The pandemic did not deter investment in electric vertical take-off and landing craft, which continue to attract an average investment of $1bn per year. Photo credit: Shutterstock
Revolution.Aero Global 2020 Conference Report
Some 400 delegates attended over 36 presentations and networking events to map the future of aerospace innovation around the world. Words: Yuvan Kumar
NO ONE CAPTURED the passion and the excitement of Revolution.Aero’s online conference better than Steve Dickson, FAA administrator. “This is the most exciting time in our history of aviation since the jet engine,” he told delegates.
Over three days, delegates explored ideas about how best to realise future aerial mobility networks and the technologies needed to propel them. Day one focused on Advanced Air Mobility (AAM); day two addressed alternative power and sustainable aviation; day three was dedicated to business aviation and investment.
Brett Oakleaf, strategic partnership development manager, National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), painted the larger picture for AAM. “The market for AAM – flying taxis and drones – is predicted to grow rapidly to $1.5trn globally by 2040. Driving this are trends in the advancement of autonomous vehicles, more economical, lighter and heavier density batteries and advanced manufacturing techniques.”
The Vertical Flight Society would agree, based on research proving that electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) investment has totalled an average $1bn a year for the past five years. There are now 400 eVTOL multi-passenger aircraft designs – the highest ever number. Last year alone, 150 new concepts were released. Raj Singh, JetBlue Venture Technologies MD, outlined this as one of the positives of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“[It's a] time to create competitive advantage in areas where the rest of industry might be moving more slowly. Unfortunately, a lot of people are shying away for obvious reasons. But look at history and when successes happen – a lot of that has been in the downturn."
Every year, advanced air mobility and space travel welcome new players who are pioneering hydrogen fuel cells, beyond visual line-of-sight efficiency and last-mile delivery service. However, some of the existing players continue to make their mark.
Andrew Collins, President and CEO, Sentient Jet, said he is 100% behind exploring opportunities for an eVTOL-based 'Uber-isation' in urban areas.
Collins said business aviation has the existing infrastructure to leverage a shift towards a more sustainable model, with lower noise levels.
Hyundai Motors is another big name looking to launch commercial operations in air mobility by 2028. When asked by an anonymous delegate: “Why doesn’t Hyundai stay in its lane [and stick to making cars]?”, Adam Slepian, global head of Partnerships for Hyundai Urban Air Mobility Division explained that partnerships were critical to the industry’s progress.
“I don’t profess to say that Hyundai is a global leader in aircraft manufacturing – we are not. But we are a global leader in manufacturing – 4.5 to 5m automobiles a year – and when you combine the two, that’s significant. There’s a lot we can learn from each other. Hyundai is an automation and innovation company above all else.”
Partnerships in urban air mobility (UAM) were also underscored by panellists Gary Gysin, CEO of Wisk and Bob Pearce, NASA Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate. The two aim to bring AAM operations to cities in the USA as part of a NASA campaign.
Addressing public acceptance, Lee Human, President and CEO, AeroTEC, said: "People should not assume that electric flight is not safe. A lot of work is being done and the architecture is much safer than any other kind.”
Hydrogen was one of the buzzwords, with pioneers of the fuel cell ZeroAvia – Val Miftakhov and Andrew Patton – and Universal Hydrogen’s Jason Chua presenting on different sessions. Chua believes that about 80% of the air travel market will be powered by hydrogen in 10 years.
One of the main hurdles facing hydrogen adoption is lack of distribution, said Chua. So, Universal is planning to use existing freight networks for distribution.
Despite the hammer blow Covid-19 dealt to commercial aviation and its impact on business aviation, attendees at Revolution.Aero Global 2020 were buoyed about the future of the industry.
With $5bn in investment and some aiming for commercial flights as early as 2023, not even a pandemic seems to have shaken the spirt of aerospace innovation.
Revolution.Aero Global 2020 took place on December 8th and 9th.
“The liquid fuel industry is moving away from fossil fuels.”
Eric Bartsch, CEO and co-founder , VerdeGo Aero
In 10 years, about 80% of air travel will be powered by hydrogen fuel cells.
‘Hydrogen offers the potential for low emissions’
Whether the future is hybrid-electric, all-electric or hydrogen, many agreed there is strong resiliency in the industry. Each technology will have its place in the market.
VerdeGo Aero’s CEO and co-founder Eric Bartsch said: “The liquid fuel industry is moving away from fossil fuels towards more renewable fuels. Batteries are an opportunity in the long term and hydrogen offers the potential for low emissions and attractive energy densities. All of these have a place and they will serve different market segments.”
ZeroAvia’s advisory board member Andrew Patton said the issues with energy-to-weight ratio in electrically-powered aircraft would mean they could only travel shorter distances to begin with.
Bob Hess, systems engineering manager, BAE Systems emphasised the importance of energy storage and management. Hess said there is a lot more that goes into designing a viable system. “We are trying to balance the right cell, how we package it, how we make it safe and how we get it to work for life. And then there is certification, commercial viability and the supply chain.”
“This is the most exciting time in our history of aviation.”
Steve Dickson, FAA administrator
Revolution.Aero Global sponsors:
Hyundai Motor Group
Shackelford, Bowen, McKinley & Norton LLP
Jaunt Air Mobility