Lightweight eVTOL Aircraft Could Soon Fly You to Work
When inching along in traffic during a particularly slow morning commute, you might have wished for your car to lift off the ground and soar over the congested traffic in order to avoid the slow frustration of rush hour, a la the flying car in the classic 60s-era cartoon, “The Jetsons”. Well – Jetson co-founder Tomasz Patan brought this dream to life, taking the Jetson ONE electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft for a spin on his daily morning commute. Patan flew the 3-mile (4.8 km) journey from his home to his office a few months ago, cutting his travel time by 88 percent. And although the Jetson ONE was created for recreational use, commercial travel is a primary target application for eVTOL aircraft, which could be introduced as soon as 2030.
What is eVTOL?
A rapidly growing industry, the eVTOL market is expected to reach $30,839 million by 2030 at a CAGR of 15.3%. These vehicles depend on lightweight composite materials to enable their electric propulsion systems to fly further, faster, and longer. eVTOL aircraft are typically being produced to serve as commercial air taxis, with the ability to move both passengers and cargo over significant distances. The vehicles utilize electric propulsion rather than fuel to move the aircraft, and although this may limit the distance they can travel, it still provides a much more sustainable alternative for intra- and inter-city travel.
Something’s Gotta Give
Each airborne vehicle has a weight limit with three primary competing interests: structure vs. power vs. payload. Weight optimization of the aircraft’s structure and power source enables carriers to maximize either range or payload – both of which ultimately increase the bottom line.
Never Been Lighter
Modern day engineers have the unique opportunity to design entire eVTOL aircraft from the ground-up with the lightest, strongest, most durable materials known to man. With the explosion of developments in materials science over the past few decades, engineers no longer need to rely on the materials of the past to build the technology of the future. These new materials have allowed aircraft designers to create lighter and stronger airframes, which in turn allows for larger payloads and longer flight times. Where questions of strength vs. weight are concerned, engineers can introduce high-performance lightweight composites like HX5® that have a high specific strength. For instance, components made with HX5 are 93% as strong as those made with 6061-T6 aluminum, but only half the weight – plus, it’s a highly characterized material with tested and proven mechanical and environmental properties to ensure durability in the harshest conditions. In addition, the use of advanced materials has helped to make eVTOL more aerodynamic, which results in greater fuel efficiency.
Not only must engineers consider the use of next-gen materials when designing the next generation of transportation, but they should also employ the latest power and propulsion technology to make the eVTOL airborne. Electric propulsion, which typically involves rotors on electricity-powered motors, is achieved by one of three main methods: tilt-thrust, in which the aircraft is pushed to face forward by propellors that change position from parallel to perpendicular to the ground, after which the traditional wings provide lift; lift and cruise, which involves multiple propellors positioned parallel to the ground along with a second fixed motor that is perpendicular to provide forward force; and multirotor, which is constituted by sets of both parallel and perpendicular propellors.
Electric propulsion methods have a number of unique advantages over fossil fuels, most notably of which is that they produce zero emissions, a key driver in the demand for eVTOL. Additionally, compared with noisy turbine engines, the propellors on an eVTOL aircraft have large diameters and a lower number of revolutions per minute (RPM) which generates much less noise. Their function is clean—not only in terms of carbon emissions, but also physically—as they do not produce any of the residues, stains, or odors that are common with gasoline engines. Starting the motor of an electric aircraft is also simple and reliable, requiring little upkeep, whereas a piston engine requires regular maintenance, tune-ups, and expensive overhauls. And, lastly, the batteries of an electric aircraft can readily be charged for cheap, whereas fuel is comparatively much more expensive.
Despite these advantages, electric propulsion poses one major challenge—there is highly limited storage of energy onboard eVTOL vehicles. As batteries have relatively low energy storage, the amount of battery power onboard must often be increased which greatly reduces the useful load of the aircraft. As an alternative to batteries, some eVTOL developers have opted for hydrogen fuel cells, which have greater energy storage density. These fuel cells come with their own set of drawbacks—they often contain the hydrogen matter in highly pressurized containers, and if these containers were to burst, they would pose a fatal risk to the aircraft and its occupants. And although the electricity and hydrogen fuel cells themselves do not produce emissions, the plants that create electric power and fuel cells may still leave a carbon footprint. However, this issue is easily remedied by the use of renewable energy.
Applications of eVTOL
Currently, the primary application of eVTOL vehicles is to serve as air taxis, with an expected maximum range of 150-250 miles on a single charge. Without the need for a runway, these aircraft can take off from and land anywhere with little noise—which is an attractive opportunity for commuters to bypass traffic using ride-share flights. According to a Deloitte analysis, the prices of these eVTOL ride-share services are expected to be competitive with current luxury ride-share car services—a 25-mile trip in a congested area would cost $104.50 and last 66 minutes in a premium ground ride-share car service such as an Uber Black, whereas an eVTOL trip of the same distance would cost around $75 and only last 15 minutes.
The ability of eVTOL aircraft to take off from and land anywhere also primes them for a number of emergency service applications. They can be used for air ambulance and casualty evacuation purposes, bypassing any ground transport barriers or time delays. In particular, during natural disasters, the flying vehicles can quickly reach both far-flung and blocked off areas. Similarly, they can be utilized for the rapid deployment of emergency medical services (EMS), both in terms of patient care and facilitating direct hospital-to-hospital transportation of organs and drugs.
Aside from passenger-based applications, the vehicles can also quickly carry significant cargo loads between locations. Whether it’s carrying commercial parcel services or critical medical supplies, the aircraft can swiftly and directly bring cargo to exactly where it is needed.
Currently, most eVTOL developers are focused on production obstacles. This includes developing functioning prototypes and ensuring that their production methods are scalable for future development. Arguably the most scalable manufacturing method available, injection molding enables companies to flex production capabilities as the market ebbs and flows, with the capability of producing hundreds of parts every hour. What makes this manufacturing method even more attractive is that it is compatible with many high-performance composite materials, including the aforementioned HX5 from Alpine Advanced Materials. Alpine’s trusted injection molding facilities coupled with a secure and flexible supply chain ensure that perfect parts are delivered efficiently and reliably – whether the order contains 5 parts or 5,000. Rapid Prototype Molding from Alpine also gives customers the opportunity to iterate and fine-tune until they are 100% confident in their design before investing in the steel mold necessary for injection molding.
eVTOL companies must also deal with a variety of logistical obstacles, such as obtaining Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification and approval. Once these aircraft are ready to fly, there are a number of other challenges—developing infrastructure for “vertiports” where the eVTOL vehicles can take off and land, integrating them into air-traffic control systems, and garnering public approval of increased flight activity over and around their homes, albeit much quieter than regular airplanes. However, eVTOL developers are already collaborating with local governments and representative organizations to bring the vision of sustainable and accessible air transport to life.