Archer Aviation is one of the firms leading the development of the electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft industry. Archer Aviation has a mission “to unlock the skies, freeing us to reimagine how we live and spend time.” Archer Aviation has a goal to deploy 6000 aircraft by 2030. Archer Aviation’s early go-to-market strategy is to launch “trunk” routes from airports to city centers with partners like United. Archer Aviation says this sector has a known demand and strong willingness.
Archer Aviation recently announced that it has now completed the final assembly of its first Midnight aircraft. With final assembly and initial testing complete, the aircraft was recently shipped from Archer’s Palo Alto facility to its flight test facility in Salinas, California, and reassembled. Archer will now take this aircraft through a series of ground tests leading up to its planned first flight this summer. The Midnight aircraft has recently garnered significant attention from the US Department of Defense given its payload capabilities.
This Midnight aircraft will enable Archer to perform critical “company testing” to accelerate and reduce risk on its certification program with the Federal Aviation Administration in advance of “for credit” certification testing that the company plans to begin early next year with piloted Midnight aircraft. Archer Aviation says its strategy with this aircraft is to allow Archer to fly many of the same test points that will be needed during piloted “for credit” flight testing in order to further validate the aircraft before the FAA witnesses and participates in the testing — a customary practice in many aircraft certification programs.
I recently had an interview with the team at Archer Aviation (AA), Here are some of the highlights from that interview:
RJK: What does the current landscape of shuttle/taxi services look like for traditional helicopter services? What does it look like for tourism/scenic flights currently?
AA: Widespread accessibility for air taxi transportation with general consumers is essentially non-existent today due to the high cost and noise. For the general consumer, helicopters are primarily used within the tourism segment, rather than urban commuting, and generally speaking, most people have ridden in a helicopter 0-1 times in their lifetime. The step change with eVTOL aircraft to be able to target mass adoption for urban air mobility is that the technology delivers a solution that is safe, low noise, sustainable, and can be offered at prices that are competitive with ground based ride share.
RJK: How do eVTOL aircraft hope to transform these services and industries?
AA: eVTOL aircraft represent the next big transportation revolution, one that offers breakthrough efficiency and convenience while bolstering industry-wide sustainability initiatives. At Archer, we’re focused on urban air mobility, which we see as the largest market segment for eVTOL aircraft (medical, cargo, and tourism being others). The reality of life in most cities today is long, arduous transport times even for short car trips and infrastructure that’s increasingly strained to meet the ever-growing demand for transportation services. All the while, emissions from ground transport vehicles continue to pollute these densely-packed areas. Offering a transportation solution that is safe, low noise, sustainable and can be offered at prices that are competitive with ground based ride share is a transformational opportunity for businesses, commuters and municipalities.
RJK: How big do you think these markets can grow to, and what new markets and applications could evolve from having these types of aircraft?
AA: For reference, the helicopter industry is currently $58.87B. One of the primary challenges that has limited the helicopter industry is noise — specifically when operating in and around urban environments. With a much quieter solution (thanks to our electric powertrain), we see the eVTOL industry growing significantly beyond the helicopter industry as it unlocks a number of new use cases for a much broader population of consumers due to the reduced cost.
With eVTOL aircraft, we have the opportunity to help address a litany of urban transportation challenges by creating a multi-modal transportation solution. This means integrating urban air mobility within existing systems to improve the overall functionality of a city’s transport network with safe, sustainable, efficient trips from city centers to nearby locations at scale. In turn, we believe these markets will continue to grow. As UAM infrastructure matures and our operations scale, adoption will continue to increase. This new industry will create economic opportunity on several levels from creating green manufacturing jobs, to more jobs for pilots and mechanics, to staffing at take off and landing locations and beyond.
RJK: What kind of pilot training is required for operation of these eVTOL aircraft?
AA: The FAA is currently working with Archer Aviation and other OEMs on defining training requirements for our industry. At a minimum, pilots will need a commercial pilot certificate to be eligible to train on eVTOL aircraft. Before operating Midnight in revenue service, pilots must also pass a rigorous airline pilot training course leveraging the use of advanced simulation and virtual reality training systems.
RJK: Do you foresee a situation where there could be a shortage of pilots for this industry, given some of the staff shortages we have seen in the traditional airline business in recent times?
AA: Many of the leading airlines are seeing the eVTOL aircraft industry as a potential solution to the current pilot shortage. Our industry has the potential to provide expansive opportunities for new pilots to gain hours of commercial experience that can otherwise be hard to come by, providing a new funnel of qualified talent traditional airlines can draw from. Additionally, eVTOL aircraft have the potential to make flying more accessible and convenient for a wider range of people for several reasons which could encourage more individuals to consider earning their pilot’s license and pursuing a career as a pilot:
- Our industry is designing aircraft that are made to be more accessible and affordable to operate than traditional aircraft, which will make it easier for people to get involved in aviation. This may be especially appealing to younger people or those who may not have considered aviation as a hobby or career due to financial constraints.
