The Skyport: Most Recent Issue

Below is the most recent issue of The Skyport, sent on January 9. If you like the newsletter and want to sign up, head back to the signup form!


Air Taxis in the 2020s

Happy new year, and welcome to the new decade!

Will this be the decade that aerial transportation becomes a part of everyday life? I certainly hope so — and I wrote a brief overview of the challenges for SingularityHub. Let me know your thoughts.

It’s been a busy holiday season, with Uber announcing two new vehicle partners — Joby Aviation and Hyundai — and the FAA releasing its proposed ruleset for unmanned aircraft remote ID the day after Christmas.

Happening right now: the 2020 North Carolina Transportation Summit, where Gov. Roy Cooper and a crowd watched EHang’s first flight in the United States.

Later this month: Vertical Flight Society’s ‘Transformative Vertical Flight’ conference in San Jose, from Jan. 21-23. Drop me a line if you’ll be there.

Without further ado…

(Apologies for poor formatting; new email system.)

Brian Garrett-Glaser
Skyport Editor

Uber’s New Vehicle Partners: Joby and Hyundai
Hyundai's S-A1 eVTOL concept, unveiled at CES. (Hyundai/Uber)
Hyundai’s S-A1 eVTOL concept, unveiled at CES. (Hyundai/Uber)

Uber’s two latest vehicle partners, Joby Aviation and Hyundai, are both big ‘gets’ for the Elevate ecosystem.

Joby Aviation has been developing its S4 air taxi concept in stealth mode for a number of years and is the first Uber partner committed to meeting its goal of launching commercial operations in 2023.

· Reviewing the other Uber partners: Bell, moving to a new Nexus design (more on that below); Pipistrel, refocusing on air cargo transport; Aurora, suffered a hard landing in June; Karem, spun off its air taxi company recently and has been quiet; EmbraerX, which has been quiet on its DreamMaker design; and Jaunt, currently building a prototype with Triumph…

Joby may be Uber’s only hope to launch on-demand air mobility service with eVTOLs in 2023.

Hyundai unveiled its ‘S-A1’ eVTOL prototype, which it plans to certify and enter production in the late 2020s — a later but perhaps more realistic timeframe, certainly for mass production.

· Refresher: Hyundai hired former NASA aeronautics director Jaiwon Shin earlier this year to run its new UAM division. and this week unveiled its all-electric ‘S-A1’ air taxi design at CES.

· The aircraft uses four stationary rotors for takeoff and landing, and four tilting rotors to transition to wing-borne lift in cruise.

· Targets: 180 mph cruise, 60-mile flight distance, four passengers, and five-to-seven minute recharge time.

Hyundai is the first automaker to join Uber Elevate’s ecosystem and is perhaps the most serious in its approach to urban air mobility, turning around a full-scale vehicle prototype for CES in just five months.

The company also shared its vision for ‘hubs’ and ‘purpose-built-vehicles’ that would connect air taxis to communities. Its vision may not mesh with Uber’s planned Skyport system, but I’m told the partnership is not exclusive; Hyundai may pursue both.

Read more on Hyundai’s S-A1 and CES presentation.

Bell Expands Air Taxi Play: Nexus 4EX, AerOS
Bell's 'Smart City' with mini-Nexus and APT drones, powered by AerOS, at CES. (Bell)
Bell’s ‘Smart City’ with mini-Nexus and APT drones, powered by AerOS, at CES. (Bell)

Bell is no longer content with simply developing eVTOL aircraft for the flying taxi future. At CES, the helicopter major showed off its vision of a ‘smart city’ with aerial mobility and the digital infrastructure to manage the entire ecosystem.

· AerOS: Bell’s ‘mobility-as-a-service’ software play is built to manage everything from customer rideshare booking to fleet management, incorporating AI to optimize air taxi flight plans, charging schedules and react to shifts in demand and weather.

· At CES, Bell displayed a ‘city’ with miniature Nexuses (Nexii?) and APT cargo drone flying from building to building, safely deconflicting and moving to a battery-swap station when needed.

Onlookers could use iPads stationed nearby to add their own flights and watch them happen in almost-real-time (some queueing necessary for the setup to work).

· Bell’s software play may be veering into the realm of competing with Uber and others who seek to offer customer-facing UAM services and fleet management systems. Bell might believe that its sterling reputation — especially in comparison to Uber’s — will give it a leg up in talks with cities.

that said, aerospace companies aren’t traditionally capable of rapid certifiable software development.

Oh, and a new Bell Nexus design — this time with four rotors and all-electric propulsion, though the company says the design is propulsion-agnostic.

· The Nexus 4EX, which stands for four rotors, all-electric, experimental, is designed more specifically around the inner-city mobility mission. With two fewer rotors and a longer back wing to provide more lift, Bell says it will match the safety of the previous aircraft with less complexity, though six rotors provide better hover capabilities.

· Why the pivot: Potential customers initially told Bell they wanted range, according to the company, but over time the UAM mission has become the dominant need, resulting in a new design that maximizes efficiency in forward flight.

