It’s an ordinary afternoon in Manhattan and you have to catch a plane at Kennedy International Airport. Instead of enduring two hours of rush hour traffic, you move to a nearby parking lot; There, you board an electric aircraft that takes off in a vertical line from the roof of the building and leaves you 20 minutes later at Kennedy Airport, almost the same cost as a shared luxury trip. You take your flight on time.
Although this hypothetical situation may sound exaggerated, several companies claim to be on the verge of being able to offer a safe, cheap and clean option of transport in electric aircraft that allows passengers to travel distances of between 3 and 240 kilometers without the need for a conventional runway . Experts from both the public and private sectors are convinced that the technology could create a mass market that helps reduce congestion and change the way people move in major metropolitan areas.
Although urban air travel would not be available to most customers for the time being (imagine an “Uber Copter”), advances in battery technology have lowered the cost of developing electrically powered aircraft that are viable for the economy. urban passenger transport. These companies, which have bet on being able to offer urban and regional electric air transport to the masses, are developing new aircraft to compete for a part of this new market in the coming years.
“We want to create something that is available to many people, that can function like a high-speed train, but without the need for the infrastructure,” said Daniel Wiegand, CEO and founder of Lilium, with offices in Germany. “We will not be able to offer the same price as a high-speed train in Germany from day one, but if we do not succeed in 15 years, I would consider our mission failed.”
The manufacturers claim that these electric aircraft have many advantages compared to conventional ones, especially helicopters, which are expensive to maintain and operate, noisy and have associated safety risks, as evidenced by the accident that killed Kobe Bryant and eight other passengers.
The new electric aircraft uses a fifth of the energy required by conventional helicopters. Unlike traditional fixed-wing aircraft, they do not require runways or landing strips. Unlike helicopters, the noise they generate will hardly be perceptible from the mainland, and they will have multiple rotors and backup systems, making them much safer.
Adam Goldstein, joint CEO of Archer Aviation, said his company expects to offer rates of between $ 2 and $ 3 per kilometer traveled. At those prices, the trip from Manhattan to Kennedy Airport, a 27-kilometer trip, would cost between $ 50 and $ 80. Several experts predicted that the price of regional flights will be roughly equal to that of Uber Black luxury car service.
“The most expensive thing is the batteries,” Goldstein explained, which are “expensive, but they get cheaper every day” (he did not want to be more specific about the suppliers or the costs of the batteries).
The most established companies in this space, such as Joby Aviation and Volocopter, promise to have aircraft in service by 2024, an ambitious goal that will largely depend on obtaining clearance from regulators.
The largest investment area is electric vertical take-off and landing vehicles, such as helicopters or Harrier jets. Known as Electric Vertical Take-Off and Landing Vehicles, or eVTOLs, these aircraft typically have the capacity to carry between two and ten passengers over distances of up to 200 miles, making them ideal for traversing an area. metropolitan or connect two cities.
Wiegand, from Lilium, got his headlight on in 2014 when he saw a video of a military aircraft taking off in a vertical direction; It occurred to him that an electric version could solve all the traditional problems of using aircraft in high-density urban areas by eliminating noise, air pollution and the need for runways. Wiegand, who was still studying at the Technical University of Munich at the time, assembled a team and began work to develop the engine that today powers his company’s seven-seat electric jet.
He believes that his company’s jet technology scales better than other propeller-based designs, and insisted that as capacity increases, costs will be reduced to an affordable level for middle-class customers.
Another company that follows a different approach is Volocopter, founded in 2011 and with offices in Munich; at this time it has two vehicles in advanced development. One of them is the so-called “multicopter”, a helicopter with 18 rotor blades called the VoloCity. The two-seat aircraft has a range of 35 kilometers and, according to Florian Reuter, its executive director, thanks to this feature it is easier to certify than other electric aircraft with a longer range, as well as making it ideal for urban routes, in which the great most trips are between 16 and 32 kilometers. Volocopter is also developing a four-seat aircraft with a range of 160 kilometers more focused on regional travel.
“We are one of the few companies that recognize that there are different missions, so different types of vehicle are required for each of them,” emphasized Reuter.
Volocopter is in the process of obtaining authorization from the European Aviation Safety Agency and expects to have its aircraft in operation by 2024.
Joby, whose headquarters are in Santa Cruz, California, has a similar goal that he aims to achieve with another approach. Its all-electric aircraft, which has seating for four passengers in addition to the pilot and a range of 240 kilometers on a single charge, has performed more than a thousand test flights. The company’s name made headlines last December, when ride-sharing giant Uber handed Joby its urban-area ride-sharing product, Elevate, and invested an additional $ 75 million in the company, which It seemed to indicate that the two services will be fully connected.
Cities are preparing to include electric aircraft in their already burdened transportation systems. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti established Urban Movement Labs in 2019; The organization is currently concentrating on preparations for certification of electric aircraft for public use by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which could occur very soon, in 2025.
Although the FAA did not accept several requests for an interview, it did comment that it evaluates electric aircraft on an individual basis.
Sam Morrissey, CEO of Urban Movement Labs, clarified that the aircraft will most likely only initially be used at commercial airports and existing flight routes, as officials determine how it will be possible to add the new takeoff locations and landing without causing interruptions in other modes of transportation (Joby and Archer have already started the certification process in accordance with the existing standards applicable to fixed-wing aircraft).
“The challenge, if they are going to come, is to get everything ready so that not only the rich can take advantage of them,” Morrissey said.