New Year, New Decisions For The Advanced Air Mobility Pioneers

New Year, New Decisions For The Advanced Air Mobility Pioneers
Courtesy by Beta

St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line launched the world's first scheduled, commercial airline service on New Year's Day, 1914, connecting two Florida cities. Few even the most optimistic observers of the time could have imagined that a double-decked Airbus A380 jumbo liner could carry 600 passengers for 8,000 miles in the future. Although the service of the Benoist Type XIV aircraft lasted less than five months, the 23-mile hop across Tampa Bay—at barely five feet above the waves—was certainly a "one small step, one giant leap" moment, providing, for $5 one-way, a 23-minute alternative to a two-hour boat trip or a 20-hour drive.

Ironically, in a way similar to the new air taxi services now being promised by 21st century transportation revolutionaries working to use eVTOL aircraft for urban air mobility (UAM), the St Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line's 109-year-old business model was fundamentally similar. In the early years, all-electric vehicles were used primarily for short flights of up to 100 miles, aimed at bypassing congested roads within large cities, and sometimes for slightly longer subregional journeys.

By remembering those who promised to start commercial flights in 2023, i.e. around now, we'll spare the blushes of some of the eVTOL pioneers. In recent months, this baseline projection has been quietly advanced to 2024 and then to 2025.

Electric Dreamers Press For Early AAM Impact

Why are advanced air mobility (AAM) revolutions now being referred to as a revolution? There is a lot of money involved. Ultimately, an autonomous aircraft will not require a pilot because of the combination of distributed electric propulsion and greater automation of flight.

It will allow people and things to move around in a fundamentally new way, and support previously unthinkable business models, according to a variety of companies, many of them start-ups from outside the aviation industry. In Europe, where social consensus is increasingly demanding more from the aviation industry and where carbon reduction targets are being set in pursuit of net zero in the next couple of decades, reducing aviation's environmental footprint is also a big motivator.

The question now is when exactly AAM or UAM will become a reality and whether it will achieve sufficient commercial scale and momentum to make a lasting impact. Airbus believes that by about 2035, 200-seat hydrogen-powered airliners could be able to fly 2,000 nm with the technological advancements being fermented.

It might be more accurate to ask, what's keeping AAM from progressing? As with the boom of 2021, the short answer is money, with access to new capital seemingly tightening. AAM proponents refer to their ecosystem as an ecosystem of batteries, which requires extensive new infrastructure to support the current limitations of battery technology and regulatory complexity.

It remains to be seen whether eVTOL will be able to generate revenue by 2025, despite a small pack of frontrunners. A four-passenger prototype has been flown by Joby since 2010, when it began developing its plans. For the type certification of this aircraft, which is similar in architecture to other models that have been undergoing the approval process, the FAA closed a comment period in December.

Archer, another Silicon Valley start-up, unveiled its four-passenger Midnight aircraft in November. It aims to obtain certification by the end of 2024. A two-seat Maker technology demonstrator is already in flight testing, and Midnight is scheduled to take to the skies in 2023.

With its Alia 250 eVTOL prototype aircraft, Beta Technologies completed two cross-country flights this year, stopping at its own charging stations along the way. As part of its first-ever multistage flight, the Alia flew from Plattsburgh airport in upstate New York to Bentonville airport in Arkansas in late May. Plattsburgh to Louisville, Kentucky, was the destination of the second trip in late November and early December. Additionally, the Vermont-based company has been conducting eVTOL flight trials under contract with the armed forces, focusing on testing battery technology and charging infrastructure.

The Lilium Jet, a seven-passenger aircraft, aims to gain EASA type certification in 2025 in Europe. In 2024, a production-conforming prototype will be flown, and this drone will have a range of about 155 miles.

In 2024, Volocopter plans to start services in Paris, Rome, Singapore, and Saudi Arabia with its two-seat VoloCity model. VoloConnect, the company's four-seat model, will have a range of around three times that, but will only fly about 20 miles. Additionally, it is working on a freight-carrying drone called VoloDrone.

Its VX-4 prototype has recently begun hover flights, and Vertical Aerospace appears to be on a similar trajectory. It will connect cities without air service and feed passengers into airports, just like the Lilium Jet, which has a range of more than 150 miles.

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