A new aircraft being built in Vermont has no need for jet fuel. It can take off and land without a runway. Amazon and the Air Force are both betting on it. So who will be in the cockpit?
Several companies are betting they can bring electric urban air travel to the masses — perhaps within the next few years.
New technology, a few iPads and a quick tutorial can help anyone act like a pilot. Dealing with air traffic control is another matter.
While much of the eVTOL industry has its sights set on urban air taxis or cargo transportation, entrepreneur Matthew Pearson had another idea: electric flying race cars. So in 2019, he founded two companies, Alauda Aeronautics to manufacture the aircraft and Airspeeder, an international series to race them. Now, Airspeeder says it has completed the first test flights of the debut electric flying race car and is poised to host the inaugural race of its EXA series this year.
That flying race car, the electric Alauda Mk3, had its test flights in south Australia. They were observed by Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority, who certified the aircraft. Pearson’s vision – and what you can see by watching some of Airspeeder’s cinematic trailers – is a race somewhat reminiscent of Star Wars’ iconic podracing, without a human or creature in the pilot seat.
The first three races, which are set to take place in 2021, will all feature remotely piloted aircraft. The company is planning for a crewed showcase as early as 2022.
The unpiloted Mk3, which can reach top speeds of 124 miles per hour (200 km/h), weighs just 286 pounds (130 kg). It can accelerate from 0 to 62 mph in 2.8 seconds, the company said, likening it to the Tesla Model S or the Porsche Taycan. In fidelity to Formula One and NASCAR, the Mk3 has a removable battery for quick replacement during pitstops. In-house pitstop crews have been able to replace the battery, which was designed by Alauda, in just under 20 seconds. The Mk3 is able to fly 10 to 15 minutes on a single battery pack, so during a 45-minute race, pilots on the ground will remotely navigate the aircraft to land for a pitstop about three times.
Mk3 is equipped with a combination of LiDAR, radar and machine vision that Pearson said creates a collision avoidance system. The company did not specify to TechCrunch the number of sensors that are on each craft and declined to provide further details on the system, citing proprietary information. The challenge of designing a safety system for a flying race car, however, is allowing enough flexibility so that the aircraft can get as close together as possible, without actually hitting each other. This is a problem for the pilots who will be competing against each other, but also Airspeeder’s system.
Pearson explained it like this: “The vehicles are talking to each other, they know where the others are and they’re all solving the collision avoidance problem in the same way using the same algorithm. So they know they can predict each other’s behavior. There’s that as the kind of framework for collision avoidance, but inside that, we want to give the pilots as much freedom and as much control as possible. So dialing up where the barrier is between pilot and machine is going to be a really interesting thing.”
While it’s tempting to draw comparisons to major eVTOL companies that are developing air taxi services, Pearson said the economics and path to commercialization for electric flying race cars is different. “The commercialization model is a lot more rapid,” he said. “We can be racing before anyone can be in commercial operations.”
One reason why they can be so agile is because its certification pathway is very different from that required by air taxis designed to shuttle people. Those startups can spend many hundreds of millions of dollars – up to $1 billion, by some estimates – on the design, certification, and manufacture of a single aircraft model. The Mk3 is flying under an experimental certification with Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority that means that while it must meet certain safety and airworthiness standards, the regulatory burden is far less than for a passenger aircraft.
“The important thing about our program is to keep the vehicles in constant development cycles. So instead of trying to build one vehicle, and then certify it over 10 years, we’re trying to build new aircraft every year,” he explained. “It’s not how aviation really functions normally. And certainly, if you want to get into passenger applications, that’s not how you do it.”
Airspeeder had its first funding round in April 2020 for an unspecified amount, which was led by Australian investors Saltwater Capital and Jelix Ventures. Pearson said he’d also provide capital, and they’ve managed to attract partnerships from logistics company BHL and luxury watch maker IWC Schaffhausen. The company declined to provide further specifics on how it’s managed to fund a small-scale aeronautics manufacturing operation from the ground up.
Inside Silicon Valley’s 10-year quest to make soaring above a crowded city street as easy as calling an Uber.
Over the last two days, two companies have outlined radically different—yet oddly familiar—visions for the future of air travel.
One idea is built around a buzzing network of small, electrically powered vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft ferrying commuters in and out of dense urban areas, a tantalizing vision prophesied since at least the 1950s. The other vision bets on a fleet of a few dozen supersonic airliners jetting well-heeled travelers from one global city to another, a dream that many thought died with the Concorde some 20 years ago.
Oddly, it’s the flying cars that seem closer to reality this time. Yesterday, Joby Aviation announced another step in its plan to bring eVTOL services to the masses. The company has signed an agreement with two real estate companies, Neighborhood Property Group and Reef Technology (the latter is a sort of WeWork for non-office commercial real estate), to allow rooftop access to Reef’s 5,000 parking garages in the US and Europe. By comparison, there are about 5,600 US heliports, which are managed by a patchwork of owners.
