Aviation’s Electric Dreams Fast Approach Reality


When the last Farnborough International Airshow took place four years ago, the aviation industry focused more on the concept of a more-electric aircraft than the reality. At the 2022 event, for which environmental sustainability accounts for one of the major themes, electric aviation will play a far more prominent role as some of the most ambitious start-ups exhibit established mainstream aerospace players alongside.

One of the upstarts arguably ranks as the UK’s current strongest prospect in the fast-emerging advanced air mobility (AAM) sector. Bristol-based Vertical Aerospace (Stand 41000) is assembling the first full-scale prototype of its four-passenger VX4 eVTOL and aims to start test flights before the end of this year as it pushes ahead with its goal of achieving concurrent UK and EASA type certification in 2024.

Work at the Filton facility of Vertical Aerospace partner GKN Aerospace involves providing wings and wiring systems alongside aircraft engines group Rolls-Royce (electric propulsion system), Honeywell Aerospace (flight controls), and Solvay (composite materials). Vertical expects the aircraft to fly to a range of more than 100 miles and operate at cruise speeds of up to 200 mph.

In December 2021, Vertical completed an initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange that raised around $300 million. The IPO involved a merger with a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) called Broadstone.

To date, the company has announced provisional sales agreements covering potentially deliveries of 1,350 aircraft with a combined value of $5.4 billion (implying a unit purchase price of $4 million). Commitments have come from high-profile customers including Virgin Atlantic (which plans a network of vertiports in the UK), American Airlines, leasing group Avolon, Japan Air Lines, Gol, Iberojet, and Bristow.

The Lilium Jet eVTOL would carry six passengers on flights up to 155 miles at a top speed of 175 mph. A planned stretch version could seat 15..

Lilium (Stand 1111) aims to deliver more range and payload with its eVTOL vehicle, now expected to receive type certification in 2025. The initial Lilium Jet model will seat up to six passengers and offer a range of 155 miles at speeds of up to 175 mph, while a later stretched version could accommodate between 10 and 15 seats.

The Lilium design differs significantly from many lift-and-cruise configurations under development by eVTOL developers. Its propulsion system is based on 30 ducted fans, each with its own electric motor, built into the wing and canard.

Last year, the German company also raised funds via a SPAC-backed New York Stock Exchange listing and in June arranged an additional $75 million equity line of credit with Tumim Stone Capital. In May, it selected Honeywell and Japanese automotive group Denso to supply electric motors. Other partners include GKN, components maker Aernova, and battery technology group Livent.

Before the end of 2022, Lilium’s engineering team aims to agree on the details of its certification program with EASA. It aims to achieve concurrent approval with the US FAA and Brazil’s ANAC agency under the bilateral agreements with the European Union. Earlier this year, it resumed flight testing with its smaller-scale technology demonstrator aircraft in Spain.

Lilium continues to work on plans for scheduled regional services in markets such as Florida, where it partnered with airport and railways group Ferrovial to develop a network of vertiports in cities including Orlando and Miami. Fractional ownership group NetJets, which earlier this year signed purchase rights for 150 Lilium Jets, plans to get involved in operating the Florida services. Other provisional customers include Brazilian airline Azul, which has committed to 220 aircraft for domestic flights.

Embraer Eve

Embraer Eve

Even following a business combination and initial public offering with Zanite Acquisition in May, Brazilian airframe Embraer (Stand C105) remains the majority shareholder in advanced air mobility group Eve. The $377 million raised in this most recent eVTOL stock flotation proved less than anticipated, as have several others over the past 12 months or so, but Eve characterizes its plans to bring a four-passenger vehicle to market in 2026 as robust and well-financed . The company has reported provisional sales agreements, which like all others in the sector appear not backed by any deposit, for more than 1,800 aircraft.

According to Embraer, its backing in terms of both engineering and certification experience and its global customer support network will prove key advantages for Eve. The company has already agreed on the basis for type certification with ANAC.

So far, however, Eve has revealed very little about how far work on its full-scale prototype has advanced. In February, co-CEO Andre Stein told a press conference in Singapore that the company will start flight testing this year and emphasized that it has made extensive use of a simulator for early development trials.

Like many other eVTOL aircraft pioneers, Embraer advocates for the need to develop a so-called ecosystem to support operations. The company has established multiple partnerships worldwide with companies such as Skyports that aim to develop vertiports in cities worldwide including London, Miami, and Rio de Janeiro.

Earlier this year, Eve partnered with prospective customer Helisul Aviation to operate a month-long trial for planned urban air mobility services in Rio de Janeiro. Using Helisul’s existing helicopter fleet, the partners sought to demonstrate how efficient new connections could be established across the sprawling Brazilian city. As it seeks to develop an air traffic management system to meet the needs of eVTOL operations, Eve maintains an advantage through its Embraer sister company Atech, which works directly with the Brazilian air force’s Department of Airspace Control.

Airbus

Airbus

Another major aerospace group committed to supporting the advanced air mobility sector—Airbus (Stand E009)—unveiled plans for the CityAirbus NextGen vehicle in September 2021. The fixed-wing model, which features a V-shaped tail and eight sets of electric motors and propellers, will carry up to four passengers on flights of up to 50 miles at speeds of 75 mph.

The European company’s eVTOL plans accompany its declared ambitions to certify a hydrogen-powered airliner by 2035 through its ZeroE program. It aims to achieve the first flight with a full-scale CityAirbus prototype in 2023 en route to EASA type certification in 2025.

Vertical lift aircraft are not the only avenue for electrifying aviation, as several fixed-wing types also have entered development. Three years ago Eviation Aircraft (Stand 1000) introduced its six-to nine-seat Alice aircraft, and the company has made significant changes to the design since then. Input from prospective customers and improved propulsion technology led to a redesign that saw a trio of 350 kW electric motors replaced by a pair of 650 kW units now fitted by the tail, instead of mounted on the wingtips. Sister company MagniX manufactures the motors.

The US-based start-up aims to complete FAA Part 23 type certification and EASA bilateral approval in 2024. It already holds commitments for 75 aircraft from New England-based carrier Cape Air, and express delivery giant DHL expects to take an initial dozen units in a freighter configuration.

ZeroAvia

ZeroAvia aims to convert existing regional airlines such as the Dornier Do-228 with electric-hybrid systems that use hydrogen fuel cells.

This week’s Farnborough show will also feature companies with plans for hydrogen propulsion. ZeroAvia (Stand 1010) wants to convert existing regional airlines to a propulsion system based on hydrogen fuel cells, starting with a 19-seater in 2024.

Taking a somewhat similar approach, Cranfield Aerospace Solutions (Stand 4530) continues work with two regional airlines in the UK and Germany to convert nine-seat Britten Norman Islander aircraft to hydrogen power. It aims for approval of a supplemental type certificate by 2025, and in the longer term to expand the scope of its technology to power a 100-seat aircraft.

Rolls-Royce (Stand C41160) is also working with Embraer and Scandinavian carrier Wideroe on a joint study for a new-build zero-emissions airliner. Several propulsion options remain under consideration, including all-electric, hydrogen fuel cells, and a hydrogen-fueled gas turbine. Rolls also has partnered with Italy’s Tecnam in the development of the P-Volt derivative of its P2021 nine-seat commuter.

Earlier this year, both Rolls-Royce and Honeywell achieved milestone power outputs of 1 MW in ground testing of their respective hybrid-electric powertrains. Rival engine maker Safran (Stand B038) provides versions of its EngineUs electric propulsion systems to aircraft manufacturers including Bye Aerospace, Diamond, and Aura Aero, as well as Chinese eVTOL start-up TCab Tech.

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