It’s been estimated that around 300 different companies are trying to build new “flying car” electric VTOL aircraft for the anticipated revolution, and there are almost as many different design philosophies. Most are opting for hybrid designs that feature rotors for vertical takeoff and landing, but regular fixed wings for horizontal flight. There’s a good reason for that — fixed wing flight is much more efficient, and for electric aircraft, battery weight is the key issue, and that makes efficiency really important.
In spite of this, one of the companies furthest along in actual deployment is using a much more basic electric multirotor design with no fixed wings. It’s effectively a human sized drone, with 18 rotors that visually reminds you of a classic helicopter with the one giant rotor replaced by a disk of smaller ones. But this is the company that has been doing more demo flights and making more deals to go into real service.
There’s a reason. This simpler design is less daring. It’s something that is already reasonably well understood by engineers, regulators and cities. The more efficient designs have to make a transition between two flights. In some cases they make that transition by tilting the rotors, the wings or even the whole aircraft. Others have rotors for lift and a prop for horizontal flight. Whatever they do it’s something new, which means more engineering work and more effort to get certified under air regulations.
In effect, the German Volocopter is a helicopter, but as an electric multirotor it’s:
- Cheaper to build and about 40% cheaper to operate.
- Much lower in emissions, approaching zero.
- A lot quieter.
- A lot safer, as it can lose 2 rotors and complete a flight, and lose 3 and still do a safe powered landing. It’s not likely to lose any, as electric motors are much more reliable than fossil fuel motors.
- Being safer, it can travel more places. Regular helicopters are banned from going into Manhattan. A vehicle like this can probably get past that ban.
- Easier to manage on the ground, since the rotors are stopped while passengers board and leave.
Due to the high energy cost of pure electric rotor flight, however, the range is poor. A range estimated at 35km (21 miles) at a cruising speed of only 70 km/h (44mph) is low value for many applications outside the city, but it’s quite capable of things like runs from an airport to a downtown, or when routes cross water or hills that make travel on the ground difficult. Just about everybody in the industry likes to quote the end of “Back to the Future” about not needing roads.
To do all that it has 50kwh of battery on board, similar to a 200 mile range electric car. The batteries are in modular packs that can be swapped by hand at the “vertiport” allow quick turnaround on flights. There is a reserve range in there, as aircraft always have to be able to fly to an alternate landing point if there is a problem at their destination. This ranges from 10-40% according to a source at Volocopter, suggesting it uses around 1600 wh per vehicle mile. Compare that with a good electric car which uses 250 wh/mile and carries 5 passengers instead of 2.
Or possibly just one. The Volocopter can handle about 400lbs of payload, and while they do have autonomous flight software for it, getting it approved like a helicopter won’t happen in autonomous mode for a while — but having a rated pilot can happen much sooner. That means they will go into service as a one-person taxi with a pilot on board. (Weight limits on electric aircraft are such that there will be demand for very lightweight pilots. On average, it’s entirely possible that women will dominant that profession because they can deliver the same skill at a lower average weight.)
Volocopter has also developed a higher capacity vehicle and a cargo vehicle. The cargo vehicle will have to be autonomous (or remotely piloted) but that’s possible as the approval is easier when no passengers are at risk, at least for flight over lightly populated areas.
But the best measure of Volocopter’s success is that they have a real flying vehicle (unlike many teams which have only computer models, scale models or full scale test vehicles that only go up and down.) This has led to studies and planned relationships and even service in places like Singapore, the UAE and for the Paris Olympics. A study project in Korea was announced today. Only a few other teams have vehicles which have flown from one place to another. Only a few others, such as the eHang and Blackfly have been demonstrated in front of the general public, though several others have released videos of impressive test flights.
This presents an interesting question. Is the strategy of going simple and early a winner or a loser? There’s nothing like operating a real service with real customers to make a company more mature and attract investment and excitement. Many winners have started with first products that would not be winners, but laid a path to them. The Volocopter can do a good job at short-range urban mobility, undercutting helicopters (which don’t even do that much in the space because of their limitations.) If they reach the price of 40% less than a helicopter with the ability to fly places they can’t, there will be a market. This can lead to the opportunity to develop more efficient vehicles with longer range that can serve more markets. Alternately, those companies aiming directly at that longer range market may get to the real product sooner.
Volocoptor’s Chief Commercial Officer Christian Bauer insists that the short-range market is a good one on its own. As a German company, it’s not surprising they have taken this more conservative approach, though another major German e-VTOL compay, Lilium, defies that stereotype by working on a fairly radical vehicle and claims specifications far beyond other vehicles.
If Volocopter takes an early lead, the industry certainly won’t stop there. The reason so many companies are doing hybrid fixed-wing flight designs is they want a vehicle that can change how mobility works. That’s probably not a very short range high energy usage vehicle. Chinese e-VTOL eHang is also following a strategy similar to Volocopter, as are a few others. And there are those making hybrid powertrain (fossil fuel generators powering electric motors) efforts that can be long-range, but lose the green advantages of being all electric. Others are working on everything from traditional fixed-wing aircraft with electric engines that need a runway (or some open sea) to true “flying cars” that can drive on the ground before they do e-VTOL or e-STOL or traditional airport transition to the air. There are a hundred flowers blooming, solving the engineering problems and hoping to find solutions to the regulatory problems, noise issues and perhaps most of all the complete revamp of air traffic control needed for a world with a sky full of aircraft.
But for now, to see Volocopter’s prospects, best to look up.