If you closely — or even casually — monitor the eVTOL scene, the concept of urban air mobility (UAM) is both familiar and fundamental. This drive to create a network of flying electric commuter vehicles has been humming in aviation circles for several years.
But to average consumers, it’s still a relatively new concept that begs a lot of questions. That’s why Archer, the Silicon Valley company behind the Maker eVTOL demonstrator, has launched a “Flight Club” on social media to provide expert answers to queries about UAM.
“Education and acceptance go hand-in-hand,” said Louise Bristow, vice president of marketing and communications at Archer, told eVTOL.com. “Flight Club is just one way we’re helping to boost public awareness and provide consumer education as we work to bring this new and exciting transportation reality to life.”
The response has been rapid and strong. Archer’s followers submitted more than 100 questions in the first 24 hours of Flight Club alone, and the company plans to keep it going through at least the end of 2022.
Here are the key takeaways from the first three rounds.
1. Powertrain redundancy is key to meeting safety promises.
Archer has promised “zero points of catastrophic failure” for its sleek Maker prototype, with targeted cruising speeds of up to 150 miles per hour (241 kilometers per hour).
It’s a heady commitment that relies on the carefully integrated redundancy of 12 independent motors and multiple intelligently connected battery packs.
“The overall system reliability requirements drive us to use redundancy throughout the powertrain … to ensure a very high degree of powertrain reliability,” said Dr. Michael Schwekutsch, senior vice president of powertrain, HV and battery systems at Archer.
2. Cold-climate markets may need to wait.
Archer is not planning to certify its aircraft for flight into known icing (FIKI) conditions, and northern markets aren’t among its earliest targets.
That’s bad news for Toronto and Seattle, both at risk of icing conditions about 50% of the time. But it’s great for Los Angeles and Miami, Archer’s launch markets.
“We do intend to design and test for compliance with FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] regulations regarding the ability to safely detect and exit inadvertent entry into icing conditions,” said Dr. Geoffrey Bower, the company’s chief engineer.
3. Noise complaints remain top-of-mind.
Archer’s vision for UAM will depend on whether cities can tolerate the noise created by dozens of whirring propellers.
As a result, the company’s goal is to operate its aircraft at nearly 30 decibels quieter than a helicopter in cruise, “quiet enough that the noise signature from the vehicle will blend into the background,” Archer said.
Archer attributes this to its tilted propeller design, which will spin on axes aligned with incoming airflow during forward flight. Helicopter rotors are noisier in part because they spin edgewise to the flow, the company said.
“In addition, we’re using 12 smaller propellers, instead of one large rotor, which allows us to spin them at significantly lower tip speeds, further reducing the decibel level produced,” said Ben Goldman, Archer’s manager of acoustics.
4. They’re taking a crawl, walk, run approach to flight testing.
Archer is pumping the brakes on expectations about its approach to market, emphasizing the fact its flight test program will be iterative and relatively slow.
This process of “envelope expansion” closely resembles the testing regimen of traditional aircraft.
“Rather than attempting to transition from hover to cruise in one go, we are taking the time to conduct extensive data reviews with flight data at several intermediate speeds,” said Matt Deal, flight test manager at Archer.
Still, the company said it expects to receive type certification for its Maker aircraft by 2024.
5. The Uber analogy doesn’t quite fit … for now.
At entry to service, Archer expects its aircraft will require commercial pilots rating to carry passengers.
So initially, private pilots won’t be able to use their Maker as a profit-making side hustle, like drivers can through Uber.
“As eVTOL aircraft become more widely used … we would expect the pilot requirements to also change,” said Jeff Greenwood, Archer’s chief test pilot and head of flight safety.
6. They’re aiming to fly high, but not far.
Although Archer’s aircraft may have extended range capabilities, they’re built for cities.
The company said most flights will likely occur between 2,000 and 3,000 feet (610 and 914 meters) above ground level — high enough to carry passengers well above any skyscraper in the United States, or the CN Tower in Toronto, Canada.
But the target mission range is between 20 and 50 miles (32 to 80 kilometers), providing short flights within city limits.
This also makes it ideal for commuting to airports. The distance between downtown Chicago and O’Hare Airport, for example, is about 20 mi (32 km).
7. Autonomous operations could be on the horizon.
Over time, Archer aims to price UAM flights with a similar cost per passenger mile as ridesharing in cars. Autonomous operations may help it get there.
“The great news is that as ridership increases and other technology is integrated into the system [such as autonomous operations], the price should continue to become more affordable,” said Andrew Cummins, Archer’s director of business development. “So, while we still have a lot of work to do to establish our planned aerial ridesharing network, keeping pricing accessible for commuters is at the forefront of our planning.”