The COVID-19 crisis has underlined the potential for eVTOLs in the utility sector, with autonomous platforms capable of carrying cargo or performing other roles even during periods of “lockdown.” The area is a growing focus for companies in the domain, with some developing immediate plans and others looking to the future.
The utility market is a focus for Volocopter through its eVTOL VoloDrone. The platform, which performed its first demonstration flight in October, has a range of 40 kilometers (25 miles) and can carry payloads of up to 200 kilograms (440 pounds). It is pitched at various roles, such as sowing seeds for the agriculture sector, delivering packages in the logistics business, carrying heavy loads in infrastructure, or supporting disaster relief or humanitarian aid in the public services domain.
Christophe Hommet, chief engineer of the VoloDrone, told eVTOL.com that the system has been designed to adapt to a wide variety of missions across these industries. The VoloDrone was developed after “many inquiries from different sectors to develop a utility drone that can lift heavy loads and is based on the technological platform of the Volocopter,” Hommet added.
The company is cooperating with partners to build bespoke systems for individual sectors. For example, it is working with John Deere in the agricultural space and DB Schenker in logistics. Hommet said that while Volocopter specializes in developing drone technology, “we do not believe that we could possibly fathom the plethora of roles a VoloDrone could play,” or estimate what value it could bring. This is why it has decided to work with specialized partners, he explained.
The major benefit of eVTOL aircraft in the utility sector is their relatively low operational complexity and operational costs, said David Loebl, chief technology officer at AutoFlight. His company is the developer of long-endurance drones including the V50 White Shark, designed to carry loads of up to 20 kg (44 lb.). AutoFlight has also unveiled a passenger-carrying eVTOL concept, the V600.
“Manufacturing costs are a lot lower compared to helicopters, allowing for the use of many more aircraft compared to helicopters,” he added. “Overall, applications become possible that were not possible before.”
A number of eVTOL companies are focused on the passenger transport side of the market, but see opportunities in utility in the future. For example, while “our focus is firmly on delivering a passenger vehicle in the first instance,” Lilium sees future potential in the utility domain for its Lilium Jet, said a spokesperson for the company. Such platforms have potential almost anywhere currently serviced by helicopters, while offering lower noise levels, zero emissions, and more safety, the spokesperson said.
“These also combine to deliver lower operating costs, too . . . due to the lower maintenance requirement and the lower cost of energy,” among other factors, the spokesperson added.
Bell’s Autonomous Pod Transport (APT) family is aimed at meeting various demands in the utility space, with the company seeing potential “across many industries, including logistics, shipping, manufacturing, and first responder support for search-and-rescue, medical transport, disaster relief, and more,” said a spokesperson. The development team is currently focused on advancing autonomy, integrating advanced sensors, and expanding vehicle performance, while working with customers to understand their needs.
There are a range of challenges in the space, some of which are specific to utility while others are faced by eVTOLs more generally. The Bell spokesperson highlighted a need for better batteries that are lighter and “have more energy to keep us in the air.” Certification is also a challenge in a relatively new industry, the spokesperson added.
Loebl said there are a range of challenges, including technical challenges, those relating to public acceptance, operational challenges, and some in marketing and distribution. However, he said AutoFlight is confident that these can be overcome.
Hommet said there are two significant challenges for Volocopter in the sector at present. One is based on unified certification standards — at the moment, the company would need new certification for each country it operates in. In Europe, however, he said the company is working with a European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) working group to help define generally accepted safety levels.
The other challenge is hiring the right people, he added, to develop a new type of utility drone. This is not easy, as “we are working with the latest technology and pioneering heavy-lift drones for several industries,” he said.