It’s widely believed that the future of eVTOL aircraft lies in autonomous flight.
Along with other investors, Boeing has made major investments in Wisk Aero, which plans to go straight to market as autonomous. Brazil-based Eve Air Mobility is also actively preparing for eventual autonomous flight, but is designing for piloted eVTOL operation in the meantime, with a four-passenger model to be released in 2026.
Eve continues to make steady progress in developing autonomous tech. In May, Eve’s parent company Embraer concluded a series of experimental flights in Rio de Janeiro with Eve and other partners, evaluating autonomous systems in real flight conditions as part of the Embraer Autonomous Systems project (Project EASy).
Also in May, Embraer, ITA (Brazil’s Technological Institute of Aeronautics), and FAPESP (São Paulo Research Foundation) jointly invested R$48 million (US$8.9 million) in an Engineering Research Center for research over the next five years into three areas: autonomous systems, low carbon aviation and advanced manufacturing.
In May, looking to Eve’s future, Julio Bolzani, head of autonomous systems at Embraer, said that “as Eve begins operations, pilots will be on board and will also benefit from the application of these technologies through a safer and simplified vehicle operation until we reach a fully-certified autonomous flight system.”
We spoke with Eve’s co-CEO Andre Stein about autonomous tech progress, innovation crossover with autonomous land vehicle systems, how the first eVTOL designs can impact public acceptance of autonomous flight, and more.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
eVTOL.com: You’ve said previously that some markets around the globe will likely see autonomous eVTOL flights before the U.S. does. Why is that?
Andre Stein: In smaller countries and markets — and by smaller, I mean the aerospace market size that exists now — disruption can be faster. This applies to markets in Asia, but also New Zealand, the Middle-East and Africa. In these places, they of course have appropriate regulatory authority for aviation, but there isn’t a large legacy of regulations and there isn’t a lot of companies like there is in the U.S. or Europe. In Brazil, we also see this smaller type of regulatory environment where faster disruption can happen.
eVTOL.com: Do you think that the size and complexity of the U.S. aerospace market will mean that autonomous eVTOL operation there will be greatly delayed compared to many other markets around the world?
Andre Stein: I don’t know. The FAA [U.S. Federal Aviation Administration] is very engaged in discussions about automated flight. But because it has a big aerospace environment to control and many companies, the FAA has to be more cautious with all eVTOL regulations. There is more inertia. At the end of the day, aviation must remain the safest way to travel.
eVTOL.com: Besides smaller market size, what else might speed the adoption of autonomous tech?
Andre Stein: The use of drones in some markets may also speed up the creation of a regulatory framework for automated eVTOLs. Drones, of course, have a different regulatory environment than eVTOLs, but as they are regulated and their uses expand, it helps to create a blueprint for how things can be with eVTOLs. Drones are already being applied here in Brazil in the urban environment, and larger cargo drones are being developed in China and Japan. We’ll see how this affects the regulation of eVTOLs in these places and how regulations for drones can be applied to autonomous eVTOL flight.
eVTOL.com: What about the development of autonomous ground vehicles. How might that help with development of autonomous eVTOL tech?
Andre Stein: There are several different layers. There is now convergence of technology used in autonomous cars and existing aerospace systems and eVTOLs. Cars are using aerospace technologies. In a way, eVTOL automated technologies should be easy to develop because it’s more structured than the ground environment. There is take-off and flight path, and landing and alternative landings if needed. On the ground, there can be potential unexpected obstacles like a car pulling out in front of you.
eVTOL automation will use a lot of the systems already used in aerospace. Today’s commercial airplanes are all but automatic — auto-land, auto take-off and auto-correction — and even with manual mode, the controls don’t allow you to go beyond certain parameters like maximum landing speed. A lot of these automation challenges with these big aircraft were bigger — they have a lot of speed and weight compared to an eVTOL — but the challenges have been met. eVTOLs are small and agile.
Yes, there will be other eVTOLs in the sky but that is easy to handle, and if there is a flock of birds, the system can detect that from a distance. With multiple engines, if a bird gets in one, the other engines are still OK. All eVTOLs have the ability to stop and hover in the air if needed. They can easily go to another landing spot — any flat area — in case of emergency. So, automation with eVTOLs is so much easier compared to large planes.
eVTOL.com: To encourage public acceptance of automated flight, you’ve called for “early engagement.” What does this mean?
Andre Stein: In Rio, we’ve engaged with the public already in several ways. As you mentioned, in May, we held trials where helicopters carried a package of sensors to explore automated tech, and it was very visible to the public. We talked a lot with the public about it — how it was machine learning — and we got data on how an automated system operates, how we can teach it to learn to recognize a landing spot for example. We created a YouTube video. All of this helps build the perception that autonomous flight is a safe way to travel.
We’re also looking at the design of eVTOLs in preparation for when they will be autonomous. There is a physical separation between pilots and passengers in planes now, but not in helicopters. In a helicopter, you can see the pilot and the controls. So, we are discussing this now — how to design a piloted eVTOL. Do we want people to see the pilot when someday there won’t be a pilot and that will be a shock? We talk a lot to our customers about it. We have mock-ups and use those in our discussions with customers.
eVTOL.com: How did the trials go in May to evaluate autonomous operations over Rio de Janeiro?
Andre Stein: It went well. There is a lot of data even though it was only a few short flights. In analyzing the data, it will become clear which type of data is valuable and what types of data you want more of next time. It was important that it took place in the urban environment where eVTOLs will be deployed. It was a very big milestone for us.