The aerospace industry is rapidly approaching a technological revolution. Developers are designing, building, and flying electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft with the intent of reducing cost and noise as compared to traditional helicopters.
Hundreds of tech companies around the globe are trying to lead the charge on the future of eVTOL vehicles, but there are multiple obstacles facing the industry altogether. Some eVTOL companies expect to enter commercial service by 2024, despite regulatory hurdles.
The Vertical Flight Society (VFS) has held multiple online workshops this year, hosting industry leaders and policymakers to share information to advance the safe transition to this new technology.
Flying asked VFS’ strategic development director Jim Sherman and its infrastructure adviser Rex Alexander what they believe are the top four issues facing the future of eVTOLs.
Tech companies may be able to build the world’s most advanced eVTOL aircraft, but that means nothing until they have space to land.
According to the VFS, pre-existing heliports will have to undergo a transition to vertiports—landing spaces that accommodate helicopters and various other VTOL aircraft or rotorcraft. Most current heliports are capable of hosting eVTOL aircraft but typically aren’t equipped with charging stations.
PS&S, an architecture and engineering design company, is trying to break ground with vertiport designs for urban, suburban, and waterside environments. Each of these designs includes landing pads, charging stations, and terminals for customers waiting for their flight.
Other industry leaders, like Archer Aviation and REEF Technology, are co-opting the development of underutilized parking garages into vertiports in urban areas. REEF’s preexisting 4,800 parking garages will be considered for retrofitting rooftop access for eVTOLs in North America.
An important tenet of the eVTOL industry is sustainability. Developers are aiming to create viable aircraft that can maintain net-zero operating emissions to ease air travel’s impact on the environment.
“The technology seems to be moving along at a fairly rapid pace,” Sherman said. “A lot of that is driven by the automotive industry. Electric motors continue to get more efficient, smaller, faster, cheaper, and that will feed into eVTOL development.”
Many eVTOL developers are also aiming for their aircraft to fly autonomously. Doing so could drastically reduce the weight of the aircraft and allow for more passengers to board per flight. Autonomy would also help combat the ongoing pilot shortage, as training new and former pilots for eVTOL aircraft could prove difficult. eVTOL aircraft come in many shapes and sizes, which means pilots would have to learn to fly very specific aircraft.
Even though fully autonomous flight would help address those issues, the general public may not be comfortable climbing into a flying taxi with no pilot.
Sherman says cargo eVTOLs will see more autonomous flight than passenger aircraft.
3. Standards and Regulations
Currently, eVTOLs reside in a peculiar corner of the aerospace industry. They’re not exactly helicopters, nor are they airplanes, which means agencies have a hard time using existing government regulations to standardize the implementation of these advanced aircraft. So far, no eVTOLs have been certified by the FAA.
“Just certifying an eVTOL right now is pretty challenging. Just two years ago, it would’ve been absolutely impossible,” Sherman said. “The FAA rules of certification have been very prescriptive based on the models they’ve certified in the past, so they kind of had a rulebook for what these vehicles need to look like.”
Government agencies, such as NASA, are partnering with aerospace companies to help create these regulations in order to expedite the regulatory process to ensure the safety of everyone in or around the aircraft.
“Today, there is not really a vertiport standard that I can point to, because that’s what the policymakers at the local level are going to ask: ‘What’s the fire marshall say?’ And he’s going to say there’s no code,” Alexander said.
4. Public Acceptance
Sherman broke public acceptance into three categories: safety, noise, and “not in my backyard.”
Safety, of course, is always the top priority when it comes to developing vehicles of any kind. eVTOLs being a newer technology, the general public may have some reservations about the risks involved with using them, but those could be largely based on unfamiliarity.
During their recent online workshop, multiple presenters spoke about safety procedures and what emergency protocol needs to be in place for all eVTOL aircraft. This includes emergency egress, fire safety plans, and contingencies for adverse weather. Each eVTOL would have to meet or exceed the safety standards already in place for traditional aircraft.
Second, noise is an important factor—especially in urban and suburban areas.
“Helicopters, back in the ‘50s, were supposed to be the short-haul method of transportation that was going to revolutionize transportation, but they turned out to be very noisy. People don’t want these things flying over their house.” Sherman said.
Joby Aviation recently became the first company to fly an eVTOL as part of NASA’s Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) National Campaign. This is a study conducted by the two groups, measuring the noise footprint of eVTOLs versus traditional helicopters. The study will include other types of aircraft in a simulated urban environment to gauge the effect eVTOLs may have on existing background noise.
Third, Sherman mentioned “not in my backyard,” or “NIMBY.” He emphasized that widespread use of eVTOLs will depend on individual communities and their willingness to allow them to fly over their heads.
“We have to overcome that and allow the public to see these vehicles in operation and how they can benefit from them,” he said.
Certainly, this is not a comprehensive list of every issue facing the eVTOL industry. Many factors, such as pilot certification, manufacturing, and funding, still remain as important challenges industry leaders must face in the coming years. For now, it’s obvious that amazing progress is being made through various partnerships and initiatives.