A number of startups have promised to bring a drive-and-fly vehicle to market over the past few years, but none have yet managed to follow through. NFT Inc. is betting it will succeed where its rivals have failed, with preorders opening Thursday for ASKA, company’s first electric flying car.
The SUV-sized ASKA ( which means ‘flying bird’ in Japanese) may be better described as a plane that drives, rather than a car that flies. Even when its six rotors are folded closed, the vehicle has the unmistakable look of a flying craft, with a helicopter-esque bubble front windows and a distinct tail that would be familiar to anyone who has flown on an airplane.
ASKA isn’t anticipated to be delivered until 2026, which is the point by which the company estimates regulations on safety and traffic control will have developed enough to support consumer use of new aerial mobility vehicles. A company person confirmed that NFT has already started receiving preorders for the vehicle, which comes with a $789,000 price tag that includes pilot training.
Being the first company to bring a consumer flying car to market is an ambitious goal. NFT declined to disclose its backers, but it did say that the preorders – which require a $5,000 deposit – are fully refundable.
Company co-founders Guy Kaplinsky and Maki Kaplinsky told TechCrunch that aerial mobility vehicles – the ASKA chief amongst them – will fundamentally change urban and suburban life.
“It’s going to change the dynamic of the cities,” Guy Kaplinsky said. “Urban air mobility is going to redefine the suburb and rural areas,” Maki Kaplinsky added. “It’s going to transition wealth into outlying areas [. . .] and I’m sure it’s going to be of great interest for those surrounding suburbs.”
It’s easy to imagine how this might be the case: freed from the shackles of urban living and its attendant traffic patterns, the ultra-wealthy would be able to relocate to areas even beyond the suburbs, given ASKA’s 250-mile range, and travel into cities only when they needed or wanted to.
What sets ASKA apart from its competitors, the cofounders say, is that customers won’t need to go to an airport to use the craft. Likewise, regulators would not need to worry about a large influx of urban air mobility users in airports. Instead, they’ve designed ASKA for door-to-door transportation – all the driver needs is enough space for the vehicle to unfold its wings and rotor blades. While ASKA can take off on a runway, like a conventional airplane, it’s also capable of vertical lifting, like a helicopter. Guy Kaplinsky explained that conventional takeoff is less energy intensive, and that customers may choose this form of takeoff in a rural area, where there’s lots of space, and vertically land in the city.
Each rotor will be equipped with an independent battery pack, but the company also decided to install two range extenders for redundancy, which will supply power by gasoline. The two middle rotors of the plane can also act as wings and can support gliding in case of emergencies.
“Most of our users are going to be new pilots and for us safety is the number one,” Guy Kaplinsky said. “The problem right now is the [battery] cell. There is no chemistry cell developer in the world that would tell you that his cell would not fail in the air, and we cannot take that risk.” ASKA could become all-electric at some point in the future however, depending on developments in battery technology, Kaplinsky said.
The ASKA will be small enough to be kept in a conventional garage or driveway, and will be able to recharge using existing charging stations that already exist for electric vehicles. Also matching some EV companies, ASKA will be equipped with third-party semi-autonomous technology. “Since we are targeting consumers that include non-professional pilots, we believe that semi-autonomous technology will help them feel comfortable having a certain degree of control, rather than sitting in a fully autonomous ‘robot’,” the company spokesperson told TechCrunch. Even if regulations allow full autonomy at some point in the future, “we believe that still many customers would appreciate having semi-autonomous/some degree of control,” the spokesperson added.
NFT also wants to reimagine the buying experience with its ASKA showroom opening in Los Altos, California on Thursday. There, customers will be able to speak to experts in aerodynamics and flight control. If a person is among the first 1,500 preorders, they will be given one share of the company and be inaugurated into what the company is calling the Founder’s Club. Members will be able to meet every three to six months with company executives.
In a year where mass transit on airplanes, trains and buses has had lower traveler numbers in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, one of the startups hoping to pioneer a totally new approach to getting individuals from A to B — flying taxis — has raised some significant funding.
Volocopter, a startup out of southern Germany (Bruchsal, specifically) that has been building and testing electric VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) aircraft, has picked up €200 million (about $241 million) in a Series D round of funding. Alongside its aircraft, Volocopter has also been building a business case in which its vessels will be used in a taxi-style fleet in urban areas. CEO Florian Reuter tells us that live services are now two years out for the two vehicle models it has been developing.
“We are actually expecting to certify our VoloCity in around two years and start commercial air taxi operations right after,” he said. “Paris and Singapore are in pole position [as the first cities], where Paris wants to get have electric air taxis established for the 2024 Olympics. With our VoloDrone we expect first commercial flights even earlier than with our VoloCity.”
