Are electric air taxis and commuter planes really getting closer? | FT Rethink
Last year investors poured around $5bn into companies seeking to get manned electric VTOLs - vertical take-off and landing craft - airborne. The technology is improving, but as the FT’s Charlotte Middlehurst reports, there are still major hurdles to overcome
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Wednesday morning at Damyns Hall Airfield in Essex and it's time to go flying. Oh my goodness. And we're airborne. It feels so light.
It might not look particularly special, but this Pipistrel Velis Electro is the world's first fully-certified electric plane.
Would you like a go?
I would like a go. I thought you'd never ask. Moving it for...
The Pipistrel has a cruising speed of around 100 miles per hour and can only stay airborne for about 50 minutes. But in an industry seeking to lower its emissions, there are more dynamic forms of electric aviation out there. Last year, Rolls-Royce unveiled the Spirit of Innovation. With a range of around 100 nautical miles and top speed of more than 340 miles per hour, it's the fastest all-electric vehicle in existence. I've come to Derby to find out more.
So we have three electric motors that are giving us our 500 horsepower, that push the aircraft through the sky to reach those fantastic speeds. But they only take up about this much space, so pretty much everything from here backwards, to almost where the pilot's feet are, is our large battery.
And therein lies one of the great challenges of all-electric aviation.
We're not going to go see a situation where we're all going to be sitting on aircraft we're used to going on holiday on in an all-electric, battery-powered aircraft. You just can't get the energy density in the cells to enable that to happen. But what this does unlock is the ability for us to travel in small aircraft, sort of 9 to 19-seat, what we call commuter aircraft.
In fact, Israeli company Eviation says that this summer it's aiming to carry out test flights of a battery-powered commuter plane able to carry up to nine passengers around 400 nautical miles, although it should always be remembered that this industry is not short of lofty claims. Back in the UK, the government is helping projects like the Spirit of Innovation through the Aerospace Technology Institute, which has been given $685mn pounds to spend over the next three years. What things do you think need to happen to really make meaningful advances in this sector?
I think, certainly, money. So this requires huge, massive investment. It's not just the technology. It's also the infrastructure, et cetera, that's required to support that. I couldn't put an exact number on it, but it is many billions of pounds.
Billions rather than trillions?
Yeah, I think so. It's certainly billions of pounds.
And billions are rolling into one particular sector of the electric aviation industry. Last year, investors poured around $5bn into companies developing manned electric Vtols, Vertical Takeoff and Landing Craft. Most of that money came via Spacs, blank-check investment companies, and some promotional videos do look a little speculative. So how realistic are companies ambitions? Is the technology mature enough to start flying around urban spaces?
The limitation's not so much the technology, in my view. The technology, certainly, is mature enough. One of the challenges is the certification and, obviously, the safety standards within aviation. So flying is one of the safest, if not the safest form of transportation. And we do not want to lose that reputation.
In Bristol, Vertical Aerospace, which has Rolls-Royce as one of its design partners, is aiming to fly its VX4 prototype later this year. Designed to carry a pilot and four passengers, the company is working toward having a commercially operational craft by 2025, initially using existing transport infrastructure for its ports.
We've designed these aircraft so that they conform to helipad restrictions. So in theory, we could take off from helipads in cities. And eventually, there will be vertiports, as well, to support these.
Potentially, electric vehicles could alleviate cities' congestion problems and provide more environmentally-friendly urban transport. Vertical went public in December in a Spac deal. It's VX4 craft comes with a price tag of around $4mn. Would you acknowledge that there are still technical barriers that are keeping this from really taking off, to use a terrible pun?
So we only started our commercial function less than a year ago, and we've already sold over $5bn worth of aircraft. So the conditional pre-orders, quite obviously, they are dependent on us successfully certifying the aircraft because that's the point at which the aircraft is legally allowed to be used in commercial operation. The real challenge is around certification. We essentially have to prove that the vehicle is safe.
It is a genuine challenge. At this point, none of the urban air taxi start-ups have received certification. And it should also be noted that shares in many of the start-ups that listed in 2021 have fallen sharply. Bold visions are, after all, no guarantee of future viability. So if you're itching to get airborne in a fully-certified electric plane, for the time being, your best option is the Pipistrel I was in a few days earlier.
Now we're just going to be gliding down towards the airfield.
Things are undoubtedly moving quickly in electric aviation, but we should, perhaps, make sure that, for the moment at least, we keep our expectations grounded. Touchdown. That was really smooth.