The Skyport: Most Recent Issue

Below is the most recent issue of The Skyport, sent on October 17. If you like the newsletter and want to sign up, head back to the signup form!

 

Porsche goes ‘premium UAM;’ two companies with a different view of future flight; and is Lilium raising $500M?

Today I’m covering the FAA’s latest Drone Advisory Committee meeting today in D.C., where remote ID is sure to be discussed.

And next week I’ll be in Las Vegas for the National Business Aviation Association’s annual conference and exhibition. Lots more UAM on the calendar than in previous years. Hope to see you there.

Finally, Commercial UAV Expo Americas is happening in Las Vegas from Oct 28-30 … I can’t make it, but the participants look great. Check it out.

By the way, don’t forget – the newsletter is just snippets of much longer, more in-depth stories. Click the links at the end of each snippet to read the full piece.

Thanks for reading. Get in touch with any feedback, suggestions for coverage or just to chat UAM — and tell your friends to sign up!

Brian Garrett-Glaser
Skyport Editor
@bgarrettglaser
Porsche x Boeing: ‘Premium’ UAM
Porsche 2 - smaller.jpg
Concept art released by Porsche. Most vehicle details still TBD. (Porsche)

Porsche is the latest auto company to invest in the urban air mobility space, signing an MoU with Boeing to develop an eVTOL aircraft for the “premium” market segment.

Porsche is betting that initial access to urban air vehicles will be limited to the wealthy, who will be more interested in a comfortable, personal flight experience than the ride-sharing concept championed by Uber and others.

It’s early stages for the partnership, but here’s what the team was willing to share:

  • Porsche will be working with Boeing subsidiary Aurora Flight Sciences, but this is a separate project from Aurora’s Personal Air Vehicle. The Porsche/Aurora/Boeing team totals 20 engineers, designers and biz dev. 
  • “It will be all-electric and a two-seater … everything else, we are still in the definition and exploration phase,” said Guan Chew, Porsche’s air vehicle program director.
  • Porsche hopes to offer a personal air vehicle that will not just provide safe transportation, but comfort, personality and the customer experience that is “part of the Porsche DNA.”
  • The team hasn’t yet decided where to build and certify the vehicle. This decision will be driven less by whether FAA or EASA certification would be easier/quicker and more by where the initial wave of customers is likely to be.

‘Premium’ and public acceptance: As the non-premium flying car market works to win the public acceptance that will prove critical to infrastructure access in urban areas, critics may see Porsche’s goal of catering to the wealthy as detrimental to the cause.

Read more on Porsche’s partnership with Boeing

 

Airbus’ Vahana to Complete Test Flights This Year
Vahana batteries.jpg
The Vahana flight test team swapping batteries. (Airbus)

Airbus A3’s all-electric, autonomous Vahana demonstrator aircraft recently completed its 100th flight test and is on track to complete its test flight portfolio by the end of 2019, according to Zach Lovering, vice president of urban air mobility systems.

Airbus recently published a blog post offering an inside look at the flight test program in Pendleton, Oregon. Some highlights:

  • To perform multiple flights a day, Vahana has two 300-pound lithium ion batteries that can be swapped out in under 10 minutes. They’re charged at a station normally used for electric cars and take about an hour to charge after each flight. 
  • On battery swapping: “In the long term, fast charging is preferable since it requires less labor and support equipment, but we feel that battery technology as it stands today is not currently there … Fast charging reduces battery life, which in turn increases costs that must be covered by the end user,” Lovering said. 
  • The aircraft follows predefined flight plans that are first validated via simulation and subscale testing. No decision-making is done on the aircraft at this time, Lovering confirmed to Avionics; even contingency plans are predetermined.

Read more on Vahana’s flight program, or check out the company’s blog.

Lilium Reportedly Raising $500m

The Munich-based air taxi developer is reportedly seeking to raise between $400-500 million, according to Tech Crunch’s Ingrid Lunden.

One urban air mobility executive I spoke with said they had been approached by investors speaking with Lilium for due diligence purposes.

“They’re people who write big checks, so that number sounds about right,” the executive said. A Lilium representative declined to comment on speculation regarding fundraising activities.

