The Skyport: Most Recent Issue

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AirMap Looks for New CEO; Defining the Market for eVTOLsCongratulations to NASA and ULA this morning on the successful launch of Mars 2020, including the Perseverance rover and Ingenuity Mars helicopter! Godspeed.

It has been a busy summer for the eVTOL industry, despite the state of the world.

New designs continue to emerge. The Vertical Flight Society’s catalogue has now passed 300 projects, though not all are active. Industry, investor and government consortia are forming all over the world to explore early applications for electric flight, both VTOL and conventional.

But with this progress must come a greater focus on reality. It is easy to understand how eVTOLs expand existing air taxi markets or better connect cities to airports. Those applications alone, however, are unlikely to create the market predicted by many analysts, investors and builders.

In the coming months, I intend to explore the transportation use cases for eVTOLs, attempting to understand where they can add serious value — worth the time and effort to transition modes of travel — to citizens and communities.

As always, reach out if you’d like to discuss.

– Brian

Brian Garrett-Glaser
Skyport Editor

AirMap CEO David Hose to Transition Out of Role

Earlier this week, we broke the news that AirMap CEO David Hose has been asked to leave his leadership position. The company has begun its search for a new chief executive.

Hose joined AirMap in March 2018 and led the UAS service provider through its acquisition of drone operations platform Hangar, many new partnerships including with Swiss ANSP skyguide, and a $31 million Series C fundraise earlier this year.

AirMap also laid off 30 percent of its staff earlier this year, in part due to COVID-19.
This is representative of the larger struggles faced by the drone service industry:

  • Too many companies in the space makes it difficult to present a differentiated product. How many UAS service providers will survive the next five years? How many will merge?
  • Regulatory progress is being made, but it’s slow. Without drones fulling enabled and integrated into airspace (BVLOS, etc.) it will be very difficult for companies like AirMap — which has raised over $70 million in VC funding — to justify their valuations.

Michael Blades, VP of aerospace, defense and security at Frost & Sullivan: “When drone start-ups reach a certain point, they often look for a CEO that is focused on the business rather than the technology, as was the case with PrecisionHawk, Airware (before it ceased operations) and Aeryon Labs. This can be good or bad; sometimes it’s a sign of market maturity, and sometimes it’s a sign that the company is on the wrong growth or product trajectory. Most often it seems to be the latter.”

Read more on AirMap’s leadership changes and broader challenges for USSs.

Defining the Market for Air Taxis: Short Urban Hops, or Longer-Range Transport?

Image: Roland Berger

For all the hype surrounding high-speed urban air taxis, Munich, Germany-based consultancy Roland Berger believes that shorter distance, on-demand urban use case accounts for just 10 percent of the potential market for these vehicles.

  • The firm estimates 160,000 vehicles will be in operation by 2050 (only 7,000 by 2030), creating a transportation market worth $80 billion annually. Those vehicles will be almost evenly split between short-range, on-demand city taxi service, scheduled airport shuttle service and longer-range, inter-city transportation.
  • But revenues from these services shake out very differently, according to Roland Berger. Just 10 percent of eVTOL revenue will come from city taxi service, with 40 percent from airport shuttle and the remaining 50 percent from longer-range inter-city transit.
  • Lilium’s strategy closely matches Roland Berger’s predictions. The German startup is eyeing distances between 12 to 180 miles, with routes in the middle of that range showing the most opportunity to fill transportation gaps and save customers time.

Uber’s focus remains on the short-range city mission, optimizing multi-modal transportation with its car service and greater integration with existing public transportation.

The shorter the trip distance, the harder it will be to save people time. With a 5-mile trip across town, every second counts, so multi-modal integration, security, curbside pickup/drop-off will all be critical to the success of on-demand urban taxis.

Michael Dyment, managing partner of Nexa Advisors, is taking a city-by city approach: “Some cities don’t have a need for on-demand air taxi the way it’s visualized by, say, Uber Elevate. Others do. As an early use case example, for the Greater London area in the UK it is regional/suburban travel (Oxford-Cambridge, Stevenage-Gatwick).”

Read more on defining the market for air taxis and Roland Berger’s analysis.

Uber Elevate Adds Hidden Level as Airspace Awareness Partner

Speaking of Uber, the ride-hailing giant added sensor and data-as-a-service company Hidden Level to its Elevate ecosystem.

