The National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) outdid itself this year. Electric urban air mobility (UAM) was present with new players Jaunt Air Mobility, the fascinating XTI Aircraft, Uber Elevate, Bell, Boeing, and Airbus. What was so special about it this year? It wasn’t the timid show of electric UAM shows of the past. Can you say, “They’re here … ?”
Flying on internal combustion engine (ICE) planes to interview electric UAM experts is odd. Electric UAM potential is tremendous, and all signs point to it being the future if applied well. The idea of being whisked away from your front door to your final destination is appealing. Even the giants of aerospace are committing to flying those cleaner, if somewhat limited, passenger aircraft. It might not look efficient on the surface, but the devil is in the details.
Yes, electric vertical takeoff & landing (eVTOL) aircraft are at least 3 to 5 years away from flying. Yes, it won’t be cheap at first. But then again, what new technology is when it first hits the market? Surely, we aren’t so entitled to expect it now and affordable in the current state of things?
The NBAA Highlights UAM Movers & Shakers
The first model at the UAM Innovation exposition was an Uber Elevate display that showed a multicopter that will carry up to 5 passengers and a pilot. It will be autonomous at some point. Next to it was the Safran Uber aircraft interior concept. It’s a life-size model. It feels comfortable and cozy inside, like an air limousine should. The simulated turbines roaring above your head could lull me into a deep sleep. I will interview the team very soon and write more on the topic.
And then there is the gum-smacking Jaunt Air Mobility display. It seemed to have a never-ending stream of puzzled looks, thoughtful questions, and understanding helicopter, gyrocopter, and fixed-wing pilots. They get it. There’s nothing to explain to them.
On the other side was the sleek-as-can-be XTI Aircraft TriFan 600, the very same that got me excited about UAM 4 years ago. I had a great time meeting the team at last. XTI Aircraft will eventually cover London to Monaco, an hour and 45 minute flight from a vertipad (helicopter landing pad) to another.
I interviewed both Jaunt and XTI and will follow up with upcoming articles.
Next to the Jaunt was Airbus’ Vahana eVTOL and its team. It’s one thing to see pictures and videos of the Vahana, it’s another to see it live. It’s bigger than you would expect, but the setting also made it appear that way.
The Bell Nexus dwarfed the back of the UAM exposition. It opened its doors again to an intrigued public.
Finally, Boeing NeXT & HorizonX’s stand had its unmanned aircraft system (UAS) and a miniature personal air vehicle (PAV) model.
Honeywell showed how all of the distributed electric propulsion (DEP) systems will come together with a turbine and its avionics.
How The NBAA Pushes UAM Forward
Everything needs to be taken in context, and this is difficult when it comes to electric and hybrid UAM. The Vertical Flight Society (VFS) tracks well over 200 various-stage eVTOL, electric fixed-wing, and other aircraft. Some will fly into the future and others won’t. The fate of these projects doesn’t just depend on technology alone, but on the successful recipe between technology, development, investors, marketing, and production. It’s no different than the ground electric vehicle (EV) rEVolution that started about 15 years ago. Many companies had great ideas and products. The successful ones are those that pulled all these pillars together in a coherent way.
There might be only 10 or fewer of these aviation pioneers left in a decade, but their contribution to human mobility will not be forgotten. They will be noted, quoted, and many will move on to the next big thing or contribute to other UAM projects. There is a long runway to get to the more efficient and cleaner UAM we’re promised.
Outside of the UAM Innovation Display was Safran, which has been working on DEP and electric motors for the past few years. The company revealed an impressive portfolio for the electrification of aviation at the NBAA. Its electric motors are up to 100 kW, are air-cooled, and switch to oil-cooled above. We’ll publish our interview with the team next.
We need to highlight the crucial role aviation associations play in this new, budding industry. The NBAA and its president and CEO, Ed Bolen, are visionaries who get it. The event was a testament to the maturity of electric and hybrid UAM’s reception in the industry.
As I’m flying back over the busy Los Angeles airspace, one thing is becoming painfully clearer. The airspace is very saturated. We flew over three major cities along the coast to land in Long Beach, California. The southwest winds forced us over an impressive view of the city. Strangely, what should take 30 minutes to fly from Las Vegas to Long Beach in a straight line took an hour. As soon as we climbed to 30,000 ft, we started the descent. Then came the interminable approach. I sit on the wing part of the airplane because I still geek out after 52 years of flying in airplanes. But this time it felt as if the technology can only go so far and is overly complicated, from the aircraft mechanism to approach patterns. The good news is that things are looking brighter. Aircraft manufacturers understand the need for an aviation revolution and airlines are getting over their reluctance for anything new. The much-anticipated aviation revolution needs to happen, and will happen.
In the end, UAM isn’t new. It’s been around for decades. But as Kayden Stanzione of Jaunt Air Mobility rightfully said, “electricity is the enabler.” Electric air mobility will be highly efficient, very safe, and will happen one way or the other.