Imagine pilotless aircraft running on zero-emission electric power, navigating high-speed routes with no traffic in sight. Electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) may seem far off in the future, but they are closer to reality than you think. With how fast the developments are in the urban air mobility industry, it will not take long to cruise the skies in air taxis that will cost you no more than an Uber or rideshare.
One of the most promising technologies of our lifetime, eVTOLs will change the transport industry and landscape as we know it. This entails seeing vertiports atop buildings and multi-mode commuting in transport depots. People can opt to live in real estate further from their workplaces, swapping 45 minutes of commute in suburban traffic to air travel of 120 mph (200 km/h) within the same time frame.
Every manufacturer has its own eVTOL prototype design. Some have big multi motors with bigger cabins to accommodate more passengers, while some are single-seat hovercrafts with powerful tilt-rotors. Some can cover up to 186 miles and do well in longer-range intercity and regional transport, while others are suited for a shorter distance. While these eVTOLs may differ in design, all advocate the same objective – safe, efficient, and fast travel.
The following are some of the frontrunners in the eVTOL sector. These companies have invested heavily in this technology, allocating billions of funding to offer autonomous passenger-carrying aircraft to the general public within the next five to ten years. With support from the government, partnerships with notable organizations, and investments from the private sector, they are set to make history in the business aviation industry.
1. Joby Aviation
Expected to launch commercial operations in 2024, Joby Aviation is one of the most promising startups in the eVTOL field. Valuable partnerships with companies like Toyota and Uber, as well as a recent merger with a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC), set the company value at $6.6 billion, with $910 million in private investment in public equity funding. Joby Aviation also has plans to begin construction on a scaled manufacturing facility this year.
Joby Aviation has over 1,000 test flights of its five-passenger aircraft tagged as the S4. Featuring six tilting rotors and a V-shaped double tail, the aircraft can travel up to 200 mph and over 150 miles (240 km) for a single charge. The developer said that it expects to complete the airframe certification process for its eVTOL by 2024. Joby Aviation aims to offer on-demand air taxi service in multiple markets across the globe, including the Asia Pacific.
2. Astro Aerospace
Texas-based company Astro Aerospace (OTC:ASDN) has been a global leader in the urban air mobility industry for more than a decade. It recently announced the acquisition of Horizon Aircraft, a company in Canada with its own fleet of eVTOLs, in its bid to stay on top. Astro is also preparing to become a NASDAQ-listed company, signing on Kingswood Capital Markets, a global investment bank, to gain access to the greater capital markets.
Astro’s vision is to create efficient and eco-friendly drone transportation. The ELROY, its fully functional eVTOL, is a short-distance, all-electric multi-copter with a 360° surround view. Powered by 17 electric motors that are emission-free and whisper-quiet, it can transport two passengers with a top speed of 43 mph. Size-wise, the ELROY is small enough to fit into most garages. Astro has plans to fly its second prototype in the middle of this year.
Said to be the second best-funded startup in the space after Joby Aviation, Lilium is purportedly going after additional funding from public markets, this time via a reverse merger with SPAC. According to Forbes, the startup can net Lilium around $700 million to $800 million of SPAC cash. The German air taxi company has also announced its partnership with Ferrovial, a multinational infrastructure developer, to create a vertiport network across Florida.
Lilium first unveiled its five-seater eVTOL prototype in 2019. The Lilium Jet is battery-powered and can fly a range of 300 kilometers, about the distance from New York to Boston. Compared to competitors that aim for shorter distance travel, the developer is targeting longer-range regional transportation and intercity. It is also rumored that Lilium is developing larger seven-seater electric aircraft and is looking at certification within two to five years.
China’s eHang first sold shares to the public in 2019, but due to lack of substantial interest from investors, it barely raked in $41 million of funding. Today, the startup is worth $6.8 billion, thanks to the growing excitement towards air taxis and passenger drones. Though its market value is currently taking a hit because of the Wolfpack controversy, eHang remains steadfast in its vision to be one of the leaders in eVTOL technology.
eHang burst onto the electric aircraft scene during the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show with its single-seat manned multi-copter. Since 2020, it has been conducting a series of demonstrations for its air taxi, the EH216, over urban areas in Europe. The pilotless aircraft is a two-seater design that features 16 rotors mounted on eight arms. eHang also aims to develop vertiport centers with multi-level automated vehicle storage and automatic charging.
With a decade of development experience, German company Volocopter is one of the frontrunners in the urban air mobility space. It recently raised over $240 million additional capital in Series D funding, signing in new investors like Continental AG, Tokyo Century, and BlackRock, among others. The investment will be used to bring Volocopter’s air taxi, the VeloCity, to certification and accelerate the launching of its first commercial routes in 2023.
VeloCity is a two-seater, non-transitioning eVTOL built for short flights. Aside from its air taxi, Volocopter is set to launch its heavy-lift utility cargo drone, the VeloDrome. It is also working on its own brand of urban Skyport. Since 2018, the startup has been conducting public demonstrations of its aircraft in Asia and Europe. Volocopter is the first and only eVTOL developer to receive design organization approval (DOA) by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA).