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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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Our Top 10 eVTOL stories of 2020

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.

10. Video: SkyDrive’s piloted eVTOL makes its first public flight

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.

9. Airbus reaffirms commitment to CityAirbus eVTOL

CityAirbus eVTOL
The CityAirbus multicopter is a fully electric, 2.2-tonne air taxi prototype that made its first tethered take-off in May 2019. Airbus Photo

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.”

8. Autoflight continues to scale up its eVTOL aircraft as it launches the V400

Autoflight V400 cargo drone
Autoflight plans to develop both fully electric and hybrid versions of its V400 cargo drone. Autoflight Image

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).

7. Roland Berger says air taxi market is ‘set to soar’

Roland Berger air taxi
According to Roland Berger, US$907 million flowed into the UAM industry in the first six months of 2020, more than 20 times the amount invested in 2016. Roland Berger Image

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.”

6. FAA publishes first concept of operations for urban air mobility

FAA UAM corridor concept
UAM corridors would have specific rules, procedures, and requirements, which would remain constant regardless of the class of the surrounding airspace. FAA Image

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.”

5. Lilium eVTOL prototype damaged in ground fire

Lilium Jet side view
Nobody was injured in the Feb. 27 ground fire at Lilium’s facilities at Oberpfaffenhofen airport, but the company’s first full-scale Lilium Jet was taken out of service. Lilium Photo

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.

4. UPDATED: Video shows Rolls-Royce eVTOL testbed conducting ground tests at Cranfield Airport

Rolls Royce eVTOL
Concept image released by Rolls-Royce in 2018 of an eVTOL aircraft demonstrator. Rolls-Royce Image

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.”

3. Performance guarantees will be critical for eVTOL market adoption

EHang aircraft
China’s EHang has already sold a number of its autonomous aerial vehicles to customers. EHang Photo

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

Lilium Lake Nona vertiport
Lilium has attracted lots of attention to its vision of regional air mobility, including the Orlando, Florida vertiport unveil pictured here. Lilium Image

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.

1. CityAirbus performs first public flight demonstration

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.

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8 Comments

  1. EHang performed the first autonomous flight of an unmanned air taxi in NC, but not in the US. Unmanned flights by Zee (Kitty Hawk / Cora), Joby, Opener, Airbus, LIFT, Aurora, XTI and others happened before it; at least some were autonomous if not all.

  2. Automatic anti-collision device should be mandatory for these vehicles, as well as automatic parachutes in the event of a crash.

  3. There are serious Aeronautical engineering mistakes in all theses designs. Aeronautical engineering is not equipped to handle theses geometries. Need to work in Fluid Mechanics physics.
    We have a patent application for a silent Propeller, an absolute must when these are flying over our heads.
    Also have much improved Propeller for forward and hovering, as well as a better electric-motor
    [email protected]

  4. Surprised that there is no mention of Beta Technologies in this article. The seem to be further along than most of those mentioned.

  5. I would say the most intriguing story for me was Xpeng Motors, a Chinese EV startup that invested in another local advanced air mobility (AAM) startup. It heralds the convergence of road and air. We’ve seen automotive OEM invest in the AAM but not startups invested in them.

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