Gerrard Cowan
By Gerrard Cowan

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

q-and-a

Q-and-A with Sikorsky’s Jonathan Hartman

Unlike competing helicopter manufacturers, Lockheed Martin’s Sikorsky has yet to reveal an eVTOL concept, but much of its work bears directly or indirectly on the emerging urban air mobility (UAM) space. It is deeply involved on the autonomy side, for example, notably through its Matrix program and Sikorsky Autonomy Research Aircraft (SARA). The company is also focusing on the infrastructure technologies that will support the future of urban air mobility; this work was on display last November at CoMotion LA, where Sikorsky collaborated with Otis Elevator and Helinet Aviation to demonstrate how a future UAM system could work, from booking the platform on an app to meeting it at a heliport.

Sikorsky Autonomy Research Aircraft
The Sikorsky Autonomy Research Aircraft (SARA) is an S-76 helicopter modified with Sikorsky’s Matrix autonomy technology. Non-pilots have flown it with a tablet and minimal instruction. Sikorsky Photo

Such work is overseen by Jonathan Hartman, disruptive technologies lead for Sikorsky Innovations. In an interview with eVTOL.com, he outlined the company’s ambitions in UAM, describing how its legacy as a helicopter manufacturer informs its vision for the future.

eVTOL.com: How important is urban air mobility in your role? 

Jonathan Hartman: My job is to help the company expand into new spaces, markets and technologies that could fundamentally alter either our customers’ missions or how we build and produce our products. UAM is a big part of that.

However, it’s important to recognize that UAM is actually a new term for a continuing mission, which is all about moving people and goods around cities. We already have products that service the UAM market today — our S-76 and S-92 commercial helicopters. So we’ve been in that business since helicopters first operated in and around cities, and will continue to be so.

To me, [the future of UAM is] about how we can bring new technologies and new capabilities to help our existing and new commercial and military customers complete their missions. 

eVTOL.com: What are your major focuses in UAM from a technology point of view?

Hartman: We have a number of technology initiatives ongoing that we think are going to be important in this space. Number one is autonomy. Right now SARA has over 300 flight hours. Over a dozen people have flown SARA using the Matrix system, with only about 30 minutes of training. We think Matrix in its maturity is going to be applicable across a wide range of markets, city mobility being one of them. 

Jonathan Hartman, Sikorsky
Jonathan Hartman, Sikorsky disruptive technologies lead. Sikorsky Photo

We also have a deep investment and commitment to fleet management. We have our Customer Care Center today that monitors commercial aircraft around the world, ensuring safety and reliability. We think that sort of technology is going to be directly applicable as cities use increasing numbers of eVTOL vehicles for ever-increasing mission densities. And then we have experience going back to 2008 with Project Firefly on the electric propulsion side.

Infrastructure is a major part of our vision, plotting what that seamless space experience looks like. It’s about reaching out to have conversations with non-traditional collaborators for aviation folks — companies like Otis Elevator — to talk about that integration piece.

eVTOL.com: How will urban infrastructure need to adapt for the future of UAM?

Hartman: I think actually the really critical piece is the interface between infrastructure and mobility: how buildings, cities and infrastructure interact with the transportation that serves them. At the end of the day, what we’re talking about here is creating a seamless experience and journey. It’s about [developing] the security that gains the acceptance, it’s not about individual pieces.

You have to think about it as somebody who wants to take a trip, starts from somewhere, and has to transit from that somewhere to the place of departure. That could be within their building, next door, and up or down elevators, that sort of thing. Then they have to take the transportation to where they’re going and then they have to get to their final destination, which could be hundreds of feet to miles away. The more we can condense that and the more we can make that seamless, I think will be really important. 

eVTOL.com: Is this a challenge from a technological point of view?

Hartman: In most places in the world infrastructure already exists, whether good, bad, or indifferent. There are very few places where you can “clean sheet” a new mobility solution. The challenge is how do you integrate within those existing infrastructure paradigms and how do you infuse that with safety and reliability that the community that’s getting this new form of mobility is going to accept?

eVTOL.com: You demonstrated your UAM infrastructure vision at CoMotion LA — what type of feedback did you receive?

Hartman: We went to CoMotion to have a conversation about the future of mobility in cities, and that’s exactly what we got. We posted some polling questions for folks to go and vote on things as simple as the safety needs of these future vehicles. The responses were fascinating, but the conversations that formed around them were even more so. We couldn’t have been happier about the presence and look forward to more of those sorts of engagements going forward. 

eVTOL.com: Sikorsky is best known as a helicopter manufacturer. What role will more traditional helicopters play in the future of UAM? 

Hartman: Large-rotor, low-disc-loading vehicles are going to continue to play an important role across a wide range of missions, including urban air mobility. Going from a hydrocarbon-based propulsion to an electric-based propulsion changes a lot of things, but it does not alter fundamental physics. Large-rotor, low-disc-loading solutions are made for hovering missions, for life-saving missions, for situations that will continue to be critically important.

Do I think there’s a potential to infuse new technology into existing configurations? Absolutely. Do I think there’s room for new configurations that will help explore some boundaries? Absolutely. But I don’t see one overtaking the other. 

eVTOL.com: So you don’t think helicopters will be replaced by eVTOLs or air taxis in any particular roles? 

Hartman: Helicopters are air taxis today. Operators of air taxis or operators of aerial services are going to continue to make decisions based on their best available vehicles in the marketplace. Do I see a mix of configurations of those vehicles? Absolutely. 

eVTOL.com: Why isn’t Sikorsky working on its own eVTOL, as some of your rivals are? 

Hartman: Sikorsky is a world leader in vertical take-off and landing solutions. The predominant focus happens to be helicopters today, but that certainly doesn’t mean we don’t have a broad range of expertise. I’m not going to speculate on future plans as to where we may go or what we might do, but we are very engaged in the space both publicly and privately, and look forward to continuing those discussions.

This is an early market opportunity. There’s still a long way to go and a lot to develop here. The whole company continues to look forward to being innovators and leaders across a broad range of markets, both commercially and militarily.

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