Deliveries Of eVTOL Aircraft Prototypes And Operational Ecosystems Advance At Airbus
With Airbus' advanced air mobility strategy now in its seventh year, it expects its efforts to bring new products to market this year to be more visible. As CityAirbus NextGen eVTOL prototype parts start arriving, the company will start assembling the four-seater this year ahead of flight testing in 2024.
Additionally, more resources are being committed to developing the ecosystem to support a new all-electric mode of transportation. Across a range of diverse use cases, including medical services, commuter flights, and ecotourism, Airbus is already expanding partnerships with prospective aircraft operators, infrastructure providers, and key policymakers this year. A number of new use case initiatives are in the works in locations including Estonia, Germany, Italy, Latin America, Japan, and Saudi Arabia.
With a range of 80 kilometers (50 miles) and a cruise speed of 120 km/h, CityAirbus NextGen is projected to have a noise level of under 70 decibels during takeoff and landing, and 65 decibels during flyovers. Despite bringing a one-10th-scale version of the aircraft to HeliExpo 2022, Airbus will display a one-fifth-scale model at HeliExpo Atlanta (March 6-9).
As early as 2016, Airbus' ACubed technology incubator began work on the Vahana single-seat, fully autonomous eVTOL technology demonstrator, set to fly for the first time in January 2018. The CityAirbus NextGen program was launched in September 2021 using lessons learned from the larger CityAirbus demonstrator that flew in May 2019.
Balkiz Sarihan, Airbus' head of urban air mobility (UAM), told a media briefing this week: "We think we are now in the execution phase. We've always taken things one step at a time. No matter how fast or how first we are, we don't care about this."
Airbus Helicopters will build the first CityAirbus NextGen prototype at Donauwörth in southern Germany, where the company is establishing its eVTOL test center. The Airbus UAM business unit, however, does not belong to the group's rotorcraft division, but instead draws on expertise from across the company, including new propulsion research.
Eaton and Crouzet have joined the program as new partners, providing the electrical power distribution system and the human-machine interface for the flight deck, respectively. A cast of suppliers has already been assembled that includes Magicall (electric motors), KLK (fuselage structures at the rear), Spirit AeroSystems (wings), and Thales and Diehl Aerosystems (computers for flight control).
In addition to the main body, Airbus is also building the other components in-house. The flight control system and main fuselage sections are provided by Airbus Helicopters in Marignane, France, while the batteries are provided by the group's Defence & Space division, while the propellers are developed and tested at Paris Le Bourget Airport.
FOCUS FIRST ON SAFETY, THEN ON HYDROGENE
The two electric propulsion systems on each vehicle will support eight propellers and motors for dual redundancy. Airbus is considering the possibility of applying hydrogen propulsion systems to eVTOL aircraft in the longer term, building on the group's ZeroE program to bring hydrogen-powered aircraft to market by 2035.
Pilots will be on board Airbus' eVTOL aircraft for the foreseeable future. Even so, the company expects the flight deck to be highly automated as it follows the aircraft manufacturer's "autonomy roadmap" with a primary goal of reducing pilot workload.
Airbus is also exploring ways to leverage eVTOL connectivity to boost the performance of Estonia's public healthcare system through an ecosystem development initiative in the Baltic state. As part of the LifeSaver program, Airbus is mapping the "rescue chain" in Estonian provinces as part of its LifeSaver project. Airbus is proposing to deploy helicopters as well as communications satellites to support operations in addition to eVTOLs.
PLUGGING HEALTHCARE GAPS
The LifeSaver project addresses gaps exposed during Covid at a country level," Sarihan explained. "It's not just about the vehicles; it's about establishing accreditation standards for new operators, setting emergency medical service standards, and working with hospitals."
The Air Mobility Initiative is being implemented in Bavaria by Airbus' UAM team in collaboration with Munich Airport and several cities. A network of predefined routes and two vertiports will be confirmed in 2024 for the initial trial operation, which could be expanded afterward.
An air mobility ecosystem involving helicopters is already being tested by local partner Hiratagukuen in Japan. Simulating eVTOL routes and developing an operational concept for Kansai and other areas is underway.
Airbus Helicopters customer Ecocopter is undertaking similar initiatives in Chile, Peru, and Ecuador, as well as ITA Airways in Italy and The Helicopter Company in Saudi Arabia. It will first be certified by EASA in Europe, and then approved by the FAA in the United States.
A more concerted effort is now needed to win public acceptance for eVTOL aircraft, according to Sarihan. With 42 cities already participating in the Urban Air Mobility Cities Community initiative, Airbus has joined this initiative within the European Union.