It’s safe to say that 2020 was not the year that any of us hoped for. Even in the midst of a pandemic, however, the eVTOL industry has continued to make remarkable progress, both with the vehicles themselves — like the Joby S4, which was revealed at the start of the year and has been making more frequent appearances in recent months — and in creating the ecosystem that will support them.
When the cancellation of South by Southwest in March disrupted the U.S. Air Force’s planned launch event for Agility Prime, the service nimbly pivoted, staging a week-long virtual launch that was seen by thousands more people than could have attended an in-person event in Texas. Other organizations, including NASA and the Vertical Flight Society, have done the same, creating opportunities to connect online to keep moving the industry forward.
Of course, there were some casualties. Notably, cash-strapped Boeing announced it was suspending work at its innovation unit Boeing NeXt, which had been developing eVTOL prototypes for passenger and cargo applications. Overwhelmingly, though, the stories we told in 2020 were about an industry moving steadily forward — a theme reflected in this list of our most-viewed stories of the year.
On Aug. 25, Japanese eVTOL developer SkyDrive performed the first public demonstration flight of its SD-03 eVTOL at the Toyota Test Field in Toyota City, Japan, and our readers were naturally eager to check out the company’s progress. However, where this video really took off was on our YouTube channel, racking up well over 1 million views and counting. We have to think that a big part of the video’s appeal was the presence of a human pilot at the controls — sending the message that this early version of a “flying car” is more than just an oversized drone.
When COVID-19 ravaged Europe early in the year, it was reasonable to worry that the pandemic might derail work on CityAirbus, the electric multicopter being developed at Airbus Helicopters’ facilities in Donauwörth, Germany. Airbus was quick to reassure us that the company remained committed to the technology demonstrator, even though COVID-19 had slowed down its flight testing progress. As a spokesperson emphasized: “Airbus considers new forms of air transport such as UAM [urban air mobility] an opportunity to develop key technologies for the future of VTOL platforms, including electric flight and autonomy.”
Autoflight debuted the V400 in September at the World UAV Federation’s 2020 Drone World Congress in Shenzhen, China — and the sleek-looking cargo drone was as big of a draw on our website as it was at the show. With a wingspan of nine meters (29.5 feet) and an airframe made from high-strength carbon fiber, the V400 will have a maximum takeoff weight of 400 kilograms (880 pounds) and a payload of 100 kg (220 lb.). Autoflight is developing two versions of the “Albatross”: a fully electric model with a target range of 300 kilometers (186 miles) with full payload, and a hybrid-electric version with a range up to 1,000 km (620 mi).
Roland Berger’s rosy outlook for the urban air mobility market attracted keen interest — both from those who agree with their predictions, and those who do not. The consultancy firm predicts that by 2050, a global fleet of 160,000 eVTOL air taxis will be generating annual revenues of nearly US$90 billion. That’s up from the 100,000 air taxis it predicted two years ago, mostly because the firm now projects that many more cities will implement UAM than initially expected. With respect to the “short-term effects” of COVID-19, Roland Berger said: “Overall delays are only expected to run to about six months and are more likely to delay UAM launches than jeopardize the implementation of UAM as a whole.”
Airspace is a huge part of the ecosystem that will enable urban air mobility. 2020 saw a number of major developments on that front, including the recent release of an urban air traffic management concept of operations by EmbraerX and Airservices Australia. However, our most popular airspace-related story this year was a summary of the Federal Aviation Administration’s first ConOps for UAM, which outlines concepts including “UAM corridors” and “providers of services for UAM.” According to Steve Bradford, the FAA’s chief scientist for Architecture and NextGen Development, the ConOps is the initial stage of “a work in progress” that will continue to mature “through ongoing government and industry stakeholder collaboration.”
Not every setback this year was COVID-related. In February, the German eVTOL developer Lilium suffered a serious blow when its first full-scale Lilium Jet demonstrator was substantially damaged in a fire that broke out during ground maintenance activities. Although a second full-scale demonstrator was reportedly undamaged, pandemic-related restrictions hampered the company from resuming flight test activities in 2020.
We wish we could show you the video promised by this headline, but we deleted it at the owner’s request. Before we did, however, thousands of lucky readers caught a glimpse of a Rolls-Royce research testbed undergoing ground tests at Cranfield Airport in the U.K. The video, originally posted to Reddit, showed what appeared to be a VTOL aircraft with six propellers, four on its wing and two on the twin tail, similar to an eVTOL concept released by Rolls-Royce in 2018. The company told us: “As part of our activity with Cranfield at the Aerospace Integration Research Centre, we have developed a research rig aimed at helping us understand the propulsion systems requirements for future electric and hybrid electric aircraft.”
As the eVTOL industry progresses to the actual buying and selling of aircraft, it will have a host of new issues to consider. In our third most-viewed story of 2020, airline captain Alex Scerri unpacks the subject of establishing warranties and performance guarantees. “Anyone who has ever been involved in this process will vouch that this is one of the more demanding tasks that the technical and legal departments of a company will face as a team, whether on the operator or airframer side of the table,” Scerri observed. But the effort is necessary and worthwhile, as clear contracts will “establish a sound relationship between the operators and the manufacturers that will promote trust and ensure a mutually beneficial growth of the industry.”
2. Lilium reportedly seeking public investment via SPAC in high-stakes test for electric air taxi-makers
Given a few more days of traffic, managing editor Brian Garrett-Glaser’s Dec. 21 deep dive into Lilium’s investment prospects might well have been our most-viewed article of the year. But since no one wants to see 2020 extended by so much as another minute, it will have to rank as No. 2. Garrett-Glaser explores why special purpose acquisition companies are gaining popularity as a route to public markets, especially for early stage companies with transformational technologies. He then looks what a SPAC deal could mean for Lilium — and the eVTOL industry more broadly.
Whether for its funky appearance or what it says about the long-term ambitions of the world’s dominant plane maker, CityAirbus always seems to draw attention. Last year, a glimpse of the aircraft in tethered flight testing propelled CityAirbus to the No. 2 spot on our list of most-viewed stories; this year, its first public flight demonstration attracted more views than anything else on our site. But instead of that video, we’ve chosen to highlight one released 10 days later, when the aircraft performed its first fully automatic flight. Since then, the demonstrator has continued to make progress, relocating in August to Manching, Germany, for flight envelope expansion.