “significant interest” from the US Department of Defense (DoD). On May 10, Archer said that the potential use cases for the aircraft include rescue operations and supply chain logistics. The board includes six retired military leaders from the US Air Force, Navy and Army.

On May 25, The Air Current and Reuters broke the story that Billy Nolen, the Acting Administrator of the FAA, was in talks to join Archer. Nolen announced his planned retirement from the FAA, which remains without a Senate-confirmed leader, on April 21 (see “Washington Report,” Vertiflite, May/June 2023), and intends to leave the agency in June.

Beta Technologies

On April 5, Beta hosted First Lady Dr. Jill Biden and US Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona as a part of a four-state itinerary highlighting programs to promote workforce development. The same day, the US Department of Labor announced $80M in grant funding for technical training programs, highlighting the Biden Administration’s Investing in America agenda.

The two federal dignitaries — along with Vermont Governor Phil Scott, Vermont Congresswoman Becca Balint and Jane O’Meara Sanders, wife of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders — toured the company’s hangar and test facilities at Burlington International Airport. They also heard from two Beta interns about their experience at the company, how it has shaped their education both in and out of the classroom, and how it has influenced their career trajectory.

Biden and Cardona addressed an assembly of Beta employees and local leaders. According to VermontPublic.org, “Biden praised Beta Technologies, the Community College of Vermont and others for making it possible for high school students to explore jobs like designing airplanes and maintaining electric vehicles.”

EHang

On April 28, EHang Holdings and Monarch Airplane Manufacturing announced plans to establish a facility in the United Arab Emirates to produce EHang eVTOL aircraft for passenger transportation and cargo delivery. The facility, potentially the first of its kind in the Middle East and Africa, will be in Abu Dhabi. The two companies also intend to build a command-and-control center to manage eVTOL and urban air mobility operations and plan on cooperating on other types of infrastructure. The company tweeted that as of the end of May, “the #EH216 series #AAV had conducted over 37,000 safe test flights across 12 countries in Asia, Europe and the Americas which is among the highest flight records in the global #eVTOL industry.”

On June 5, EHang launched flight trials of its EH216-S eVTOL aircraft in Israel. The flights are part of the second phase of Israel’s National Drone Initiative, the first phase of which ran from 2019 to 2022. The second phase, which began in January and is expected to continue for two years, is the result of a collaboration between the multiple civil and military government authorities in Israel and will evaluate the operations of drones and eVTOL aircraft. Test flights of various aircraft are expected to continue each week. EHang transported two aircraft to Israel for the tests, flights of which are being carried out by Cando Drones, a local aviation company, with support from EHang experts.

The company released spectacular images on June 8 (shown), after the EH216-S completed autonomous island-hopping flights between Iheya and Noho islands. Part of Okinawa Prefecture, EHang said the flights were the seventh location it had flown in Japan. “It does not require a large landing facility like a helicopter, and it would be a revolution in air transportation,” said Takeya Hirano, General Manager of the Planning and Development Department of Japan Airport Consulting Co., Ltd. “I would like to promote the innovation of aerial tourism in the near future.” The island-hopping flights also mark the first flights after EHang was inducted as a member of Japan’s Public-Private Committee for Advanced Air Mobility in April.

Eve Air Mobility

In May, Eve shared several important updates regarding tests of its eVTOL aircraft. On May 15, Eve said that it had completed wind tunnel tests of a subscale model of its eVTOL aircraft. The tests occurred at a wind tunnel facility near Lucerne, Switzerland. In a statement, Eve, a Florida-based spin off from Brazilian aerospace firm Embraer, said that the tests contributed to efforts to acquire “experimental data to validate production solutions” and that the results will help further refine the company’s concept for an eVTOL aircraft.

On May 26, Eve said that it completed propeller tests on a propeller rig in Brazil. The tests involved multiple models of propellers, which Eve engineers evaluated for their aerodynamic performance and sound properties. Eve also revealed that it was testing vertical lift propellers using a custom truck-mounted platform. “The mobile testbed was designed specifically to evaluate the performance of rotors [vertically thrusting propellers] during the transition phase of flight,” said the company in a press release.

Eve intends to begin assembling its first full-scale eVTOL aircraft prototype in the second half of 2023. Flight tests of that aircraft are expected in 2024, with an anticipated service entry date in 2026.

Joby Aviation

On April 25, Joby Aviation announced that the US Air Force awarded it a contract for the delivery of Joby eVTOL aircraft. The contract, a $55M extension of a previously awarded contract, includes the provision of up to nine of its five-seat eVTOL aircraft, the first two of which are expected by early 2024. The contract is the latest installment in the relationship between the Air Force’s AFWERX Agility Prime program and Joby and brings the total value of Joby’s contract with the Air Force to $131M.

