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By Elan Head

An award-winning journalist, Elan is also a commercial helicopter pilot and an FAA Gold Seal flight instructor with helicopter and instrument ratings. Follow her on Twitter @elanhead

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Japan’s SkyDrive advances ‘compact air mobility’

In the increasingly crowded eVTOL landscape, SkyDrive CEO Tomohiro Fukuzawa believes his company has two key competitive advantages.

SkyDrive concept eVTOL
SkyDrive’s concept eVTOL has a compact size similar to an automobile. The company believes that “compact air mobility” will be essential in cities like Tokyo, where space for eVTOL infrastructure is limited. SkyDrive/Cartivator Image

The first, he told eVTOL.com, is the compact size of its concept aircraft, which will fit inside of a four-meter (13-foot) square, with a height of just 1.5 meters (five feet). While other eVTOL developers are pursuing four- to six-person aircraft for aerial ridesharing, SkyDrive is betting that there will be a healthy market for its two-person model — particularly in dense urban environments like its home city of Tokyo, where a small footprint and limited downwash will be especially important.

The other advantage, he said, is the talented team that has taken SkyDrive’s flight test vehicle through manned test flights in less than two years since the company’s founding in July 2018.

“There are so many eVTOL companies in the world, but not so many have already done full-scale manned flights,” he said.

SkyDrive announced in early April that it had completed an initial phase of manned flight tests that commenced in December 2019. Fukuzawa confirmed that the onboard pilot was actively controlling the vehicle for those tests, although he declined to specify exactly how many manned flights the company performed.

“The important thing is we have already built a machine people can ride in safely,” he emphasized.

Skydrive chief technology officer Nobuo Kishi — whose appointment was also announced in early April — told eVTOL.com that the manned test flights gathered important data and observations that will help move the program forward.

“[When] our pilot controlled the vehicle . . . he felt some need for improvement of the ride characteristics and vibration characteristics,” said Kishi, explaining that ride quality is something that’s impossible to fully evaluate without a human onboard.

SkyDrive manned test flight
SkyDrive’s prototype vehicle is prepared for test flights with a human pilot on board. The piloted flights helped the company evaluate ride quality. SkyDrive/Cartivator Photo

The pilot’s observations will inform the development of the next prototype as SkyDrive moves forward with “staged implementation” of its aircraft concept, Kishi said. Despite the importance of some manned flight testing, the company expects that most of its flight tests moving forward will continue to be unmanned.

According to Fukuzawa, SkyDrive has now performed more than 500 manned and unmanned test flights of its eVTOL prototype, most of those lasting just a few minutes each. Flight testing to date has focused on low-speed, low-altitude evaluations of the vehicle’s stability and handling characteristics.

The company has the ambitious goal of certifying a passenger-carrying eVTOL by 2023, and is currently in early stages of certification discussions with the Japan Civil Aviation Bureau (JCAB), Kishi said.

Kishi — who comes to SkyDrive from Mitsubishi Aircraft Corporation — said he expects that the JCAB will follow an eVTOL certification approach similar to that of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which is looking to leverage its existing regulatory framework with special conditions. That’s in contrast to the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), which is developing new certification rules for small category VTOL aircraft.

“We will coordinate not only with the FAA but also EASA — but the basic concept is we will mainly follow the FAA-type approach with the JCAB,” Kishi said.

Once SkyDrive obtains certification for its eVTOL from the JCAB, it will pursue approvals in other countries that use a similar regulatory framework, Fukuzawa added. He said that he expects initial versions of the aircraft to be piloted, but eventually hopes to achieve fully autonomous operations.

SkyDrive expects its compact, lightweight vehicle to have a practical near-term range of up to 20 kilometers (12 miles) making it primarily useful for short, intra-urban hops. As it moves toward a production model, SkyDrive will be paying particularly close attention to elements of the passenger experience to increase its appeal as an air taxi — another reason why finessing ride quality is so important to the company.

Thanks to its compact size, the aircraft could also be an attractive personal air vehicle, Fukuzawa pointed out.

SkyDrive cargo drone
SkyDrive began operational testing of its 30-kg cargo drone in December 2019. SkyDrive/Cartivator Photo

Simultaneous with its air mobility project, SkyDrive is developing a cargo drone with a payload capacity of 30 kilograms (66 pounds), which could potentially be expanded to 50 or 80 kg (110 or 176 lb.) based on customer demand.

Fukuzawa said the company is seeing strong interest in the drone from potential customers such as construction companies, whose personnel must carry heavy tools through rugged terrain, or up towers or buildings under construction. Some mountain hotels that are currently using expensive helicopters to ferry luggage and supplies have also expressed interest in the drone, he said.

“Many customers are now approaching us,” Fukuzawa said. “We are now planning to deliver the product in autumn this year.”

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2 Comments

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