Air travel is set to be transformed sooner than you think as firms unveil vertical takeoff electric prototypes

While conventional airlines struggle for more environmentally friendly alternatives to jet fuel, a host of startups are betting on zero-emission flight using electric power.

They will not carry a hundred passengers across the Atlantic but in the global race to develop an air taxi, two firms – one British and one German – have unveiled significant recent breakthroughs this month.

The Bristol-based Vertical Aerospace flew its Seraph prototype around an airfield in Wales, carrying a load of 250kg. Meanwhile, in Munich its rival Lilium released footage of its futuristic electric jet making the key transition from a vertical takeoff to forward flight.

These technical milestones have been accompanied by announcements of further investment: a factory for Lilium that will be capable of building 100 aircraft a year, while Vertical Aerospace have snapped up a Formula One consultancy to bring in extra engineering expertise to hone the final model.

Both companies claim a potential transformation of domestic transport could be only three to five years away.

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The Lilium jets latest test flight in Germany video

Dozens of firms are jostling for a slice of the market in this emerging sector electric-powered vertical takeoff and landing (eVtol) aircraft which analysts at UBS predict will be worth 150bn by 2040.

Most are happy to use the shorthand of flying taxi, although Lilium and Vertical Aerospace say the aircrafts useful range is further than just short hops around a city, such as those on test at Volocopter and Uber Elevate.

Earlier this week, Volocopter sent its electric helicopter lookalike for a test flight around Singapores Marina Bay. It has a range of about 22 miles and can reach almost 70mph.

Vertical Aerospace is targeting more than 100 miles (160km), while Lilium says its plane will do 185 miles in an hour.

The kind of trips that eVtols could make possible are not dissimilar to a helicopter but with a huge difference in cost, noise and safety, argues Stephen Fitzpatrick, the chief executive of Vertical Aerospace.

You will see a very profound change in how people think about air travel, Fitzpatrick says. Electrification is going to alter the cost of short- and medium-distance air travel very soon.

Remo Gerber, the chief commercial officer of Lilium, concurs: A helicopter is not clean, not affordable, much more expensive in fuel and in maintenance, and hugely noisy. They also have, he points out, a single point of failure.

Liliums craft, powered by 30 individual jet engines, has so far only been flown remotely by a pilot on the ground but Gerber claims the eventual passenger fare may end up comparable to a train or taxi ride. The jet, he says, could operate for longer and go at least six times faster than a taxi, while fuel costs would be negligible.

Both deflect sceptical questions by comparing the delay and expense in conventional transport infrastructure, not least HS2.

Fitzpatrick believes his aircraft could operate by 2022, long before any new high-speed rail tracks: You could be between Manchester and Leeds in 20 minutes from rooftop to rooftop – think how that would transform the northern powerhouse.

Many transport experts, however, arent convinced. Christian Wolmar, the rail historian, argues that eVtols are, like driverless cars, another part of a techie fantasy that refuses to address wider transport and environmental problems and wants a tech solution that isnt there.

He adds: Its not going to be a mass form of transit. And if there were thousands of them, they would all crash into each other. It will be a rich mans toy.

However, Gerber insists that unlike driverless cars, there will be no need for a fundamental shift in regulation and that the required infrastructure called vertiports would be easy to put in place once the benefits become obvious. Where there isnt a helipad or Lilium pad – the community has to decide. For a few hundred thousand pounds a town could be connected, he says.

The option for the regional flight market looks more conventional but is equally revolutionary in emissions. Turning heads at this years Paris airshow was Alice a sleek, nine-seater electric plane built by the Israeli company Eviation, with a range of 650 miles and the target of a first test flight with pilots next year, although satisfying safety regulators has proved a long process.

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Eviations chief executive, Omer Bar-Yohay, believes his plane could also be transformative, opening up hops from small airfields: We democratise the cost of the seat. Because the operating cost is so low, people who drive today will fly tomorrow.

Bar-Yohay believes this model is more realistic than an eVtol, and Boeing is developing a similar plane with Zunum Aero.

Alices giant battery alone accounts for more than half its weight. For eVtols then, Bar-Yohay warns: The least efficient way you can take someone through the air is vertically. Its impossible to build [an eVtol] certified in todays regulatory environment that will have a proper, real-life mission and makes economic sense.

The industry analyst Andrew Charlton, of Aviation Advocacy, is doubtful whether any of the current prototypes will make it but is certain flying taxis are on the way in the worlds biggest cities: The reason that flyings taxis will be a goer is that Airbus and Boeing are also building them. There is clear market demand. Not for widespread pickup but within five years there will be commercially available services around cities like Sao Paolo, Singapore, Paris.

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/us

 

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