EVTOLs Nearer to Elevate Off

Visitors to the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris may have a new option for traveling from Charles de Gaulle Airport to the city – an electric air taxi. Volocopter, a German-based advanced air mobility (AAM) company, plans to mobilize its electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) craft, the VoloCity, for a two-year pilot program that will quickly and quietly convey visitors into the city.

Volocopter is one of many companies hoping to introduce commercial services using electric-powered AAM aircraft within the next 18 months or so. The category encompasses a variety of piloted and unpiloted aircraft for carrying passengers and/or cargo, and includes fixed wing planes, eVTOLs and quadcopters. The growth of AAMs has been explosive, especially in the eVTOL space, where the number of known eVTOL designs has increased from about a dozen in 2016 to 900-plus today, according to the Vertical Flight Society.

Several leading AAM companies have achieved significant milestones toward commercial operations in the last six months. In October 2023, China’s EHang announced that its fully automated, pilotless eVTOL had obtained certification from the country’s Civil Air Administration, opening the way for commercial operations. That same month, Archer Aviation’s new production model eVTOL, Midnight, made a pilotless test flight in California, while Beta Technologies flew its ALIA eCTOL (electrical conventional takeoff and landing) craft 2,000 miles from Vermont to Florida in several flight segments. Then, in November, Joby Aviation Inc. successfully conducted the first electric air taxi flight in New York City with its prototype eVTOL craft.

AAM industry professionals believe that the electric aircraft will fill a need for fast, quiet, emissions-free, short-range transport of people and goods, especially in urban areas.  McKinsey & Company predicts that by 2030, companies that operate AAM passenger aircraft could rival today’s largest airlines in flights per day and in fleet size. But it’s too early to say whether such optimistic predictions will come true.

“The commercial viability has yet to be proven; the industry is operated basically on the notion of what the possibilities could be,” says Clive Hawkins, founder and CEO of the Aria Group. “It needs to move from building prototypes to building aircraft in volume to make any of the business cases work.”

If AAM launches are successful, the industry could become an important market for the composites industry, which provides carbon fiber components and other composite materials for the lightweight aircraft. While composites manufacturers and suppliers are eager to provide the necessary materials and manufacturing capacity to support AAM growth, they could be left with excess materials and production capabilities if they scale up their own operations and the AAM market doesn’t take off as expected.

Increasing Production

Manufacturers of AAM aircraft today are focused primarily on obtaining FAA certification. More than two dozen companies are currently seeking certification for their aircraft. Joby, Archer and Beta are hoping to gain final FAA approval in late 2024/early 2025 then begin to roll out commercial operations on a limited scale shortly thereafter.

The companies furthest along the development path are also preparing for larger-scale production with new manufacturing facilities already online or under construction. Beta was the first to open its factory, a nearly 200,000-square-foot manufacturing and final assembly plant in South Burlington, Vt.

“We’re at the beginning stages of production, but have moved over the pilot production lines we’ve been working on for the past few years as we continue to progress toward full-fledged production,” says Blain Newton, the company’s COO. The facility will be able to produce up to 300 of the ALIA eCTOL and/or ALIA eVTOLs each year.

Some AAM companies are teaming with automakers whose knowledge of mass production will help ensure efficient operation of their new manufacturing facilities. Archer is receiving help from global automaker Stellantis, which will provide its advanced manufacturing technology and expertise for Archer’s new high-volume manufacturing facility in Covington, Ga. The Archer plant should be completed this year, ahead of the Midnight’s planned entry into service in 2025. The factory will be capable of producing up to 650 aircraft per year, and expansion could bring that number to 2,000.

At its pilot plants in Marina and San Carlos, Calif., Joby is working with Toyota to optimize its manufacturing processes so that they can be deployed in its new production plant in Dayton, Ohio.

“This will allow us to ensure production is smooth, efficient and as cost effective as possible before we scale those processes,” says Didier Papadopoulos, Joby’s head of aircraft OEM, in a November 2023 call to investors. “Already, we’ve been able to identify important improvements, with a 30% build time reduction from the previous aircraft to our current build, resulting from improved build methods and airframe assembly flow.” One example is the development of a faster, more reliable and precise injection molding process for some parts.

Joby’s Ohio plant should open in 2025 and at full capacity will produce up to 500 aircraft per year.

Designed for Manufacture  

It’s not only the AAM factories that are being designed for efficiency. Joby’s production aircraft is more manufacturable than its prototype, with simpler parts fabrication and assembly processes. That results in faster build times with fewer nonconformances and less scrap, according to the company.

“The aircraft currently being built have been certified under existing technologies and existing materials and existing manufacturing approaches, which are valid and the easiest route to get them certified,” says Hawkins. “But those technologies and those processes are very difficult to scale to the volumes of aircraft that ultimately will be needed.”

After the initial small runs of AAM aircraft prove the business concept, validate the market and gain customer acceptance, Hawkins expects AAM companies will significantly redesign aircraft so they can be built at volume at the right price point to make the industry commercially viable.

To assist AAM companies in this process, Aria Group has formed the CO-LEKTIV alliance with KTM Technologies and Pankl AG. The companies can apply to AAM production the combined engineering and manufacturing expertise they’ve gained in developing solutions for aviation, performance automotive and powersports applications.

“Manufacturing for efficiency and industrialization starts at the concept level. You have to think about the compromise not just of how we can make this function adequately but how do we make it function adequately and manufacture it,” says Hawkins. AAM manufacturers that take this approach will be able to maintain the performance and certification criteria required for aviation and continue to meet the production volumes and price points necessary for commercial success.

Material Partners

Composite manufacturers and suppliers have been involved with the AAM industry from the start, helping companies lightweight their aircraft and improve their range.

Teijin has been providing AAM companies with carbon fiber material samples and data for several years. Alfonso Lopez, aerospace marketing engineer, noted that while the current eVTOL aircraft are made from more traditional aerospace materials, these will not be suitable for future high-rate production.“Most aerial mobility companies have stiffness-driven designs, so intermediate modulus fibers are of the most interest to them,” says Lopez. That’s because eVTOL vehicles are extremely weight sensitive, and any improvement in strength and modulus can reduce the weight. Due to the high cost of qualifying materials and the complexity of the supply chain, most eVTOL companies want to simplify the number of materials they use and seek materials that are safe, can be certified and meet requirements for the most demanding parts. Albany Engineered Composites is producing carbon fiber components for Beta’s aircraft structure, with materials provided by Solvay.Advanced carbon fiber composites comprise Midnight’s full airframe, providing structural safety and aircraft performance. Hexcel assisted Archer in the selection of a material configuration that leverages some of the most high-performing materials in the composite company’s portfolio, according to Tom Muniz, COO of Archer Aviation. The company also works with aerospace specialist FACC to fabricate advanced composite structures for some of the most significant elements of the aircraft structure.

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