To date, Volocopter has shown off its craft in flights in Helsinki, Stuttgart, Dubai, and over Singapore’s Marina Bay. In addition to Europe and Asia, it also wants to launch services in the U.S..
For some context, this is basically on track with what the company had previously projected: in 2019 — when Volocopter raised an initial $55 million in funding for its Series C (finally closed out at €87 million, around $94 million) — the company said it was three years away from service.
This latest (oversubscribed) Series D includes investments from a mix of financial and strategic backers. Funds managed by BlackRock; global infrastructure company Atlantia S.p.A.; Avala Capital; automotive parts behemoth Continental AG; Japan’s NTT via its venture capital arm; Tokyo Century, a Japanese leasing company; multiple family offices are all new investors, among others. Volocopter also said that all of its existing investors — that list includes Geely, Daimler, DB Schenker, Intel Capital, btov Partners, Team Europe, and Klocke Holding and more — also contributed to the round.
If that sounds like a big list, it’s somewhat intentional, as the task of what Volocopter is complex and requires a wide ecosystem of other players, said Rene Griemens, the company’s CFO.
“Getting urban air mobility off the ground requires a full ecosystem that we are developing right now. Many of our strategic partners will support us on different aspects of the supply chain, scaling components, entering markets, improving operations amongst others. Most of them know certain aspects of our business model really well (eg. Japan Airlines for aviation, Atlantia for infrastructure),” he said. “Their investment is a reflection of their excitement about Volocopter as a leader in building the entire ecosystem of UAM, thereby giving credibility and comfort for purely financial investors.”
He added that many of these companies have a very “hands-on partnership” with Volocopter. “DB Schenker, for example, is rolling out leading-edge heavily-load electric logistics drones together with us around the globe.”
The company has now raised nearly $390 million. We’re asking for an updated valuation, but for some context, PitchBook data estimates its valuation now at $624 million.
Moonshots and sunsets
Founded in 2011, Volocopter has now been working on its idea — distinctive for its very wide circular design that sits where the rotor on a helicopter would be — for a whole decade, and in many regards it’s the classic idea of a moonshot in action.
It has yet to make any money, and the product that it’s building to do so is very groundbreaking — flying into completely unchartered territory, so to speak — and therefore ultimately untested.
However, all of these have faced various hurdles ranging from investor lawsuits to bankruptcies, accidents, mothballed projects and divestments (perhaps most notably, Joby scooped up Elevate last year as Uber stepped away from costly moonshots).
And most importantly, none of them are flying commercially yet. With Volocopter (as with the others), investors have taken a long-term bet here on a concept and a team it believes can deliver.
For now, the company says that technology is no longer the barrier, and neither it seems are regulators, who are, in the pandemic, more focused on considering new approaches to old problems to improve efficiency and acknowledge that we might have to do things a little differently from now on, in the wake of new demands from public health, and the public.
In the case of VTOL craft, the promise has always been that they could bypass a lot of the issues with street congestion in urban areas, and provide a more environmental alternative to gas-guzzling, present-day transportation modes.
The challenge, on the other hand, has been determining the safety both of completely new devices, and also of the traffic and other systems that they would operate under. With the idea being that ultimately these craft would be autonomous, that adds another complex twist.
Interestingly, regulators in different markets that might have been more skeptical of new concepts seem to be more open to considering them differently now with the pandemic at hand. This has played out in other arenas, too, such as the electric scooter market in the UK, which saw a bump in activity after regulators long skeptical gave them a provisional nod last year, citing the need for more individualized transportation options in a pandemic-hit country.
Volocopter’s model is based around transporting one person or small parties, so in a sense might be attractive here too.
“There aren’t any major hurdles anymore in terms of the technology as such,” said Retuer. “It is now all about execution. EASA has defined what is necessary to get electric air taxis certified to the highest safety level in aviation. We have the best technology in the market to certify to EASA’s high safety standards and will keep our heads down to finalize the few remaining steps to certification.”
In contrast, he said the other challenges that remain are those of any highly technical startup: “Our largest challenge right now is talent acquisition,” he said. “We are looking for the best talents worldwide and growing our team quickly now, so that we can accelerate on the technical and market development sides. Especially in the markets where we will open early routes, such as Paris, Singapore, China and Japan, we are going full speed in preparing everything necessary from digital infrastructure to landing sites, city approvals and more.”
The “vertiport” is scheduled to be completed in 2025 in Orlando, which granted more than $800,000 in potential tax rebates to Lilium, a German aviation company that plans to build and operate the hub.
A Japanese company said it had completed a manned flight of its electrical vertical takeoff and landing machine. Experts say the technology needs work and that it will be expensive.