It’s only been a few years since the birth of the electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) movement, but in 2021, companies were already clearing major hurdles to success in funding, aviation partnerships, and infrastructure.
More than 150 manufacturers and startups worldwide are developing entirely new designs for environmentally friendly, hovering air taxis, ambulances, regional airliners and even cargo haulers. None have achieved FAA or EASA certification, although several companies are projecting certification as soon as 2023 or 2024.
It’s all being driven by the promise of a trillion-dollar market and a chance to help solve two looming 21st century problems: carbon emissions and urban gridlock.
Let’s quickly run down five of the year’s most significant developments in eVTOL, along with why they matter:
1. Major Funding Activity
California eVTOL manufacturers Archer Aviation and Joby Aviation along with Germany-based Lilium and the U.K.’s Vertical Aerospace raised hundreds of millions of dollars in fresh capital in 2021, to stay afloat until commercial revenue starts flowing in.
Instead of launching traditional initial public offerings (IPOs), Archer, Joby, Lilium, and Vertical Aerospace merged with special purpose acquisition companies (SPACs) as a faster path to go public. As a result, they became publicly traded stocks. By mid-December, the stocks of all four companies were trending lower compared to their opening prices.
Nonetheless, the new funds helped them expand operations and development toward certifying their aircraft.
Going public also helped boost the credibility of eVTOLs and the air taxi business model in general, experts said.
In September, Morgan Stanley singled out Joby as a potential front-runner by giving it an “overweight” rating. Analysts said they expect Joby’s stock to perform better in the future and beyond others in its market sector, which is estimated to be worth a trillion dollars by 2040.
2. Airlines Get Interested
United Airlines raised eyebrows in February when it announced a $1 billion provisional deal to buy Archer eVTOLs, which.
This was especially significant because at the time of the announcement, Archer had not yet announced a prototype aircraft nor tested one. The deal showed investors that it had the backing of one of the world’s largest airlines and most well-known brands in aviation. In December, Archer conducted a successful first flight of its autonomous, two-seat demonstrator, Maker. The brief hover test proved for the first time that Archer’s design could fly. The flight also put Archer in the same league as other eVTOL makers that have actually flown demonstrator aircraft, including Lilium, Joby, Wisk Aero, and others.
Six months after Archer’s United deal, Lilium followed suit with a billion dollar agreement to sell 220 eVTOLs to Brazil-based airline Azul. The following month, U.K.-based Vertical Aerospace partnered with helicopter operator Bristow Group to develop and purchase up to 50 eVTOLs.
In Japan, Volocopter announced a deal with Japan Airlines to work toward “permanent” air taxi operations in Japan, with a commercial launch “within the next three years.”
JAL also reached an agreement with aviation leasing company Avolon to buy or lease as many as 50 eVTOLs from Vertical Aerospace. The deal mirrors Avolon’s contract with Brazil’s Gol airline to purchase or lease up to 250 Vertical Aerospace eVTOLs.
3. Big Push To Build Vertiports
You can’t operate an air taxi airline without infrastructure on the ground. For eVTOLs to truly become viable, strategically located vertiports will need to offer efficient facilities for boarding and exiting aircraft, charging batteries and providing daily aircraft maintenance.
Technical infrastructure can be expensive, which is why major eVTOL companies announced partnerships in 2021 to build new facilities—or to repurpose existing ones.
For example, Archer and Joby both announced vertiport partnerships with Reef, the largest parking garage owner in the U.S. Reef’s network includes more than 4,800 garages across 70 percent of North America’s urban population.
In the U.K., Hyundai linked up with British startup Urban-Air Port to build 65 “electric urban airports” worldwide. Hyundai’s eVTOL subsidiary has a larger plan to build 200 “electric air mobility hubs” around the world by the end of 2026.
In Los Angeles, city officials and Volocopter began collaborating this year with Urban Movement Labs—a government-community transportation partnership—to work with neighborhoods on planning potential vertiport locations.
“Infrastructure is a key to unlock the eVTOL industry because they’re required to make the product useful to customers,” said Robin Riedel, a partner at management and consulting firm McKinsey & Company, which analyzes and tracks disruptive aerospace and air transport industries. “At the same time, they are complex and require real investment and often years-long development processes.”
4. Companies Target Asia-Pacific
The industry sent strong signals this year that the Asia-Pacific region could be a top eVTOL market.
Volocopter announced a major partnership with China-based Aerofugia. A new company—Volocopter Chengdu—will work with the Chinese government to begin eVTOL service by 2026.
In nearby South Korea, the Germany-based company conducted the country’s first flight demonstration of its 2X prototype in November— signaling Volocopter’s plans to establish an air taxi service there.
Brazil-based Embraer has also staked a claim in the Asia-Pacific region. Embraer’s Eve Urban Air Mobility subsidiary sealed a deal with helicopter booking platform Ascent to provide 100 eVTOLs by 2026 to operate in Bangkok, Manila, Singapore, Tokyo, and Melbourne, Australia.
5. Auto Manufacturers Want a Piece of eVTOL
In addition to nearly a century of vehicle production and project management knowhow, the participation of these legacy manufacturers provides a powerful vote of confidence for an untested 21st century transportation idea.
Stellantis—the parent company of Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, and Ram—is providing Archer with cockpit design elements and advanced composite material capabilities.
Honda is developing its new aircraft as part of a “mobility ecosystem,” which would include ground transport, air transport, and a reservation service system.
Auto manufacturers in aviation? It’s a bit reminiscent of an automobile entrepreneur in the 1920s who decided to get involved in the nascent airplane industry. You may have heard of him. Henry Ford ended up producing a small airliner called the Ford 5-AT Tri-Motor, which played a major role in the widespread acceptance of air travel.
Looking ahead to 2022, the eVTOL industry shows no signs of slowing.
Archer, Joby, Lilium, and others are expected to continue developing prototypes, moving closer to type certifying their aircraft with aviation regulators. Lilium plans to conduct flight testing in Spain aimed at winning EASA type certification in 2022.
Joby says it’s on track to achieve its FAA Part 135 certificate in 2022, which would allow the company to operate as a limited airline. It intends to operate traditional, existing, certified aircraft until its eVTOL wins type certification, expected in 2023.
Sweden’s Jetson Aerospace is expected to roll out its Jetson ONE homebuilt, ultra-light eVTOL in 2022
Also expected in 2022: the first flight of the prototype eVTOL from Vertical Aerospace.
For the eVTOL industry as a whole, the coming year promises to bring plenty of hurdles, including developing complex technology, achieving regulatory requirements, and keeping investors happy.