Gerrard Cowan
By Gerrard Cowan

Gerrard Cowan is a freelance journalist who specializes in finance and defense. Follow him on Twitter @gerrardcowan

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UKRI seeing strong response to Future Flight Challenge

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) has received a strong early response to its Future Flight Challenge, the organization has told eVTOL.com, with plans underway to form consortia out of interested participants in early 2020.

Vertical Aerospace Seraph - Future Flight
Vertical Aerospace’s recently unveiled Seraph eVTOL. Based in Bristol, U.K., the eVTOL developer is one of the companies that could benefit from the Future Flight Challenge. Vertical Aerospace Photo

Future Flight Challenge is a government-backed program aimed at supporting the development of technologies in urban air mobility, including eVTOL platforms; it has a range of other focuses, including drones and hybrid-electric regional aircraft. The program will provide a number of funding opportunities to companies in the space; it is backed by £125 million from the U.K. government, and expects a further £175 million in finance from industry sources. UKRI, which is overseeing the Future Flight Challenge, is an independent body that is principally funded by the British government. 

Future Flight Challenge aims to tap into the opportunities offered by two major trends in aerospace, said Gary Cutts, interim challenge director – Future Flight at UKRI. These are the electrification of vehicles and the possible use of autonomy, he told eVTOL.com.

“These are driving the development of lots of potential vehicles, from industrial drones to electric air taxis to autonomy and electrification in larger aircraft vehicle classes,” he said.

In terms of vehicle types, Cutts said Future Flight is particularly focused on drones; smaller, regional conventional aircraft with electric or hybrid electric propulsion systems; and eVTOL platforms. However, the premise of Future Flight is that developing platform technologies alone will not be enough, Cutts said. There will need to be an overarching change in the aviation industry, in every aspect from air traffic management (ATM) to the physical infrastructure that these new classes of aircraft will require. It will also be crucial to engage with the wider public to ensure a readiness for such new forms of aviation.

“We need to encourage and support the wider aviation industry in putting in place an aviation system to accept these new classes of vehicles,” he said. “It’s not a vehicle-only activity — there are many others doing that already.”

The first competition under Future Flight opened at the end of September and will close for submissions on Nov. 13, Cutts said. He described this as a “discovery phase” in which UKRI is inviting a wide range of participants to come forward with ideas. This phase will continue until early February, with UKRI analyzing the participants’ pitches. It has a broad scope, he said, with the aim of “bringing people together and setting a direction, but also understanding the range of technologies that are available.”

The first phase will conclude with a series of workshops on Feb. 4 and 5, which will aim to form consortia out of bidders to phase one and refine the challenge ahead of phase two. This second phase will begin in April, and will see consortia bidding to undertake funded activity. 

There has been a strong response so far, Cutts said. As of late October, UKRI had held a series of formal and informal briefing events, along with two larger networking events. Most of these were attended by 100 to 200 organizations or more, he said. Additionally, he said that a wide range of firms have expressed interest, “not just established aerospace companies, although they are also keen on being involved. We’re seeing a number of other participants, including some really interesting small companies with novel ideas.”

Cutts stressed that Future Flight is not prioritizing particular classes of technology, with a wide range of areas of interest. He pointed to technologies related to the vehicle itself, including electrification and power conversion. Second, he said ATM is “a key enabler,” with the aim of integrating the new aircraft into the current airspace. The volume of new aircraft underpins the third category of interest: safety systems like detect-and-avoid technologies that will enable air taxis and similar vehicles to navigate around cities, along with communications technology to allow operators to maintain contact with the platforms. Finally, Cutts emphasized the importance of infrastructure, such as building “vertiports” in city centers. 

Cutts expects these areas to grow as a focus for UKRI in the coming years. While Future Flight Challenge will run to the end of March 2024, “we envisage it being part of a longer-range set of activities that the U.K. can undertake to drive electrification.”

Darrell Swanson is a U.K.-based aviation consultant with a particular focus on the infrastructure side of future flight; he attended one of the Future Flight Challenge workshops. He said that the U.K. and Europe as a whole are somewhat behind the U.S. market on air taxis and other sides of the market, where he said it is easier for early-stage startups to secure funding from investors. However, he believes the U.K. has an opportunity to quickly catch up, pointing to the potential contribution of the country’s universities and programs like Future Flight Challenge.

“We’re hoping that’s going to catalyze the market,” he said.

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