By 2025, Archer Aviation hopes to operate an air taxi service in Chicago. That’s the bull’s-eye, and the electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) manufacturer is steadily adding arrows to its quill to hit it.
The latest—and biggest to date—was the company’s rollout of its fully assembled Midnight eVTOL, a major milestone that Archer says will allow it to begin flight tests as early as this summer. After that, it’ll move to testing with the FAA, with the goal of achieving type certification by the end of 2024.
As far as eVTOL aircraft go, Midnight, first unveiled in November, looks like a behemoth. But despite having a maximum range of 100 miles, it’s designed to complete back-to-back 20-mile flights with about 12 minutes of charge between them, which Archer believes will be cost competitive with ground-based rideshare services like Uber.
The firm’s stated goal is to replace congested, hourlong commutes by car with comparably priced 10- to 20-minute air taxi flights that travel as fast as 150 mph (130 knots). With a 1,000-pound payload, Midnight will be able to carry a pilot and up to four passengers.
Midnight’s avionics system includes four flight controllers, geospatial sensors and redundant inertial navigation, which can better measure the aircraft’s motion state. A lightweight composite structure provides further stability, while individually powered engines and battery packs eliminate a common point of failure in the powertrain.
Last week, Archer shipped Midnight from its Palo Alto, California, production facility to its flight test facility in Salinas, where it was reassembled and is now undergoing power system and avionics checkouts. Now, its team is preparing for high-power propulsion system testing and will spend the next two months conducting ground tests.
And if all goes according to plan, unpiloted Midnight flight tests should begin this summer.
“This aircraft will accelerate and reduce risk on our certification program, paving the way for our team to focus on building and conducting piloted operations with conforming aircraft to support the goal of entering into service in 2025,” said Adam Goldstein, Archer founder and CEO.
As Goldstein alluded, these flight tests are just one step on the path to full certification. But the trials this summer will allow Archer to prepare for the real deal. The goal is to fly the same test points it’ll need to hit during “for credit” FAA certification testing, which should reduce the risk of failure when the time comes.
According to Archer, that time is early 2024. By the fourth quarter of 2023, the firm will have completed final assembly of a type-conforming Midnight model at its new San Jose, California manufacturing hub and integrated test lab. It expects to begin piloted tests with the FAA soon after, targeting type certification by the end of that year and air taxi services in Chicago by 2025.
Archer has a few things working in its favor. Stellantis, which has backed the eVTOL OEM for years, agreed in January to invest $150 million to support mass production of Midnight, adding to the $450 million the company had on hand at the end of March. The funding is being used to build a 350,000-square-foot manufacturing plant in Covington, Georgia, which Archer says will one day produce up to 2,300 aircraft per year.
Midnight is also one of the only eVTOL aircraft to have been issued FAA airworthiness criteria, making its path to certification clearer than others. And Archer is now set to expand its relationship with the Department of Defense, for which it has already completed several projects. The firm says Midnight is “garnering significant interest” for its performance specifications, including its 1,000-pound payload.
Once Midnight achieves type certification, Archer is well positioned to get in the air. It has a $1 billion purchase order from United, and the airline has agreed to help it establish an air taxi route between Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport and Vertiport Chicago, the largest VTOL facility in North America.
Archer has also met with leaders from World Business Chicago, the city’s economic development agency and received the backing of Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker.
Initially, the service will complete trips between the airport and city center on what Archer calls “trunk” routes. But once those core routes are established, Archer and United Airlines will build out “branch” routes that connect to the surrounding communities. The companies are also planning a service connecting Newark Liberty International Airport to the Downtown Manhattan Heliport.
Those agreements could go a long way once Midnight achieves certification. But first, it’ll need to pass the FAA’s litmus test.