Joby will deliver the quiet all-electric aircraft to Edwards Air Force Base, California, where AFWERX, the Air Force’s technology accelerator, and the Air Force Test Center will continue to evaluate the aircraft for military missions. Joby had first announced in 2021 its plans to deliver these first two aircraft to the Air Force, followed by the potential for dozens more (see “Electric VTOL News: Joby Lauded and Plans to Deliver,” Vertifilte, May/June 2021).

The news came as Air Force pilots conducted remotely piloted flight tests of a Joby aircraft at the company’s Marina, California, manufacturing facility. The April 20 tests marked the first time Air Force personnel assumed remote pilot-in-command responsibilities and transition flight for the eVTOL. “This next step of getting Air Force pilots trained and operating Joby aircraft at an Air Force installation is an incredibly important milestone for the program,” said Lt. Col. Tom Meagher, the division chief for AFWERX’s Prime.

The company revealed in June that a group of US Marine pilots and logisticians visited the flight test facilities in Marina, California, to analyze the possible use of the Joby aircraft across six different logistics and personnel transport scenarios.

Meanwhile, on April 27, Joby announced that it is expanding its partnership with the Toyota Motor Corporation. Under the expanded agreement, Toyota will supply “key powertrain and actuation components” for the production of Joby aircraft, the eVTOL developer said in a statement. Toyota will deliver the components to Joby’s electronics manufacturing facility in San Carlos, California, before they are sent to Joby’s facility in Marina for integration. Toyota is among the largest shareholders of Joby Aviation; the Japanese car manufacturer has invested $400M in the company since 2017 (see “Transformative Vertical Flight 2020,” Vertiflite, March/April 2020).

On May 3, Joby released its quarterly shareholder letter. The company announced that it had a strong balance sheet with $978M in cash and short-term securities at the end of the first quarter. Outside of that, the company announced, it would generate another $180M from an additional stock offering led by Baillie Gifford, an existing, long-term Joby investor.

On May 22, the International Business Aviation Council (IBAC) congratulated Joby on becoming the first AAM company “to achieve the International Standard for Business Aircraft Operators (IS-BAO™) registration, which highlights their commitment to safety.” Joby noted that, “as part of our preparations for future airline operations, last quarter we successfully completed a voluntary IS-BAO audit… demonstrating that Joby is able to operate at the same high level of safety required for business aviation.”

In a social media post on May 10, Joby noted that, “Since we began flying full-scale aircraft in 2017, we’ve flown more than 27,000 miles of eVTOL flight — farther than an entire lap around our planet — generating a huge amount of data and insight to support our certification program.”

On June 5, the Mayor of Santa Cruz Fred Keeley, with other city and county leaders, participated in a ribbon-cutting ceremony for Joby’s new headquarters, with “more than 100 other friends, neighbors, and esteemed members of the community.” The new spaces (see photo) are the former Plantronics office in the Harvey West area of Santa Cruz, and currently host about 300 employees. Worldwide, the company now has more than 1,500 employees.

Lilium

Lilium, the Munich, Germany-based eVTOL developer, revealed on May 1 that it is seeking to raise $250M to support additional work on its seven-seat eVTOL aircraft. In a filing with the US Securities and Exchange Commission, Lilium said that it had received a $100M commitment from Aceville Pte. Ltd., an affiliate of Tencent Holdings, with an additional $75M a possibility should Lilium raise at least a matching amount by other means. The China-based Tencent Holdings has backed Lilium since at least 2017 and, in 2020, led a $240M internal funding round (see “Electric VTOL News,” Vertiflite, May/June 2020). According to Reuters, Tencent owns a 23.4% stake in Lilium.

Lilium began testing a subscale model of its Lilium Jet at a wind tunnel facility in the Netherlands, the eVTOL developer said in a May 4 press release. The 40%-scale model features working engines and flap actuators, and was designed to fit in the German-Dutch Wind Tunnels facility in Marknesse, reportedly Europe’s largest such facility. The tests will allow the company to generate data representative of the “full-scale aircraft in all phases of flight.”

On May 22, Lilium announced that Air-Dynamic SA, a Switzerland-based private aircraft charter firm, will order up to five Lilium Jets. The agreement includes deposit payments for the aircraft. Air-Dynamic owns a fleet of a dozen PC-12s and specializes in flights in Switzerland, Italy and southern France. Then, on May 24, Lilium announced that ASL Group had placed deposit payments for six of the company’s five-seat Pioneer Edition aircraft (the air taxi version has seven seats). The agreement supersedes a partnership announced between the two companies at last year’s Farnborough Airshow. The Benelux-based business jet operator will use the aircraft on routes crossing northern Europe.

