It has been a tremendous year for the eVTOL industry — and we’ve only been around for half of it. Since our launch during the Uber Elevate Summit in June, we’ve been reporting on an endless stream of news, from new aircraft reveals to blockbuster business deals. And we’ve been thrilled with the response. The growing number of visitors to eVTOL.com and subscribers to our weekly eVTOL Insider newsletter is testament to the enormous interest in the space, which represents billions or even trillions of dollars in potential market opportunity.
So even though we weren’t present for all of 2019, we have more than enough material for an annual Top 10 list. Here are our most popular stories of the year, as measured by page views.
In June, Boeing and Kitty Hawk announced a “strategic partnership” to advance safe urban air mobility. In early December, they revealed a new company, Wisk, to develop Kitty Hawk’s Cora eVTOL as an air taxi. Wisk is led by Gary Gysin, who previously served as president and CEO of Liquid Robotics, a developer of autonomous marine vehicles that was acquired by Boeing in 2016. The board includes several Boeing executives as well as Kitty Hawk CEO Sebastian Thrun.
Autonomy is one of the building blocks of the urban air mobility revolution, but certifying autonomous systems presents some special challenges. We sat down for an in-depth discussion on the topic with Luuk van Dijk, CEO of the Swiss startup Daedalean, which is using artificial intelligence to develop vision-based flight control systems for both conventional and eVTOL aircraft. A few months after this story was published, Honeywell announced that it had entered into a technological and financial partnership with Daedalean to further advance the startup’s efforts.
The U.K.-based eVTOL developer Vertical Aerospace revealed in October that it had spent the past several months flight testing a new eVTOL, called Seraph, which performed its maiden flight on Aug. 22 in Wales. The fully electric aircraft can carry loads up to 250 kilograms (550 pounds), but serves primarily as a research platform for the company’s production eVTOL, which will launch in 2020. As the company’s communications manager Verity Richardson explained, “Some things you just can’t do by computer simulation; sometimes you need to be able to build the actual aircraft to be able to learn from it.”
A number of eVTOL platforms launched flight testing in 2020, but one actually concluded its flight test campaign: Airbus’s Vahana, which first flew in January 2018. The autonomous technical demonstrator logged a total of 13.41 hours across 138 test flights, including a farthest flight of just over 27 nautical miles (50 kilometers) and a longest-duration flight of 19 minutes 56 seconds. “In the end we couldn’t be more proud of the stats we put up on the board with this project,” said Airbus VP of urban air mobility systems Zach Lovering, who explained that lessons learned from the project will inform the development of the aircraft manufacturer’s next eVTOL.
In October, Kitty Hawk’s third eVTOL platform, Heaviside, emerged from stealth mode with a video showing the aircraft in dynamic maneuvering flight. The design features an eight-motor distributed-propulsion powertrain, with six motors across both sides of a forward-swept wing, and two more on a nose-mounted canard. According to the video, Heaviside will be exceptionally quiet in cruise flight, registering just 38 dBa at 1,500 feet above the ground, compared to 60 dBa for a conventional light helicopter. With noise being a critical factor for public acceptance of eVTOL air taxis, props to Kitty Hawk (no pun intended) for addressing this issue head on.
We got a first look at Beta Technologies’ sleek new eVTOL aircraft, ALIA, at TexasUP, the exclusive investors conference held at Ross Perot, Jr.’s Texas ranch in November. Even though we weren’t able to share photos of the aircraft, our report on ALIA generated tremendous interest — and with good reason. This Vermont-based startup has already run through an extensive piloted flight test campaign with its full-size, fully electric Ava XC. It also has serious backing from launch customer United Therapeutics, which plans to use ALIA to transport human organs. We’re excited to actually show you this good-looking aircraft in 2020.
In late August, we paid a visit to the German eVTOL developer Lilium at its headquarters near Munich, where we sat down with CEO Daniel Wiegand and head of flight test Leandro Bigarella to learn more about the company and its fully electric Lilium Jet. There’s still a great deal of skepticism in the larger eVTOL community about the viability of the Lilium Jet, and specifically whether it will be able to achieve its promised 300-km (186-mile) range on battery power alone. Our visit didn’t resolve those questions, but it did convince us that the company has many talented people working methodically to achieve its vision.
At our sister publication Vertical, stories about helicopter accidents routinely dominate our annual Top 10 lists. That’s not just morbid curiosity at work — it reflects the fact that in the uniquely high-stakes world of vertical flight, every accident holds valuable lessons for the rest of us. The June 4 accident involving Boeing’s Passenger Air Vehicle is no exception. The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board revealed that the urban air mobility prototype crashed after resonant aircraft vibrations incorrectly activated the vehicle’s ground mode, commanding the motors to shut down — a post-mortem that should cause other eVTOL developers to closely examine their vehicle logic and consider some “what ifs.”
In May, just before our official launch, Airbus announced the first tethered take-off of its CityAirbus demonstrator, a 2.2-tonne, fully electric vehicle for urban air mobility. In early December, the company shared a photo of the aircraft in a tethered hover at its facilities in Donauwörth, Germany. It wasn’t much, but this glimpse of the aircraft in flight propelled the accompanying story to the number 2 position on our list. Like Airbus’s other eVTOL demonstrator, Vahana, CityAirbus is not intended for production, but will provide insights to guide the development of the company’s next eVTOL aircraft. Learn more about CityAirbus in our deeper dive published here.
Everyone loves to see a new aircraft model in flight, so it’s no surprise that Lilium earned the top spot on our list with video of the Lilium Jet strutting its stuff. The company shared the footage at the conclusion of the full-scale prototype’s first phase of flight testing, during which it achieved speeds of up to 100 km/h (62 mph). Lilium released the footage without aircraft sound, so we overlaid some soothing music on our cut, but we hope to hear what the vehicle really sounds like in 2020.