There's No Turning Back from an eVTOL Future

Mar 1, 2018 - 1:00 AM

The electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) revolution is upon us, and there likely no turning back. That was the message from a growing number of opinion leaders at this year’s Heli-Expo convention in Las Vegas.

That list includes AHS International (The Vertical Flight Technical Society) executive director Mike Hirschberg, who points out that more than $1 billion has been invested in vehicles and related research before regulations are finalized for the category. And the roster of companies involved includes major players such as Airbus, Boeing, Bell, Embraer, Intel, Amazon, Honda, Toyota, and Uber.

This isn’t a bunch of hobbyists in garages, and Hirschberg points to a survey of attendees from one of his organization’s recent conferences showing that 59 percent thought that eVTOLs would become a reality within five to 10 years. “Electric aviation is really changing in what it will be in the future,” he said during a presentation at Heli-Expo. “This is really a big deal. This is a lot of money. This is technology that's really going to revolutionize flight.”

According to Hirschberg, electrically powered vertical vehicles provide the opportunity to eliminate all the things typically viewed as drawbacks on helicopters: transmissions, gearboxes, shafting, and hydraulics. Basically, the things that break. Sikorsky’s experimental “Project Firefly” in 2010, which electrifed a Schweizer 300C, allowed engineers to remove a vast amount of mechanical systems from the aircraft.

By eliminating complex main and tail rotor systems and adding wings to the design to improve range and speed, eVTOLs let the experiment go one step further. “We’re not trying to invent a mechanical horse” by electrifying a helicopter, he noted. And while eVTOLs could conceivably replace some helicopter missions on the low end of the spectrum, Hirschberg said that the overall impact likely would be additive since they lack the size and power to replace helicopters in most mission scenarios.  

He said reforms to Part 23 certification requirements could go a long way toward making eVTOL design approval of both electric powerplants and occupant protection achievable.

Bell CEO Mitch Snyder agrees. Bell executive vice president for technology and innovation Michael Thacker "is meeting with the FAA all the time, and we are having these discussions,” Snyder said. “We’re working hand in hand with the regulatory authorities on how you would certify this and how it would operate in the flight space.”  

What Snyder sees as perhaps a larger challenge is how Bell would shift from a comparatively low-volume, high-unit-cost manufacturer to a high-volume, low-unit-cost one. He has some ideas along those lines.

“You know, that's a whole different way of thinking about building the product," he said. "But again…we're also looking at the way we assemble things. They would go together differently. We have to look at how are we going to manufacture at a high rate. We can probably use different types of robotics. But it is a change for a company. You've got to be able to manufacture these very quickly. You're talking 10, 15, 20, 30 a day, or even more.”  

Chris Emerson, president of Airbus Helicopters Inc., strikes a more cautionary note and urges careful study. “People are starting to build up and gather data so that we understand what the future project is going to look like. And by the way, it will have to follow all of the certification requirements that we have in place, plus more.

"Think about crash-attenuating seats and all of the same safety features that have to be the same as currently designed on helicopters. You will need all of those on an unmanned system as well. Now we have that intellectual knowledge to design and develop an aircraft to those requirements. So then we have to pull the technology that's being developed and combine it with the demographic information. It's going to drive the way we look at designing and developing aircraft.”