The CityAirbus demonstrator project is part of Airbus' wide approach to urban air mobility and eVTOLs. Other major helicopter OEMs are less invested at the moment. (Airbus)
The development of electric and hybrid VTOL (eVTOL) aircraft around the world promises to usher in a new era of aerial mobility, changing the cost of access to vertical flight and potentially opening new markets.
Each of the four major helicopter manufacturers — Airbus, Bell, Leonardo and Sikorsky — are taking a different approach to confronting the market disruption eVTOL aircraft and urban air mobility will leave in their wake, with the former two companies investing heavily in public projects on the bleeding edge of the vehicle revolution while the latter two maintain more of a "wait-and-see" approach to the vehicles themselves.
Interviews with helicopter executives from Airbus, Bell, Leonardo, Sikorsky and industry analysts shed light on what the near-to-medium term market impact is likely to be and the reasoning behind each OEM's strategy.
Of the four, Airbus’ exploration of the UAM space may be the most all-encompassing. The company has two ongoing vehicle projects — the unmanned Vahana demonstrator and the larger, four-passenger CityAirbus — which are intended to explore the performance characteristics of eVTOL aircraft and inform final design decisions. Vahana, which is slated to finish its flight testing this year, is run out of Airbus A³, the company’s Silicon Valley unit, while CityAirbus is under Airbus Helicopters.
The decision to explore eVTOLs in-house through these two demonstrator projects was intentional, according to Tomasz Krysinski, vice president of research and innovation at Airbus Helicopters.
“In the case of urban air mobility, we made the decision to do the testing and exploration ourselves,” Krysinski told Avionics International. “It is also the way we teach our engineers … this is the way we see Airbus and the evolution of technology. To be the leader, you must acquire the technology and learn what you are doing. We took it in-house to acquire and grow.”
Airbus is also exploring the operational realities of urban air mobility through Voom, its on-demand helicopter service currently available in a few cities across Latin and North America. Under Airbus A³, the company’s work on detect-and-avoid systems for the autonomous Vahana has evolved into the Wayfinder project, which intends to build autonomous systems for UAM and work toward the goal of single-pilot operations on Airbus commercial jets, according to Cédric Cocaud, chief engineer at Wayfinder.
Bell has also invested heavily in eVTOLs and urban air mobility, most notably by dropping “Helicopter” from the company’s name at the end of 2018 to indicate it aims to redefine flight and focus on innovation beyond helicopters. Scott Drennan, the company’s vice president of innovation, has been a regular presence at industry events discussing eVTOL aircraft, electric propulsion, unmanned systems and UAM.
“As a technology company, Bell is focused on the future of flight with next clean sheet designs more in the area of on-demand mobility and future vertical lift, for example, the V-280 Valor and Bell Nexus,” Bell stated in response to questions about its product strategy. “These technologies will be applied to enhance current platforms. New designs are not out of the question, based on market demands.”
Leveraging its experience as the manufacturer of the V-22 Osprey, Bell is developing both cargo and passenger aircraft that use tiltrotor technology to combine efficient forward flight with VTOL characteristics.
Bell's Nexus air taxi concept on display at CES 2019. (Bell)
Bell’s Autonomous Pod Transport program, or APT, is being designed as a scalable family of electric cargo drones for commercial and military applications. The company’s Nexus, a mainstay at industry events that was unveiled at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, employs hybrid propulsion and six ducted fans to move a pilot and four passengers 150 miles at top speeds of 150 mph. Drennan believes this configuration will be able to carry out the urban air mobility mission by the mid-2020s, and as part of the Uber Elevate family, the ridesharing giant appears to agree.
Bell is also flirting with the idea of operating its own aircraft to capitalize on more of the UAM market but has not yet reached a final decision. Although it is rumored that some of Uber’s vehicle partners have entered an exclusive agreement, Drennan made clear to Avionics International that this is not the case for Bell.
“I don’t want anyone who is looking at Nexus or APT as a potential to their mobility solutions to think that we are in an exclusive relationship with Uber,” he said.
Sikorsky and Leonardo
The remaining two majors, Sikorsky and Leonardo, aren’t as focused on developing new eVTOL aircraft. Sikorsky confirmed to Avionics it doesn’t have a vehicle concept in the works, though it tested electric propulsion a decade ago via its Firefly program, based on a Schweizer S-300C.
