A Spotlight on Today’s Leading eVTOL Programs

Which eVTOL programs are making the most promising steps forward, where does the possible cross-over lay with Business Aviation, and what challenges do the leading developers still need to overcome to reach the market? Gerrard Cowan reviews...

Gerrard Cowan  |  30th April 2024
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    Gerrard Cowan
    Gerrard Cowan

    Gerrard Cowan is a freelance journalist who focuses on aerospace and finance. In addition to his regular...

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    CityAirbus NextGen

    Electric Vertical Take-Off and Landing (eVTOL) aircraft are a growing focus in the aviation sector, providing a quiet and environmentally friendly transportation option for urban environments. And with many providers focused on the potential for passenger transportation, there are likely to be opportunities in business travel.

    There are currently a range of projects underway from industry newcomers and long-established aerospace giants alike.

    Textron eAviation: Nexus

    Prominent within the eVTOL scene is Textron eAviation, which has been involved with a range of different eVTOL projects, according to Tony LaCorte, Director of External Affairs for the company.

    LaCorte points to the Nexus eVTOL, which transferred from Bell to Textron eAviation in late 2021, “enabling the Nexus team to strategically leverage both airplane and rotorcraft engineering expertise from across the Textron enterprise”.

    At the time of writing, the Nexus had recently undergone wind tunnel testing on a 23% scale model.

    Work was underway to build the first flying Nexus demonstrator at the Textron eAviation facilities in Wichita, Kansas, with a first flight of this prototype being targeted within the next couple of years. 

    Textron eAviation is also home to the Pipistrel Nuuva hybrid eVTOL, a long-range, large-capacity, heavyweight autonomous aircraft – although this is aimed more at logistics and offshore operations than passenger transportation.

    How could such aircraft impact the world of Business Aviation? LaCorte says the Nexus is intended to be a multipurpose eVTOL, optimized for passenger aircraft but adaptable for cargo, air taxi and Emergency Medical Services (EMS) use.

    “Its versatility and ability to carry up to four passengers make it a potential asset for executives and professionals seeking efficient and flexible transportation solutions as technologies evolve to provide greater range and payloads,” LaCorte says.

    However, Textron eAviation doesn’t believe the Nexus will displace Business Aviation. Rather, LaCorte believes such aircraft are market expansion opportunities.

    “The goal of the Nexus program is to offer a solution designed with the customer use case in mind – eVTOL aircraft can work particularly well in urban environments due to noise restrictions, and we see it fitting alongside other aircraft types, including business jets and helicopters.”

    Lilium: Lilium Jet

    Also trailblazing the eVTOL scene, currently, is Lilium – developer of the Lilium Jet which will operate in both four-and six-seat configurations. The aircraft is expected to have an initial operating range of 175km at the time of its entry into service, which is expected in 2026.

    According to a company spokesperson, the Lilium Jet began production in December 2023, which closely followed another significant milestone in late November 2023 when Lilium received Design Organization Approval from its primary regulatory authority, EASA.

    Lilium is the first company qualified to hold a full Type Certificate for aircraft certified under EASA’s SC-VTOL rules, the spokesperson highlights.

    A range of new collaborations and partnerships have been formed over the past year, with such suppliers and dealers as EMCJet in the US and ArcosJet in the Middle East. And Lilium also announced a strategic collaboration with airport operator Fraport to explore the development of a commercial eVTOL network, signed an MoU with the Lufthansa Group to explore eVTOL aircraft operation in Europe, and signed an MoU with PhilJets to bring the aircraft to the Philippines.

    “We plan to continue strengthening our arsenal of partners and dealers in strategic markets such as the US, Asia and the Middle East, laying the groundwork for the commercialization of the Lilium Jet,” the spokesperson says.

    The Lilium Jet is well-situated to serve the premium segment, they add, due to its spacious cabin. In fact, the company has already received “overwhelming interest from the private and business professional segments eager to own our aircraft and to participate in the advancement of sustainable aviation”.

    Lilium hopes its partnership with PhilJets will bring eVTOLs to the Philippines to facilitate premium travel across its thousands of islands, and ArcosJet has purchased 10 Lilium Jets that will be available for customers across the Middle East.

    Such aircraft will make zero-operating emission, high-speed regional air mobility a reality, the spokesperson says, adding there are plans to take this further in the future.

    “Our long-term vision is to enable a portfolio of electric aircraft, which could include larger regional electric aircraft with runway take-off and landing capability, replacing highly carbon-intense short-haul flights.”

    Airbus: CityAirbus NextGen

    Airbus began assembling its CityAirbus NextGen platform in Donauwörth, Germany in 2023, wrapping up the year by performing the ‘power-on’, says Balkiz Sarihan, Head of Urban Air Mobility (UAM) at Airbus.

    “We are now preparing the next phase of CityAirbus NextGen for which we will make full use of our brand new AAM-dedicated test center, which we finished construction on last year at the site in Donauwörth,” she adds. “We will enter flight testing with CityAirbus NextGen this year.”

    Sarihan says Airbus has set up an Air Mobility Initiative in Germany that gathers more than 30 industrial and institutional partners together to look at advanced air mobility through aircraft, airspace management and infrastructure lenses. It has developed a similar ecosystem in Italy, she adds.

    The company has identified three initial feeder markets for the platform: Emergency Medical Services, eco-tourism and ‘connecting communities’ – i.e., scheduled passenger travel on predefined routes, which could include Business Aviation use.

    “There are different potential models depending on the region and the mission,” Sarihan continues. “It could be typical helicopter operators or airlines and other private organizations. If AAM can add value and there is a business case, there will certainly be an operator.” 

