Kevin Antcliff is an aerospace engineer, formerly of NASA and now with the autonomous aviation startup Xwing. While at the US space agency, he started and led a large, cross-industry, collaborative study to assess regional air mobility (RAM) in the US, especially the impact of electrification of aviation and the business opportunities.
Antfcliff’s entire life has been surrounded by airplanes. His father worked for NASA before him, and they lived surrounded by air fields, with planes of all types in the air above him. He trended into aviation-oriented education early as well, with both a Bachelor and Masters of Science in aerospace engineering. But summer scholar programs at NASA hooked him and after his Masters he started full time at the agency, engaging with the electric vertical takeoff and landing concept plane, the Puffin, and then on to the urban air mobility study.
Urban air mobility is a failed and failing concept, trying to invent a market for overly complex tilt-wing rotorcraft and losing tens of billions in the process. If you think I’m kidding about the tens of billions, when I first published a market cap assessment of urban air mobility in late November of 2021, the stocks were off $16 billion on $29 billion raised mostly via reverse-acquisition SPACs, and when I checked the valuations just now, they were off $21 billion, another $5 billion of investor money down the drain, a combined 75% loss.
I expect these companies will mostly cease to exist. After all, the original investors in the SPACs pulled most of their money out after the reverse acquisition, having achieved their pump and dump objectives, so very little capital is left in the companies to certify these oddities, something that might cost up to a billion US per aircraft.
Regional air mobility is the valuable portion of this space. It actually has a sensible foundation, a clear value proposition, existing infrastructure it can leverage and sensible, easy to certify airplanes.
Antcliff defines the boundaries between advanced, urban, and regional air mobility in the following way. He thinks of advanced air mobility as the combination of urban and regional air mobility. Urban air mobility is focused on electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL or VTOL) and ultra-short takeoff and landing (STOL) aircraft. Both urban and regional are looking at the convergence of electrification and autonomous aviation. Advanced air mobility looks at the future impacts. Advanced air mobility also includes drones.
Regional air mobility focused on conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) aircraft, ones which can take off from existing air strips. I refer to urban air mobility as the Jetsons, and equally realistic, while regional air mobility is planes that look like planes and have real business cases.
Antcliff had been working on several aircraft, both urban air mobility and longer-range, higher-payload aircraft. In the early 2000s, there was a movement to look at very light jets under NASA’s Small Aircraft Transportation System (SATS) study led by Bruce Holmes and the Advanced General Aviation Transportation Experiments (AGATE), essentially a lot of air taxis using new Cirrus aircraft and small 4-5 passenger aircraft.
This was pre-iPhone, pre-autonomous services. It worked and was profitable at a point, but then the Great Recession starting in 2008 put most of them into the red.
Cirrus is an interesting case study. Most of the fixed-wing, turboprop, and conventional aircraft in the Beaver range are very old. Up until 1984, airframe liability for crashes lasted for the life of the airframe, which could easily be 50 or 60 years, so manufacturers exited the space as liabilities mounted. Most of the manufacturers were also American, and the loss of those aircraft manufacturing facilities is part of the loss of high-paying manufacturing jobs in the country, although this is a tiny slice of the loss of jobs due to automation and labor arbitrage to low-labor cost countries.
The liability rule changed in 1984, allowing new entrants to come into the market under different business conditions, and Cirrus was one of the first movers, founded in that year. It is now one of the biggest smaller plane manufacturers in the world. Antcliff says that they are incredibly innovative, leading in aircraft being built. From a customer perspective, they’ve enhanced the experience tremendously. They have full aircraft parachutes on their planes, as one example. They build really sleek aircraft that are very aerodynamically efficient.
Antcliff’s regional air mobility report had a lot of collaborators from across the industry. With SATS and AGATE, as well as NASA’s personal air vehicles, and the Green Flight Challenge co-sponsored by Google focusing on electric air systems, this led to a focus on on-demand air mobility, the precursor to the current alphabet soup. In 2015-2016 there were on-demand air mobility workshops with 120 participants, including the FAA. Joby, Volocopter, Cape Air, and Eviation were all there. It led to the Uber Elevate white paper, whose lead author decamped to Uber to participate in that failed business experiment, which Uber eventually sold the dregs of to Joby in 2020.
As a note, when the world’s deepest-pocket, best-run, largest-market cap transportation on demand company abandoned urban air mobility entirely prior to the spate of evtol SPACs in 2021, wise minds should have realized that this was a weird and deluded bubble.
