The EVTOL Disruption Goes Viral
But is there really a market for such vehicles?
(This article is part two in a series by Richard Gardner. To read part one, please click here).
Even at the early stages of this new era of urban air mobility, there is already a scramble amongst well-known aerospace giants, as well as start-ups, to develop and evaluate the civil VTOL market.
And this all starts with air-taxi concepts.
Last month, Embraer’s new offshoot, Embraer X, became the latest aerospace company to join the new urban mobility movement with its announcement of a new electric-powered Vertical Take-Off and Landing (eVTOL) aircraft concept.
As the Embraer X’s design is still in the outline phase, the company’s announcement stands a marker that they intend to stay competitive while the many associated design challenges are identified. Those challenges represent some steep technological mountains yet to climb as they extend well beyond the development of air vehicles, which already pose difficult design issues.
For more established players in the eVTOL arena, like Airbus, the logistics of air-taxi transportation will shake out in upcoming test flights.
Airbus is well advanced in developing its CityAirbus technology demonstrator which could take to the air as early as the end of 2018 in unmanned mode. It is not intended as a product prototype, but can carry 4-6 people, or equivalent payload, and will weigh two tons, with a range of 60 kms. Power will come from eight Siemens electric motors driving eight shrouded propellers to generate thrust in level flight or VTOL mode for take-off and landing.
However, what works very well as a configuration on a small unmanned air vehicle may, or may not be, the most suitable design for a passenger carrying air-taxi.
One decisive factor is still unresolved – and likely to remain that way for some time yet, even if the disruptive concepts are sound – and that is the question of customer safety in the event of a key systems failure.
We have already seen the massive negative global publicity generated by a fatal accident involving an autonomous road vehicle and a pedestrian. If multiple deaths in the air, and perhaps also on the ground, result from incidents involving unmanned air-taxi or personal UAVs, would public pressure close down any commercial operators?
It is a fact that hundreds of people are killed every day in ordinary road accidents almost without media comment, but even if autonomous air vehicles might become the safest form of personal transport in existence, the psychological and hostile media implications from just a few such incidents could have a very severe market impact and threaten the business appeal of new ventures based on using such air vehicles.
Speaking in London, England, in May at a Royal Society lecture, Dr Demis Hassabis, a founder of DeepMind, an Artificial Intelligence (AI) company acquired recently by Google, said, “The technical question (regarding autonomous passenger-carrying vehicles) is how do you ensure mathematically, in some sense, those systems are safe and they’ll only do what you think they are going to do when they are going to be out in the wild and they are adaptable learning systems?”
He suggested that the nature of AI technology may not make it suitable for safety-critical systems.
Another challenge, an aspect of the same safety issue described above, and which is being actively addressed in aviation regulation communities, is how to share low level airspace safely to allow unmanned passenger carrying aircraft to fly, navigate and avoid other aircraft or hazards. Fully automated air traffic systems are on the way for sure, further reducing the need for pilot intervention in routine flying operations, but will the lack of a human observer, who might otherwise be on hand as an emergency pilot in the autonomous air-taxi, act as a disincentive for passengers?
Most of the technology to deliver new-age, disruptive flying machines is well within reach in the foreseeable future, and the work by Embraer, Airbus and others, underlines that this is now a serious proposition, worth considerable investment funding. But will other factors apply the brakes even before it can take-off?
The acquisition and operating costs might be driven down, as in the case of competition in the communications/media sector, but is there really a huge mass market for such disruptive air vehicles? Airbus thinks there is, with an estimated need for 30,000 in the air-taxi role initially, and sees early applications reflected in growing airline interest in innovative air shuttle transport services for premium passengers flying between airports and city centers as an alternative to slow surface transportation links.
This was supposed to be a growth area for helicopter operations ever since the 1950s, but it never developed as envisaged, due mainly to high costs, low demand and high noise pollution. Another potentially negative aspect of the lightweight air-taxi concept as an airport shuttle is the very limited provision for passenger luggage. In due course, the technology will help provide solutions, but it remains to be seen if the regulatory and other, wider social factors allow it to become the commercial success so many are hoping and planning for.