  • If reports are accurate, Lilium would be the first air taxi developer to raise an amount approaching the costs of certifying a vehicle. Joby Aviation, Volocopter and a few others have raised in the ballpark of $100 million
  • In addition to its play for regional air mobility, Lilium plans on being the operator/platform for its vehicles as well, with a team of software developers hired in London.
  • The executive I spoke with confirmed Lilium is presenting investors with these plans and expressed skepticism about that business model.“It’s very difficult to build the vehicle and the platform, it’s two different types of competencies, two different types of companies … “It’s more about time than the money … you have to be able to focus.”

The big question: Who will put up this kind of money for a pre-certification aerospace startup? Lilium’s current investors include Silicon Valley types who typically cut smaller checks, some private equity and Chinese gaming giant Tencent.

Read more on Lilium’s reported fundraising

Two Alternative Visions for Future Flight
Flutr 1.png
Concept art by FLUTR Motors

The broad vision of the “urban air mobility” mission and ecosystem is coming into focus: Various eVTOL aircraft take off and land from vertiports in and near urban areas, using automated airspace management systems to safely transport passengers likely via a ridesharing platform such as Uber, Voom or Blade.

As if it were that simple!

Here are two companies I spoke with at Revolution.Aero with slightly different visions for what the flying future will look like.

Metro Hop: Electric STOL Cargo Delivery / Passenger Transit

  • This Forestville, California-based company wants its electric, short takeoff and landing aircraft to make delivery trips from fulfilment warehouses outside cities to urban hospitals and other destinations. 
  • Metro Hop envisions using robotics to swap both cargo bins and batteries and enable quick turnaround speeds for its planes. The downside, however, is that a landing pad for Metro hop planes wouldn’t be interoperable with any other aircraft design. 
  • It’s a massive amount of investment predicated on the success of a single system, but team lead Bruno Mombrinie believes the clockwork-like operations will be worth the initial cost.

Mombrinie is currently seeking to raise $25 million to develop the cargo plane.

FLUTR Motors: True Door-to-Door Flight?

  • “Everyone has this vision that you can go straight to the center of Manhattan,” CEO Cameron Spencer told me. “It’s not going to happen because of the noise … If you want to go around the city, or stay on one side of the city, or go away from the city, flight is perfect. But going directly into the city, it’s a non-starter.” 
  • Spencer’s vision for FLUTR might be called suburban air mobility. Most developers intend to work within a point-to-point system, relying on vertiport infrastructure to land and take off; FLUTR wants you can find a circle 26 feet in diameter. 
  • Spencer wants customers to be issued a “FLUTR license,” requiring just a few days of classes, and have a mostly-automated system overseen by remote pilots.

It’s worth noting that FLUTR’s website FAQ doesn’t have good answers to some important questions.

One question reads: “Isn’t aircraft ownership complicated? With maintenance, annual inspections, insurance etc?”

The answer: “Yes. We will handle this headache for you.”

Spencer is currently seeking to close a $10 million Series A.

Read more on Metro Hop and FLUTR Motors’ visions for future flight

Detect-and-Avoid Systems and True BVLOS Flight
Casia Collision Avoidance.png

Iris Automation photo

The full potential of commercial drones — as well as drone delivery systems and air taxis — is locked behind the door of beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) flight, but the system of technology solutions and regulations that will enable it are slowly coming together.

From a feature published in Avionics International’s October issue:

  • Most analysts agree that some form of onboard detect-and-avoid (DAA) system will be key to unlocking BVLOS flight. Working through the FAA’s UAS Integration Pilot Program, a few companies received waivers to fly BVLOS, mostly using onboard DAA. 
  • Much like the FAA trusts a licensed pilot to “see” and “avoid” other aircraft, drones must be able to autonomously understand and react to their surroundings. Kites, balloons and birds will never have remote ID. 
  • Iris Automation, Amazon and others are using a dictionary of set reaction maneuvers that can each be tested thousands of times to demonstrate safety to the FAA.

Combined with unmanned traffic management (UTM) platforms to geofence, deconflict and monitor thousands of filed flight plans, DAA will likely be a key component of regulation that enables regular BVLOS flight.

Read the feature online (requires a brief info-wall to access)

Skyport Reads

News items and longer reads on UAM:

Thanks for reading The Skyport! Get in touch if you like the newsletter, take issue with the coverage, or want me to focus on something in particular. Just hit ‘reply’ and I’ll get your note.

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Safe vertical flying!

– Brian Garrett-Glaser (@bgarrettglaser on Twitter)

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