Sikorsky shared an urban air mobility video concept earlier this year that was grand in vision but short on specifics. Jonathan Hartman, disruptive technologies lead at the Lockheed Martin-owned company, explained that the video should be interpreted as Sikorsky’s “agreement that there are challenges in point to point short distance transportation today, and that new vehicles and new technologies can have a significant impact on that.”
“I do think that electric propulsion has the potential to vastly simplify vertical takeoff and landing vehicles,” Hartman told Avionics. “I think it has the potential for reduced acoustics and reduced costs … and the reason we’re seeing so much innovation in that smaller space is because that’s where the technology is ready for right now. It’s ready to disrupt the several-thousand-pound side of the market. I think we’re still watching it grow to see the intensity and curve of the S-curve that brings it up into larger and larger applications.”
But Hartman doesn’t think the vehicle is the most important element for Sikorsky to be working on at the moment. Instead, Sikorsky has worked with Otis, an elevator manufacturer, to develop an app that focuses on the logistics of getting the passenger to the correct helipad, an important problem for the UAM value proposition of saving time and trouble. The app is set to unveil at CoMotion LA later this week.
Sikorsky is also focused on applying advanced autonomy to helicopters, creating the Matrix system through which “with 30 or 40 minutes of training, anybody can safely operate a 12,000-pound helicopter,” according to Hartman. Matrix exemplifies the company’s focus on enabling technologies that can be applied to its core products.
“We haven’t made a final determination as to how we move forward in [the UAM] space,” Hartman concluded.
Leonardo, which hopes to soon gain certification for its AW609 civil tiltrotor, provided the following statement regarding its plans for UAM and eVTOL aircraft:
“Urban Air Mobility, personal transport in urban areas using electric aircraft that have the ability to take off and land vertically, is a new business segment which Leonardo is looking at with great interest. The company is investigating a number of possible routes to market that differ by type of partner, timing, risk profile and financial commitment. The challenge for Leonardo is to position itself successfully in a nascent segment that is poised between the worlds of automotive and aerospace engineering.”
A Leonardo representative made clear that any further comment on the company’s plan for eVTOLs and the urban air mobility market would be premature.
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Analysts largely agree that traditional rotorcraft sales won’t be impacted in the near future, despite variance in the expected size and arrival timeline of the UAM market.
“[Bell] 505 and [Robinson] R-66 sales numbers are holding up okay despite this alleged revolution, in part because people don’t see this happening anytime in the next five or 10 years,” said Richard Aboulafia, vice president of the Teal Group.
Aboulafia is skeptical that new eVTOL aircraft will result in a brand-new urban air mobility market that justifies the current investment into the space.
“What will matter is to what extent these aircraft open up airspace and markets, and people begin to think differently about helicopters,” he added. “There are a lot of places where helicopters just ain’t all that welcome.”
Aboulafia counsels OEMs to ensure any strategy involving eVTOL production is not predicated on mass demand; if demand is more limited than the hype predicts, manufacturers will need to be able to profit at lower, more typical aerospace production rates.
Michael Dyment, managing partner of Nexa Advisors, is more confident electric air taxis will create new markets, though he expects to see peaceful coexistence between the new aircraft and traditional helicopters.
“It will be years before these vehicles are certified, so there’s a lot of revenue on the table right now using existing helicopters,” Dyment said. “I see less disruption and more peaceful coexistence, certainly for the next decade. After that, automation takes up and by the time I think the helicopter manufacturers will have adjusted, so we’ll see what happens.”
Dyment is confident in the continued success of the major OEMs because he says “they’re all in” on developing new aircraft, and they will choose the right dimensions and capabilities to not cannibalize their existing product lines if they don’t have to, he told Avionics.
“Some of the big names are pursuing a wait-and-see strategy,” said Pamela Cohn, managing partner of Ascension Global. “There is a lot of uncertainty in the market around timelines, market size, and aircraft and airspace technology.”
“Unless you believe you have a unique advantage over the 200+ existing aircraft concepts, it can make sense to wait out the development cycle and acquire the leaders in a few years.”