- eVTOL aircraft are designed to be easier to fly and maintain than traditional aircraft, which could reduce the barriers to entry for prospective pilots. Our aircraft are highly automated and are controlled using advanced flight control systems, which may require less training and experience than traditional aircraft.
- Additionally, eVTOL aircraft may offer new and exciting opportunities for aviation enthusiasts. For example, eVTOL aircraft could be used for urban air taxis or sightseeing tours, which could be appealing to those who may not have been interested in traditional aviation or airline activities as flying air taxis or sightseeing tours would afford a pilot the opportunity to fly locally instead of enduring the typically rigorous travel schedule a commercial pilot may otherwise need to take on.
RJK: What are the general certification and licensing requirements for eVTOL aircraft, what will widespread adoption look like, and how will it work so there is no traffic jam in the skies and no accidents?
AA: Archer is working closely with the FAA on achieving Type Certification of our Midnight aircraft. This is a rigorous process that ensures when our aircraft enters into commercial operations, it will do so safely. As part of the certification process we must demonstrate to the FAA that it can operate at similar standards of safety and reliability you’d expect from commercial aircraft in service today. eVTOL aircraft will safely integrate into the existing airspace infrastructure by utilizing existing ground based infrastructure and routes in the air used by helicopters and small planes and communicating with ATC just as those helicopters and those aircraft would today. As the industry grows, we’ll work with the FAA to establish new infrastructure to meet the demand as needed. The FAA just released their “Concept of Operations V 2.0” which lays out the details of how the FAA and NASA are planning for the widespread adoption of these aircraft occurring safely.
RJK: What’s the range of your eVTOL aircraft?
AA: Midnight’s range is up to 100 miles, but it is optimized for rapid back-to-back 20-50 mile trips with minimal charge time in between (~10 minutes) as the data shows that distance is where the highest current demand for our service exists in dense urban areas.
RJK: Will you be using a battery swap model, or direct charging by plugging in the eVTOL aircraft?
AA: Direct charging via plug-in.
RJK: How many taxi trips per day will the eVTOL aircraft be able to do approximately per full charge cycle?
AA: We are targeting being able to handle rapid back-to-back trips throughout the day operating at speeds of ~150 mph and distances of 10-50 miles on average with each aircraft factoring in ~10 minutes of charge time in between. The total number of trips will depend in large part on the level of consumer demand.
RJK: Which type of batteries do you use?
AA: We’ve partnered with Molicel as our lithium-ion battery cell provider. They have 40 years of industry leadership – producing high-powered, highly reliable battery cells for various applications, including the manufacturing and supply of battery cells for Archer’s production eVTOL aircraft, Midnight. Cylindrical battery cells like Molicel’s are the most reliable form factor for aerospace applications because they have a proven safe architecture, demonstrated reliability and decades of volume manufacturing.
RJK: I saw that you will start flights with United in 2025? Tell us a bit more about this. And also, have you already commenced test flights for certification?
AA: United Airlines is our strategic airline operations partner and an investor in Archer. We have already announced electric air taxi routes in NYC and Chicago, two major markets for United, having worked with them and the local authorities to ensure all stakeholders are on board and working together to prepare local infrastructure to support eVTOL aircraft operations. We are targeting what we call “trunk routes” with United, which focus on airport to city center routes with strong existing demand, to ensure we can usher customers back and forth efficiently and provide an end-to-end travel experience that is unparalleled.
As it relates to flight tests, we successfully completed our Maker flight test program with two aircraft and are now ramping up to start Midnight’s first flight test program this summer. At the same time, we are building our first conforming Midnight aircraft which will begin “for credit” testing with the FAA in 2024 to support our entry into service in 2025.
RJK: A lot is happening in the tech world right now with the latest buzz being around AI, with some saying it’s similar to what was depicted in old movies. In the old sci-fi movies, flying cars and similar aircraft were also depicted as being widespread and as a major mode of transportation in the future. How realistic can this be in the future based on where we are now?
AA: While eVTOLs are often tied to science fiction and the distant future, the key enabling technologies that unlock electric flight are available today. Additionally, the FAA has stated that it recognizes the potential of eVTOL to significantly benefit the public and that it is focused on facilitating certification and validating new eVTOL aircraft, production, continued airworthiness, operations, and personnel licensing.
The FAA has continually noted they are targeting issuing type certification for leading eVTOL aircraft around the 2024/25 time frame, which means we are in fact on the cusp of this revolution occurring. The FAA, and NASA, are also planning for the scaling up of these aircraft and anticipate a very complex airspace similar to what you’ve seen in movies at some point in the future. All that said, we are taking a very pragmatic approach to commercialization, focusing on the cities and routes that have strong existing demand for our service and building out from there. When the first eVTOL aircraft come to market, they will not be as widespread as “flying cars” are depicted in sci-fi movies. We will operate in select markets first and then expand operationally from there with more routes, aircraft and cities. We are very excited about our industry and the future it will help create.
Images courtesy of Archer Aviation
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