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URBAN AIR MOBILITY A New Horizon (where no man has gone before)

Issue 15 - 2023
URBAN AIR MOBILITY  A New Horizon (where no man has gone before)

by Emre Yazıcı, Aerospace Engineer

In 2022 alone, Future Air Mobility (FAM) industry (formerly, Advanced Air Mobility (AAM)) has attracted over $3 billion of investment. Although incredible by itself, this indicates a major decline in interest towards FAM when compared to the $6.9 billion funding received in 2021. We left the peak of the Gartner Hype Cycle way behind. It is time to deliver…

cumulative disclosed industry funding totaled over $15 billion. Almost 80% of this funding has centered on Urban Air Mobility (UAM) concepts, like air taxis and other passenger or cargo eVTOLs.

Leading players of the industry, such as Archer Aviation, Joby Aviation, Lilium Air Mobility, and Vertical Aerospace, have raised $2.8 billion in 2021, through Special Purpose Acquisition Company (SPAC) deals with a combined market cap of $10.7 billion.

However, publicly traded FAM players lost 41% of their valuation in 2022. While this is a major correction in valuation, especially when compared to the over 20% decline in the S&P 500 for the year, it was less than the 62% decline among all SPACs. After this SPAC rush, the deal value and deal count shifted back towards venture capital in 2022, with 75% going through VC in the last six months, versus 50% in 2021.

There are several reasons for this deceleration, among which the global economic downturn, counts for the least. One major driver is the shifting of momentum towards the sustainable aviation segment. It is also a fact that the leading players have recently raised big rounds and may be pausing before another big funding influx is needed. And there is always a probability that some of the funding, like that of internal R&D budgets of large aerospace OEMs, is not reported.

Therefore, the short-term slowdown in funding in 2022 should be considered merely a resumption of normal growth after a big spike in 2021.

As of December 2022, the orders the industry had received, (both firm and options, and letters of intent) totaled approximately 12,000 aircraft. Of that total, 80 percent were for manned FAM aircraft. Nevertheless, only 5% of these orders are firm. Currently, United Airlines is the leading customer with around 1,200 orders from Archer Aviation and Eve Mobility.

In its August 2021 Capital Markets Day Presentation, Lilium projected that in 2026 the estimated cost per passenger mile in its six-passenger eVTOL aircraft will be $2.25. This is based on an average of 4.5 out of 6 passenger seats being filled (75% Load Factor), with 25 flights per day traveling at an average distance of 60 miles for a total of 10 flight hours per day. This gives $180 per passenger, per trip.

Archer's investor deck suggests $3.30 per seat mile on a 25-mile trip, so $82.50 for the trip and seat, and with a generous load factor assumption of 75% the trip cost per passenger becomes $110 per passenger.

The aircraft can go more direct and a car trip might have an extra 20% distance or so, thus having to travel ~30 miles for the same trip. At the cost of ~$1.50 and $3.75 per passenger mile for basic and black car service and, the ride-hailing alternative would cost $45.00 and $112.50 per trip and passenger, respectively. The IRS allowance for private cars is $0.56 per mile, thus the trip allowance for a personal car would be $16.80.

With similar load factors, an airliner would cost nearly $0.10 per passenger mile and a 5 minute helicopter ride is around $14 per passenger mile between Manhattan’s West 30th Street Heliport (KJRA) and John F. Kennedy International Airport (KJFK).

eVTOL manufacturers claim their costs will be competitive compared to alternative luxury modes (i.e. Black Car and Helicopter), but with aircraft sold $2-$3 million apiece, operating in the weather, and with mediocre social acceptance, time will tell if the foreseen load factors and daily cycles will be attained to maintain the claimed costs.

To say that the development of electric aircraft that can take off and land vertically (eVTOLs) has exploded over the past years wouldn’t be an exaggeration. Currently, VFS claims to have more than 760 eVTOL concepts cataloged in its unique World eVTOL Aircraft Directory. It’s also worth noting that 120 of these were registered in 2022 alone. This clearly shows the growing momentum in this emerging industry. In just a couple of years, we’ve seen a huge number of new eVTOL designs, as well as eVTOL-related developments, such as vertiport concepts and specific air traffic management software.

Last year major milestones covered by leading companies were as follows:

The Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) announced that the Special Conditions for Type Certification of eHang’s EH216-S aircraft have been formally adopted. In 2023 eHang is expected to commence pilotless passenger transportation operations in China.

Volocopter’s four-seater VoloConnect aircraft completed its first flight. The VoloConnect, an electric fixed-wing passenger aircraft capable of vertical take-off and landing, could enter into service as early as 2026. Volocopter also flew its two seat electric Volocity air taxi for the first time in France in June during an air show at the Le Bourget airport. The German eVTOL manufacturer have plans to have an operating air taxi service in Paris in time for the 2024 Olympic Games.

In January 2022, Joby received both FAA Special Airworthiness Certification and U.S. Air Force Airworthiness Approval for its second pre-production prototype aircraft.