Through the non-exclusive partnership, Uber intends to access data from Hidden Level’s custom-built sensors, placed strategically around cities, as a supplemental data source for its Elevate Cloud Services suite of technologies that will undergird its future network of scalable urban airspace operations.

More on Hidden Level:

  • Founded in 2018, Hidden Level is a venture-backed company seeking to install, operate and maintain its proprietary sensor infrastructure in metropolitan areas.
  • It’s a data-as-a-service play, delivering information on cooperative and non-cooperative airspace traffic to various customers to enable drone delivery, urban air mobility, airspace security and other similar services.
  • Founders Gary Domincos, Jeffrey Cole and Kevin Nasman previously worked on a number of commercial and military sensor projects, including the development of Gryphon Sensors’ R1400, counter-UAS systems of systems, and ground moving target indicator (GMTI) radar technology.
  • As rising remand and technological improvements create the need and capability for higher-tempo operations, stakeholders can use the community-based rulemaking process to accommodate increased traffic by raising various performance and operational requirements, subject to FAA approval. FAA can also change the dimensions of Corridors or establish internal ‘tracks’ to support higher-tempo operations.

Read more on Uber’s partnership with Hidden Level.

EASA Releases Draft Special Condition for Light UAS

The European civil aviation regulator released a draft special condition for certifying unmanned aircraft intended for use in medium- and high-risk applications, such as drone delivery flights over populated areas.

SC-Light UAS would apply to all drones with a maximum takeoff weight of up to 1,322 pounds (600 kg), not intended to transport humans, and operated either via remote pilot or autonomously. The special condition is open for public comment until September 30.

  • The document applies to drone operations defined as “specific” — the middle of three risk-based categories under the EU’s risk-based framework: open, specific, and certified. Rulemaking on the highest-risk “certified category,” likely to include carrying dangerous goods or human passengers, is still ongoing.
  • Similar to EASA’s SC-VTOL proposal released last year, the document uses objective airworthiness standards in lieu of a prescriptive approach and takes into account variations in operational risk — an approach that industry has lauded as more fitting for a rapidly-evolving industry segment with wide variation in designs and applications.

Safety objectives for the special condition were calculated based on an assessment of a probable urban scenario in 2035, taking into account the projected number of flight hours flown by drones in European cities, urban population density, and representative products and operational assumptions.

For example, the acceptable quantitative probability of various failure conditions is presented based on population density in the operational area, with higher safety requirements defined for flight “over assemblies of people” rather than “in a populated environment.”

Read more on EASA’s proposed special condition for light UAS.

Oxis Energy and Texas Aircraft to Build e-Colt with Lithium-Sulfur Batteries

Oxis Energy will collaborate with Texas Aircraft to develop an all-electric version of its light sport Colt S-LSA aircraft, the two companies announced last week.

The aircraft, to be manufactured in Brazil, will be marketed as an eco-friendly trainer — similar to Pipistrel’s recently-certified Velis Electro and Bye Aerospace’s eFlyer 2 — as well as a means of regional transportation throughout Brazil.

Using Oxis’ lithium-sulfur (Li-S) battery technology, the eColt is projected to have a flight time in excess of two hours and a range exceeding 200 nm.

  • Many electric aviation companies have shied away from using Li-S batteries, despite much greater energy density than currently-available lithium-ion (Li-Ion) cells.
  • Uber Elevate’s Eric Allison recently quoted 260 watt-hours/kg as the density of leading Li-Ion options. Oxis says its 90-kWh system is 40 percent lighter than Li-Ion alternatives and has an energy density of 400 watt-hours/kg.
  • But: Detractors of Li-S point to significantly shorter cycle life and the need for frequent replacement, which is quite expensive. Oxis told me their batteries will perform for up to 200-300 cycles. Sources elsewhere in the industry say leading Li-Ion options can last for over 1,000 cycles.

Oxis tells me their development strategy is “centered around improving this figure through the development of advanced lithium metal anodes and a new class of stable electrolyte.” Perhaps they will meaningfully close the gap.

Bottom line: Everything in batteries is about tradeoffs based on intended missions. There may be customers willing to trade battery lifespan and replacement costs for electric aircraft with far greater range. If so, eColt will fit the bill.

Read more on Oxis Energy & Texas Aircraft’s Li-S partnership.

Skyport Reads

Some more eVTOL stories from the past two weeks:

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– Brian Garrett-Glaser (@bgarrettglaser on Twitter)

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