eVTOLs Are Ten Years Ahead of Autonomous Aircraft

May 9, 2019

Brian L. Hinman

Clover Aviation, Inc.

It’s broadly accepted the electric and autonomous technologies are revolutionizing the automotive industry. Electric vehicles, while available for over a hundred years, started to become competitive with gasoline vehicles with the introduction of the Tesla Model S in 2012. In 2019, we’re beginning to see the first autonomous vehicles appear on highways, hinting at a future without drivers. The full scope of the transformation will certainly take decades, though by 2040 we can imagine that very few people will own cars, and ride sharing services will autonomously whisk us from Point A to Point B as part of a massive new transportation network.

Electric and autonomous technologies are likewise beginning to transform the aviation industry, though shifted in time relative to the automotive industry. The first electric airplanes became available just in the last few years, and several companies are now developing eVTOLs to address the Urban Air Mobility (UAM) application. Autonomous aviation has been in the mainstream media over the last couple of years, with companies like Amazon announcing their intentions to offer drone delivery of packages in the near future. A recent Wired magazine article describing FAA approved long-range drone operations makes it seem like drone package deliveries are just around the corner.

While it’s true that the FAA has permitted “beyond visual line of sight” (BVLOS) operations by drone start-ups Matternet, Wing, and others, these approvals are explicit waivers under FAA Part 107 rules. These rules require a human pilot to see the aircraft throughout the entire flight, so as to know the drone’s location, avoiding air traffic and other hazards. An industry observer estimated that of the 1,200 BVLOS waiver applications submitted by drone operators to the FAA, 99% have failed to demonstrate an acceptable level of safety. The risk of BVLOS operations is a loss of radio contact between the aircraft and ground control, creating a situation where the runaway aircraft, forced to fly autonomously, may crash into other aircraft, buildings, or humans on the ground. Without some connection to air traffic control, an autonomous aircraft will remain a hazard, no matter how intelligent they become.

My last article discussed the need to develop a dedicated 5G network to manage air traffic control in the future. But reaching concurrence on traffic management protocols could take a decade, and conservatively, the completed infrastructure to support nationwide autonomous aircraft operations will not be in place until 2035. Without a reliable communication network and traffic management, it’s not feasible to fly autonomous aircraft over populated areas. Thus, we won’t be seeing Amazon drones delivering packages to our homes and businesses for a long time to come.

Companies developing eVTOLs are keenly aware that truly autonomous flight will be restricted to the military and niche international markets for the foreseeable future, but efforts to commercialize piloted eVTOLs are happening right now. While less apparent to those outside the industry, eVTOL companies like Joby Aviation have been in deep discussion with the FAA to apply the existing aircraft certification rules to the certification of electric VTOLs. It’s likely that both the Joby S4 and Bell Nexus will be among the first eVTOLs to be certified for flight in the US, with a timing of 2025 predicted for both. While some eVTOLs will be “autonomous ready” from the start, not unlike the Tesla cars sold today, initially they will be piloted by human beings and flown under existing air traffic control regulations. With human pilots servicing a growing air taxi market, the eVTOL manufacturers will generate billions of dollars in revenue well before autonomous flight will be approved in most developed countries around the world.

Preparing for the future wave of eVTOL air taxi service, investors have begun to line up behind new air taxi operators. Notable examples are Blade operating in New York, and Skyryse in Los Angeles. With certified eVTOLs at least five years away, initial services will be based upon mature helicopter platforms, such as the Robinson R44, with pricing set at just a small premium over Uber Black. Well before the advent of truly autonomous aircraft, we will see the first expansion of human piloted eVTOL air taxi services. That would be a welcome kickstart in this new and exciting era of Urban Air Mobility.