Overair

In a series of posts to social media in early June, Overair said that it was advancing its aircraft development and certification efforts. In a post on June 1, Overair shared an update on its progress towards building a full-scale prototype of its Butterfly eVTOL aircraft. The company is close to finishing one of the wings of the first prototype, known as XP-1A; the Santa Ana, California-based eVTOL developer shared an image of the installation of wiring within the wing. Then, in a post on June 6, Overair said that it had met with a group of experts from the FAA to discuss efforts to “advance the G1 and G2 issue papers for Butterfly’s Certification Basis and Means of Compliance.” The accompanying photo shows Overair’s full-scale rotor system in the background, as well as its mobile truck-mounted rotor test rig.

Vertical Aerospace

In a May 3 letter to shareholders, Vertical Aerospace said that it had revised the date for which it is targeting the certification of its VX4 eVTOL aircraft. The Bristol, UK-based eVTOL developer is now aiming to certify the aircraft with the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority by the end of 2026, one year later than it had previously estimated. The delay represents the second such change for Vertical, which had initially intended to achieve certification in 2024. In the shareholder letter accompanying its financial results for the first quarter of 2023, Vertical said that the revised date was the result of a “comprehensive management review,” which included discussions with supply chain partners and regulators.

On May 22, Vertical announced that Kakao Mobility had preordered up to 50 of Vertical’s VX4 aircraft. Kakao Mobility, South Korea’s largest mobility technology company and a subsidiary of Kakao Corporation, runs a popular taxi-hailing app in South Korea, as well as a navigational app. The two companies will also establish a working group to explore the commercialization of AAM services in the country. The agreement marks an expansion of Vertical’s presence in South Korea; in May 2022, Vertical joined the UAM Team Korea public-private consortium to commercialize crewed and autonomous eVTOL services South Korea.

Volocopter

Volocopter announced on April 5 that it has completed its production facilities in the southwestern German city of Bruchsal. The German eVTOL developer held a ribbon-cutting ceremony on April 4 at a new hangar, where it said it would begin production of the first batch of its two-seat VoloCity aircraft at the facility later that month. Eventually, Volocopter intends to assemble upwards of 50 VoloCity eVTOL aircraft at the Bruchsal facility each year. “The VoloCity has completed the critical design review – and that’s the aircraft we’re ready to produce,” Chief Supply Chain Officer Andreas Fehring said in a statement.

On May 30, Volocopter finalized an agreement with Swiss Aviation Software (Swiss-AS). Under the multi-year contract, Swiss-AS will provide its AMOS maintenance, repair and overhaul software to Volocopter. According to Volocopter, the agreement marks the first of its kind for Swiss-AS, one that will help Volocopter manage its fleets of eVTOL aircraft.

Volocopter’s VoloIQ backbone will still monitor customer-facing services like the booking process, as well as aircraft location and status, and battery health. Interlinking Volocopter’s air- and ground-side operations will create a fast, transparent, and safe fleet management system to support eVTOL operations scaling, the press release stated.

Wisk Aero

On May 9, Wisk Aero announced that it has partnered with Japan Airlines (JAL) to bring eVTOL aircraft to Japan. The California-based eVTOL developer and JAL will explore the possibility of launching a fleet of Wisk’s 6th Generation eVTOL aircraft in Japan, while Wisk will work with JAL Engineering (JALEC) to develop plans for the maintenance and operation of its eVTOL aircraft. The two companies will also collaborate with the Japan Civil Aviation Bureau and other government agencies to evaluate regulatory requirements, safety measures and potential community benefits of AAM aircraft.

“In Japan, the introduction of autonomous air travel is developing, and we strongly feel that this partnership with Wisk is the first step towards the development of the next generation of safe air mobility in Japan,” said Ryo Tamura, CEO of JALEC, in a statement.

Meanwhile, The Boeing Company has assumed full control of the eVTOL developer, said Wisk CEO Brian Yuko in a media briefing in South Carolina on May 31. Boeing, which formed Wisk as a joint venture with Kitty Hawk in 2019 and invested $450M in the company in 2022, is now the sole owner of the eVTOL developer after Kitty Hawk announced in September 2022 that it would cease operations (see “Wisk 6th Gen Breaks Cover,” Vertiflite, Nov/Dec 2022). According to FlightGlobal, Boeing purchased Kitty Hawk’s shares of Wisk, though the terms of the transaction have not been disclosed.

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