    Volocopter: VoloCity

    Volocopter will launch its VoloCity commercial air taxi services in Europe this year, according to a Volocopter spokesperson, with plans to initially operate in Paris and Rome. VoloCity is designed to transport one pilot and one passenger. In the future, the company aims to make its family of aircraft fully autonomous.

    “We have focused on certifying our VoloCity aircraft and are now close to completing the last steps of our certification plan with EASA,” the spokesperson explains.

    Other recent highlights for Volocopter include partnership agreements with various investors and collaborators, such as Bristow Group to bring UAM services to the US and UK. In addition, the company is developing VoloIQ, a cloud-based platform that will support eVTOL operations, including those of Volocopter’s rivals.

    According to Volocopter’s spokesperson, the air taxis could be used by business travellers who are, for example, travelling from an airport to a city center. “eVTOL aircraft will show their potential to transform aviation, including the Business Aviation segment, into a more sustainable and cost-effective industry,” they explain.

    “While Volocopter is not targeting the Business Aviation sector, from a general perspective we can say the operational structure of eVTOLs is flexible.”

    Joby Aviation Prototype

    Joby Aviation took a major step towards scaled production with the rollout and subsequent flight of its first production prototype aircraft in 2023, the company says.

    “While we have been flying full size aircraft since 2017 — and have now flown more than 30,000 miles with pre-production prototypes — this aircraft has been manufactured in accordance with a released design and built according to a complete implementation of a quality management system,” a spokesperson for the company highlights, adding that this marks an important step on the path to achieving the FAA Type Certification required to begin commercial passenger operations.

    The company announced in February 2024 that the FAA has accepted Joby’s certification plan for its propulsion system, with only one certification document still currently under review.

    Joby is now moving to the fourth of five phases of the Type Certification process, comprising detailed testing and analysis across the aircraft’s components and systems.

    Additionally, the company is working with the US Air Force through its Agility Prime program and has announced plans to build a scaled aircraft production facility in Dayton, Ohio. Other recent highlights include a deal with Dubai’s Road and Transport Authority (RTA) to launch air taxi services in the United Arab Emirates by early 2025.

    The company believes eVTOLs will be complementary to traditional business aircraft, the spokesperson qualifies. “Just like we envision an airline passenger arriving at JFK Airport in an eVTOL, we can imagine a Business Aviation passenger arriving [beside] their Gulfstream G650 at Van Nuys Airport in an eVTOL.”

    Eve Prototype eVTOL

    Eve Air Mobility – a new independent company founded by Embraer – has an order book of 2,850 eVTOLs according to a spokesperson for the company. Indeed, Eve began production of its first full-scale prototype in 2023, with a test campaign scheduled to begin in 2024. Meanwhile, live trials of its Urban ATM software were recently completed in the UK.

    Eve’s aircraft can be configured to hold four passengers, or six in autonomous configurations, with a range of 100km. “We don’t see eVTOLs as a replacement for traditional aircraft, but as a way to complement and offer a sustainable mode of transport in major cities around the world,” the spokesperson explains.

    “For Eve, our aircraft will...fly at around 100kts. More than 99% of the missions within urban settings can be accomplished by our aircraft. If you look at the entire passenger journey, there is a role for eVTOLs to play in virtually every mode of transport.”

    Challenges Lay Ahead for eVTOLs to Reach Potential

    The industry experts cite a range of challenges to overcome before the eVTOL sector can reach its full potential. For example, the Eve spokesperson notes that in a brand-new area of aviation, there will need to be development in rules and regulations to support the sustainability and scaling of UAM.

    “Eve is encouraging local governments to start planning now and to look at regulation and policies that will support the identification of land to support future vertiports, a key enabler of eVTOL flights to take off and land.”

    The company is also promoting the idea of public/private partnerships to identify funding to support the initial launch and future scalability of eVTOL flights.

    As an OEM and as an industry more widely, “we need to engage with communities to not only educate them about the benefits of UAM, but to also listen to their needs so that we can build the ecosystem collaboratively,” the spokesperson concludes.

    LaCorte points to several challenges associated with delivering realistic, functioning eVTOL programs. Government departments and regulatory authorities need to navigate new technologies and their proposed operations to provide timely but effective pathways to certification, for instance.

    LaCorte also highlights the need for infrastructure development. “There has been no comprehensive re- design of the transportation infrastructure over the past decades – rather, what has already existed has been adapted as transport has evolved.

    “To meet the needs of the new technologies within transportation that are coming online in the next few years, we must have a thorough rethink of the supporting infrastructure. Governments need to take a holistic view and countries, agencies and departments need to work together to produce what is required. “Otherwise, the ‘third age’ will stall before it even takes off,” he warns.

    Additionally, regulators must consider reshaping airspace rules to allow for continued integration of new AAM entrants and their associated systems, and the aviation industry must invest in new technologies and procedures to ensure the relevance of air traffic control in the twenty-first century, LaCorte adds.

    Sarihan says there is a need to build up trust in AAM across society and ensure that eVTOL operations are well received by the public. She says that helicopters will remain essential for a collection of missions that aren’t capable of being served by eVTOLs, in terms of power, versatility, range or payload.

    “This is why we consider eVTOLs a very complementary technology, in particular to operate in urban environments,” she concludes.

    More information from:
    Airbus: www.airbus.com
    Eve Air Mobility: https://eveairmobility.com/
    Joby Aviation: www.jobyaviation.com
    Lilium: https://lilium.com/
    Textron eAviation: www.textron.com
    Volocopter: www.volocopter.com

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