Antcliff was looking at all of this focus on urban air mobility and saying that there was something incredibly pragmatic with an incredible opportunity and a real world business case, regional air mobility. He talked with frequent NASA collaborators and friends Nick Borer and Michael Patterson. The three were increasingly frustrated that regional air mobility wasn’t getting the same attention. They began to see companies move into the space and wanted to support and acknowledge their pragmatism and common interest.
And so, Antcliff started the study without a charge code or formal ask. He checked with NASA legal and his boss, ensuring he wouldn’t be fired, and started the work. Being positioned in NASA gave him a lot of opportunity to gain collaboration, and so they ended up with 2-3 layers of contributors.
Antcliff created the first executive summary and outline, then collaborators created the content. There were a lot of collaborators on the final report, 21 authors, 9 reviewers, and 3 technical support staff. It ended up far too long and technical to publish, and Aryn Sperandio of True Story Consulting helped craft it down to the consumable product it is today.
The numbers behind regional air mobility are interesting. There are over 5,000 airports in the US available for public use, and thousands more private airstrips. 30 of the publicly accessible airports, roughly 0.6%, support 70% of domestic air transportation. 100 of them, about 2%, handle 96% of all US air traffic. If you travel in the US, you go through this tiny number of hubs. That leads to 2-hour arrival waits and lots of connecting flights when there are airports that could support direct flights with more efficient throughput. Similarly, in Europe, there are thousands of public airports, and only a few are used.
In 1946, a plan, the National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems (NPIAS) run by the Federal Aviation System, was put forward in the US. It said that anyone in the US should be within 20 minutes of an airport they can use for their personal transportation. It’s maintained today and categorizes all public airports into large and small, hub or non-hub. With the plan comes $3.2 billion in annual grant funding for local airports and there is also a Voluntary Airport Low Emissions Program (VALE) which can be used for solar and other low-emission upgrades. The airports were supported for transportation, and yet they are an underutilized mesh network of assets.
My projections of aviation refueling through 2100 suggest a mostly electrified aviation industry by 2100, and by about 2060 we’ll be able to do fully electric international flights. But we’re starting now with 260 wH/kg for batteries at the battery pack level. The urban air mobility space, going straight up and beating the air into submission is vastly energy intensive and my projections suggest 2040 for fixed rotor craft being reasonable for adequate distances (and tilt rotor craft never making sense). But regional air mobility assumes conventional takeoff and landing aircraft, and existing battery energy densities are suitable for that space today.
Regional air mobility CTOLs have another major advantage, which is rapid and ‘inexpensive’ certification. EASA and FAA certification have existing paths for standard air frames, and Pipistrel has already certified an electric airplane in Europe, so that’s a trodden path now. Further, certification is an n times n problem, which is to say that all moving parts have to be tested in failure in various combinations, and the simplicity of electric airplanes means very few moving parts. By contrast, electric tilt-wing rotorcraft have no well trodden paths and are vastly more complex, leading to very expensive, first-of-a-kind, high-complexity certifications.
And regional air mobility is in many cases not a new business model. The US airline Mesa used to run regional hops in the 1980s, but turbofan economics and hub and spoke models killed its regional routes. The company is going to dust those off with Heart Aerospace’s 19-passenger electric plane, and have already committed to 200 purchases with an option for 100 more if Heart can get to market.
At 40% reduction in operating expenses, regional air mobility opens up, and simple conventional takeoff and landing electric planes provide that reduction. That number comes a NASA study Ty Marien led and Antcliff participated in, the Short-Haul Revitalization Study, published in 2018. They used the Virginia Tech Transportation Systems Analysis Model (TSAM) to forecast short-haul transportation demand with performance and cost data. Marien used various cost reductions, capacities, and seats to model out scenarios. For 40% reductions in operating costs, the value proposition was driven to very small aircraft, well into the general aviation space. ELECTRON Aviation in Europe is exactly in this space with its ELECTRON 5, one-pilot, 4-passenger electric conventional takeoff and landing airplane.
There was a real knee in the curve at 40% that led to much even more value for smaller aircraft. It suggests that the economics will be as cheap as cars, but a lot faster, and time has value.
And so ended the first half of our conversation. Stay tuned for part 2 of my conversation with Kevin Antcliff, aerospace engineer, aviation autonomy developer and regional air mobility expert.
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