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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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Behind the scenes at TexasUP, the secret conference for the eVTOL elite

What will it take to get the urban air mobility revolution off the ground? A new class of aircraft, of course, but also better batteries, advanced autonomy, sophisticated air traffic management systems, and functional vertiports.

Underlying all of these is one fundamental requirement: money — lots and lots of it. And money was a general theme of last week’s exclusive TexasUP event, which brought together the emerging eVTOL industry’s foremost business leaders with its keenest investors.

Bell Nexus eVTOL at TexasUP
The Bell Nexus mockup on display at TexasUP. Bell VP of Innovation Scott Drennan was also a presenter at the invite-only event. Eric Adams Photo

Held at Ross Perot, Jr.’s expansive Circle T Ranch near Fort Worth, Texas, this was the third UP leadership summit, following an inaugural event in Alpine, Wyoming, and last year’s BentonvilleUP in Arkansas. The organizers are JetAviva co-founders Cyrus Sigari and Ben Marcus, who also chairs the UAS traffic management company AirMap.

With around 160 attendees, TexasUP was the largest of the events to date. (It was also the most extravagant, with speakers including former president George W. Bush and Tesla co-founder J.B. Straubel, a private flyover by a Northrop F-5E fighter, and catering that ran the gamut from a whole roasted pig to caviar omelets.)

Further growth, however, is not high on the UP agenda. In the increasingly crowded landscape of urban air mobility conferences, UP’s value is precisely in its exclusivity — with each attendee “hand-picked,” according to Sigari, for their recognized or potential contributions to electric flight. By assembling only the industry’s most serious players, TexasUP created a charged environment in which each casual introduction over whiskey cocktails could lead to transformative partnerships.

“It changed our business, coming to BentonvilleUP,” Beta Technologies founder Kyle Clark told attendees during a “lightning talk” in which he revealed his latest eVTOL aircraft, ALIA. The eVTOL industry is famously secretive, but the UP events encourage an unusual degree of transparency. Said Clark: “It’s nice to be around people that are going through the same experiences, the same types of challenges, and we can get a little uncomfortable and totally expose what we’re doing.”

Of course, exposing what you’re doing is also the best way to attract the attention of investors, who made up about a third of the attendees. Sigari estimated that they represented over $100 billion of investable capital, and while not all of that will be put toward eVTOLs, even a fraction of it could be hugely enabling for an industry that is dauntingly capital-intensive.

There was plenty of investor enthusiasm at TexasUP for the extraordinary innovations on display. Joining Clark as lightning talk presenters were not only other eVTOL developers, but also inventors of key supporting technologies. Richard Wang of Cuberg described how his California startup is developing lithium-metal batteries that have already demonstrated 70 percent longer flight times in small consumer drones than conventional lithium-ion batteries. Sanjiv Singh of Near Earth Autonomy shared his work with computer vision systems that can navigate drones through dense forests at breathtaking speeds.

Ben Marcus took the stage to explain how AirMap is laying the groundwork for a future in which thousands of densely concentrated aircraft will be managed safely and efficiently, in ways that far exceed the capabilities of air traffic control today. And Hillwood president Mike Berry shared plans for a new Mobility Innovation Zone at the Perot company’s AllianceTexas development, which will facilitate realistic testing of urban air mobility technologies while simultaneously positioning Hillwood as a leader in the associated infrastructure space.

Animating all of these discussions was an overarching vision in which eVTOL air taxis will someday whisk us all around cities with joyful efficiency — without spewing the emissions that could trigger a Blade Runner-style dystopia. That optimism was powerfully expressed by Sirius satellite radio founder and United Therapeutics CEO Martine Rothblatt, who is funding Beta Technologies and several other eVTOL projects. Accepting the inaugural UP Award for her contributions to the industry, Rothblatt reflected, “I look at the trend of technology, and I say, ‘What good in the world can be done from this trend in technology?’ For satellites it was music for everybody in every single genre, and for electric aviation, it’s allowing everybody to fly every place, anytime.”

Rothblatt, like many TexasUP attendees, is phenomenally wealthy. Just hours after her acceptance remarks, The Verge published an unrelated article criticizing the flying taxi future as “elitist and underwhelming” — making it tempting to see the swanky gathering celebrating that future as a disconnected example of Silicon Valley hubris.

The fact is, however, that in a room full of people generally selected for their brilliance, no one was actually that stupid. Both on the stage and in private conversations, investors expressed a canny awareness of the risks involved in the space, from a near-total lack of enabling regulation, to big unknowns involving noise and community acceptance. Company leaders emphasized the pragmatism of their approaches — like Tine Tomažič from Pipistrel, who revealed that the Slovenian aircraft manufacturer will be temporarily idling its air taxi project to focus on a low-cost cargo drone.

Yet the essential tension in the urban air mobility space is that even as its proponents privately question the feasibility of our flying taxi future — whether Uber really will be able to launch its first eVTOLs by 2023, say, or whether these new vehicles really will be affordable for the masses — they recognize the value of a bold, audacious vision. Modest proposals for incremental advancements in aviation don’t attract waves of passionate innovators. They don’t put pressure on regulators to overhaul their outdated certification requirements, and, most importantly, they don’t compel the heaps of cash needed to bring aircraft to market.

The dream of urban air mobility has already done all of those things. The promise of TexasUP is that if we spin out that dream a while longer, we might wake up to a world where it has actually come true.

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