One thing is for sure: Bell is confident it has a winning hand for the urban air mobility market, and the company is going ‘all-in’ at the start of the new decade.

Read more on Bell’s expansive play for the entire UAM value chain.

EmbraerX Partners with Elroy Air on Unmanned VTOL Cargo
Elroy Air's 'Chaparral' and cargo pod. (Elroy Air)
Elroy Air’s ‘Chaparral’ and cargo pod. (Elroy Air)

The U.S.-based “disruptive tech” unit of Embraer signed an agreement with Elroy Air, which is developing ‘Chaparral,’ an unmanned hybrid VTOL aircraft capable of transporting 300 pounds of cargo over 300 miles.

· Few details of the partnership have been released, but EmbraerX will assist with technical engineering, certification and business opportunities. Elroy Air is targeting certification by 2022, under FAA’s 21.17(b) Very Light Airplane designation.

· This deal represents EmbraerX’s debut in the cargo VTOL space. It’s also developing a ‘DreamMaker’ passenger eVTOL concept as part of Uber Elevate, but has been quiet on that project’s progress.

Elroy Air CEO David Merrill expects the FAA to require a remote pilot-in-command in the first few years of Chaparral’s operation, but any piloting activity will be high-level: “The pilot gives directions to the system about the mission … the system will not be flown ‘stick-to-surface.’”

Boeing’s pending partnership with Embraer’s commercial unit will not affect the status of EmbraerX as a subsidiary of Embraer, the company confirmed.

Read more on Embraer’s partnership with Elroy Air

Terrafugia’s Carl Dietrich Announces Jump Aero
Carl Dietrich, one of the founders of flying car developer Terrafugia — purchased by Zhejiang Geely holding Group in 2017 — announced the formation of a new eVTOL venture, Jump Aero.

Dietrich sees an opportunity for eVTOLs in the air medical space, where faster emergency response times would save lives in times of acute crises.

· Jump Aero will develop an eVTOL aircraft designed for emergency medical services, targeting speeds over 200 mph and the ability to land on a suburban street.

· “Based on the data we have seen, it appears that Jump Aero’s products could eventually help first responders save thousands of lives per year in the United States,” Dietrich told me. “In certain time-critical emergencies such as cardiac arrest, one minute of reduction in response time can represent over $1,000 in long-term care savings.”

Jump Aero’s launch announcement was short on specifics, offering no initial development timeline or other details. Dietrich said the purpose of the press release is to engage with more EMS professionals to understand their needs.

Will EMS providers ‘jump’ at an opportunity to replace helicopters with eVTOLs — or take a more conservative approach to new technology?

Read more on Jump Aero’s plans for an EMS-focused eVTOL.

FAA Releases Proposed Rules for Remote ID
Three ways of remotely identifying, per the FAA's remote ID NPRM. (FAA)
Three ways of remotely identifying, per the FAA’s remote ID NPRM. (FAA)

Over the holiday break, the FAA released its 300-page proposed rules for implementing remote identification for small unmanned aircraft, a critical step to safely integrating drones into the national airspace and unlocking advanced operational capabilities.

It may be up to five years before the rules go into effect, delaying airspace integration and capabilities for law enforcement to quickly link drones to operators. (As of this writing, the document already has 3,800 public comments.)

Some highlights from the 300-page proposed rule:

· Three methods of compliance: standard, limited, and operating in an “FAA-recognized area.” Limited compliance applies to operators staying within 400 feet of their drone, and local organizations can get approval for a zone where drones can be flown without remote ID — in a park, perhaps.

· Message elements: Standard remote ID will contain UAS identification, real-time operator and aircraft location, and an indication of emergency status.

‘Identification’ can be either a serial number assigned on production or a “session identification number” assigned by an unmanned service provider, an option which allows for greater operator privacy.

· Transmission: Under the proposed rule, UAS will be required to both broadcast these message elements directly from the unmanned aircraft and, simultaneously, to a remote ID unmanned service provider via internet connection. If connection is lost, the operator is expected to land the aircraft as soon as possible.

As written, the rule is a win for unmanned service providers, as drone operators are required to work with them to reach compliance.

The FAA estimates it will be 24 months before a final rule is released. Expect lots of discussion on this during the next two years…

Read more on the FAA’s proposed remote ID rules.

Skyport Reads
Some long reads and interviews that are worth your time:

· What Needs to Happen to Get to the Flying Car Future (Brian Garrett-Glaser / SingularityHub)

· High Time for Hydrogen: an interview with ZeroAvia (Tim Robinson / Royal Aeronautical Society)

· Pilotless Air Taxi from China’s EHang Takes Flight in the U.S. for the First Time (Andrew Hawkins / TheVerge)

· ‘It’s Creepy’: Unexplained Drones Are Swarming by Night Over Colorado (Mitch Smith / NYTimes)

· Top Air Taxi Stories of 2019 (Brian Garrett-Glaser / Avionics International)

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

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– Brian Garrett-Glaser (@bgarrettglaser on Twitter)

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