The Big Idea: Vertical Flight Sees an Electric Boost
This past year the groundswell of innovation in private aviation has gained real lift from financial investment, design and even city planning. Uber Elevate has partnered with eVTOL (electric vertical takeoff and landing) manufacturers such as Joby Aviation and Jaunt Air Mobility and plans to establish urban air-mobility networks in Melbourne, Australia; Los Angeles; and the Dallas–Fort Worth area, where its first test site was recently unveiled.
Vertical takeoff and landing aircraft got their start way back in 1947, when one of the early hybrid helicopters/airplanes, the Fairey Gyrodyne, took flight. Various models were dismissed as too loud, awkward and hard to fly, but basically they were too technologically complex for their time. Once the “e” preceded VTOL about a decade ago, the sky race really began. Electric craft can be lighter, emissions-free and up to 100 times quieter than conventional helicopters, and they include built-in safety redundancies if one engine fails. This past year, the race intensified. “We’ve catalogued 260 new designs in the last three years,” says Mike Hirschberg, executive director of the Vertical Flight Society, a nonprofit supporting VTOL development. “We’re now getting at least one new design each week. We see electric power—behind piston and turbine—as the third revolution in aviation history.”
It’s certainly a gold rush. The major commercial aircraft manufacturers have all revealed eVTOL concepts, and the desire to get in on the action has fueled investment from automotive companies such as Hyundai and Toyota, as well as private-equity groups. Nielsen estimates the annual growth rate will be 15 percent over the next six years, with an estimated market value of $524 million by 2025.
“There are a thousand reasons why this won’t work—battery technology, infrastructure, regulations,” Hirschberg says. “The good news is that all are surmountable, and we have all this money coming in from nontraditional sources. We’ve always had a lot of great ideas in aviation, but never the money to do them. Now we do.”