Also in October, Delta Air Lines entered into a long-term partnership with Joby to launch eVTOL aircraft services. The airline also made an upfront equity investment in Joby totaling $60 million, with the possibility of expanding that investment to $200 million.

Lilium’s technology demonstrator, Phoenix 2, achieved a full transition from hover to wing-borne flight in September. Following that, Lilium closed a $119 million capital raise—a concurrent private placement and registered direct offering (RDO). Participants included existing shareholders, strategic partners, and new investors.

In November, after much anticipation, Archer unveiled its production aircraft, Midnight, to the public. Midnight will have the same basic configuration as the company’s Maker testbed. Also the first successful transition—from vertical lift to full wing-borne flight—of Archer’s demonstrator aircraft took place in the same month.

Eve revealed a full-sized mock-up of the cabin of its eVTOL aircraft for the first time at the Farnborough Airshow. Eve also disclosed the signing of a Letter of Intent with Embraer and BAE Systems that includes a potential order of 150 of Eve’s eVTOLs.

Vertical Aerospace provided company updates in a letter to shareholders, including plans to perform a series of tethered hover flight tests following receipt of a piloted permit from the UK's Civil Aviation Authority.

Two U.S. Air Force pilots became the first Airmen to fly an electric aircraft with military airworthiness approval—the BETA-ALIA. BETA Technologies also partnered with the National Institute for Aviation Research (NIAR) and the FAA to conduct a 50-foot drop test on a full-scale battery system designed for an electric aircraft. The BETA-designed battery pack absorbed the load with no significant damage at the cell or pack level.

Designing and manufacturing an airworthy eVTOL aircraft at scale is a formidable challenge, involving a large number of innovations, potential hazards, and regulatory barriers to cross. However, this is now the reality facing eVTOL aircraft developers worldwide.

In 2019, EASA (European Union Aviation Safety Agency) introduced two categories for eVTOL certification, namely Basic and Enhanced. VTOL aircraft that are certified in the Category Enhanced would have to meet requirements for continued safe flight and landing and be able to continue to the original intended destination or a suitable alternate vertiport after a failure. While for Category Basic only controlled emergency landing requirements would have to be met, in a similar manner to a controlled glide or autorotation.

On the other hand, FAA’s (Federal Aviation Administration) proposed airworthiness criteria do not call out any obvious changes to the safety levels in Part 2314 but require the aircraft to be capable of continued safe flight and landing following failures, including loss of thrust, not shown to be extremely improbable.

In FAA’s Part 23, “extremely improbable” typically equates to a probability of catastrophic failure of 10-7, one in 10 million or 10-8,one in 100 million flight hours. Whereas, EASA wants developers of commercial air taxis to substantiate that likelihood to ten to the minus nine (10-9) or one in a billion flight hours, the same standard to which transport category aircraft including jetliners are held.

As a result, eVTOL developers at different sides of the Atlantic face the prospect of unequal hurdles on their paths to market.

This is a value computed through numerical analyses used to support the certification of aircraft systems. The choice of numerical safety objective could have a significant impact on the time and cost involved in certifying an eVTOL aircraft, which would disproportionately impact startups with limited resources and would hand a clear advantage to legacy players like Airbus and Boeing with deep pockets and no particular rush to certify an eVTOL.

As an entirely new tool in the transportation portfolio of a city or region, Future Air Mobility (FAM) is a complex ecosystem made of many parts - i.e. vehicles, infrastructure, operators, and MROs - that have to be concurrently developed and deployed to lead to the industry's success.

For the FAM industry, a few factors are worth monitoring over the coming year: 

• Players need to finalize and freeze their designs to build conforming prototypes and begin the testing required to meet certification timelines for the middle of this decade.

• To meet timelines for entry into service, both manufacturers and suppliers will have to focus on building out their production systems in 2023—for instance, by pouring concrete and installing tools and equipment.

• For drone delivery, larger middle-mile cargo drones could depart on their first commercial missions.

• Industry structure will be important to track in 2023, particularly mergers and business closures.

• 2023 will need to see a range of new infrastructure projects, including vertiports and facilities that support novel propulsion designs based on battery-electric charging and hydrogen, for the industry to remain on track to meet its target for operations.

• Additional funding will be important in 2023 for players to continue on this journey. This could come in direct investment in OEMs, or through partnerships in which parties such as suppliers, investors, or customers take on investment.

• Another big step forward for the FAM industry was taken in 2022, and 2023 will bring more developments in technology and regulation, as well as greater clarity about the industry’s direction.

In the long term, the FAM industry has the potential to revamp transportation, and there is nothing wrong with being optimistic about its future as long as the stakeholders collectively instill social desirability of AAM as opposed to acceptance. That is the go/no-go factor regarding the future of FAM. The industry needs to promote the desirable traits of AAM while looking to mitigate the undesirable ones.

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