Although some of the proposals that are announced for future aerial electric mobility and, for now, limited to cities seem like science fiction, the reality is that electrification is reaching this new niche market. And not only based on small drones to deliver Amazon packages, but also to transport people. Companies with a history in aviation have opened up their electrification programs, probably because they see a market opening up before them that are trying to hog startups looking to become the “Tesla of electric aviation.”
Boeing, Airbus, Embraer, Bell, Sikorsky or Rolls-Royce have started R&D plans to create prototype aircraft and demonstrators of new electrical products for short-range aviation. Some of these established companies are allying with emerging companies in the sector whose structure, less rigid, allows to advance with greater speed.
A situation reminiscent of the beginnings of the electrification of the automotive industry, in which traditional manufacturers, although they had electrical programs among their many investments in research, also had to take into account their gigantic assets in combustion technologies. As with the automobile, in aviation this trend creates some inertia, which is accompanied by pressure to use low-emission fuel such as green hydrogen or biofuels, to stretch combustion technology for longer.
The gap left by traditional aviation companies is being exploited by small startups, which, with good funding, could become the “Tesla of urban electric aviation”. In these companies, the objective is only one and very clear: to enter service, without prior inertia and generate profits.
One of the companies that exemplifies this situation is Joby Aviation. The Californian company has managed to get 820 million dollars from its investors, among which is the Japanese Toyota. It is currently developing a four-seater electric multi-tilt rotor aircraft that promises a range of up to 240 km and a flight speed of 322 km / h. The prototype has already completed more than 1,000 test flights and is now working on certification with the FAA (United States Federal Aviation Administration). Joby recently joined forces with Uber and plans to be operational with an air taxi service by 2024.
Ehang is a Chinese air taxi company that has achieved a market value of 1.4 billion dollars. In November 2020, in Seoul, Korea, it demonstrated the possibilities of its two-seater autonomous electric aircraft by completing a 3.6-kilometer journey, using an 80-kilogram bag of rice as a passenger.
One of the most promising companies in Europe is the German Lilium, which has managed to raise more than 300 million euros from its investors. Its five-seater tilt-wing prototype with small and easily scalable rotors flew for the first time on March 4, 2019. It is currently capable of carrying seven passengers with 36 rotors for 200 kilometers and at a speed of 300 km / h. Its managers already speak that it is easy to reach up to 16 passengers without hardly modifying the size of the plane.
The business model
For most of these startups, the business model is very similar: use these eVTOL aircraft for short or medium-haul trips, reducing travel times and thereby adding a small premium over other modes of transport. The target customer is one who considers his time to be of great value.
Urban air mobility is far from being a science fiction dream. The consulting firm Morgan Stanley predicts in a rather optimistic scenario that by 2025 there will be 49,000 airplanes of this type that will fly over the skies of cities, increasing to 170,000 in 2040. Although most of these airplanes will be small drones for the delivery of packages , a significant proportion will transport people.