eVTOL Aircraft Design and Sustainability
By 2030 our urban skies and regional vistas will look a lot different. Just as EV charging stations have sprung up at your mall, (with more coming too!), electric aircraft will speckle the sky. This novel means of electric transportation is being portrayed not only as more convenient, but also as more energy efficient, all in a bid to mitigate our effects on the environment. The question is: Can eVTOL design achieve this level of environmental sustainability, and what must eVTOL companies consider as they create a differentiated product to ensure that the answer is “yes”?
Early-stage companies and global corporates are pioneering breakthrough technologies in aviation that can help decarbonize complex, critical, carbon-intensive aerial vehicles, and pioneer sustainable mobility practices whilst generating economic future growth during the transition. Over the last half decade there has been substantial progress in the development of Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) aircraft for the Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) market. This innovation propels communities and individuals into exciting new areas of urban, suburban, and regional mobility, including UAV (unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones), AAM (advanced air mobility), Regional Air Mobility (new regional aviation systems), and finally eVTOLS (electrical vertical take-off and landing vehicles) that provide short journeys for up to perhaps a dozen people.
But are electric advanced air mobility vehicles, and regional aviation solutions, such as eVTOL, the answer to sustainable mobility moving toward a Net-Zero 2050 future? eVTOL mobility offers a revolutionary opportunity on the ground and in the air, but is it more sustainable and environmentally friendly than current technologies?
Well, the answer is yes, and no.
eVTOL Aircraft Design:
State of the Industry
The goal of the eVTOL category is to move people and cargo inside large cities and outlying suburbs in a faster, more convenient, and sustainable way than current mass transportation modalities such as car, subway, bus, truck, or train. However, the development of eVTOLs and a completely new air transportation ecosystem requires overcoming several significant challenges to make it a sustainable mode of transportation – both environmentally and socially (i.e. safety, noise, community impact etc.) 1.) establishing regulations for mobility at low altitudes over dense urban areas 2.) continued safety testing proving the airworthiness 3.) continued advancement of efficient, reliable, and lighter all-electric or hybrid-electric propulsion systems with enhanced battery life 4.) iterating design to minimize drag and noise 5.) designs for noise regulation in urban areas 6.) passenger comfort, safety and acceptance for autonomous air mobility and 7.) required new infrastructures, including vertiports, regional VTOL pads and charging stations.
Despite these future challenges, right now, today, AAM companies are tackling the development of technologies to support this new mobility ecosystem, and eVTOL has progressed rapidly including solving for the battery supply chain and the build out of recharging Infrastructure, which is crucial for this mobility sector. Additionally, low-carbon initiatives continue to drive the development of alternative fuels and supporting infrastructure. Research is underway today developing energy infrastructure solutions for regional airports and vertiports with models and simulations of physical processes being run as well as the surrounding airspace in these urban environments.
Designing an Environmentally Sustainable eVTOL Future
What is the best use-case for sustainable eVTOL?
Some answers to the AAM vs EV ground transportation sustainability debate do exist. A University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability study found it is possible to make George, Jane, Judy, Elroy (and let’s not forget Astro) from the 1960’s Saturday morning cartoon, The Jetsons, and their ‘flying car’ sustainable. The study revealed that the opportunity to align a sustainability case with the eVTOL business case does exist for high passenger occupancy flights and presents ridesharing incentives, lowering single passenger trips, and increasing riding collaborations. These types of trips are better for emissions and favors the economics of AAM. Riders and passengers would also receive significant time savings as the payoff of flying versus driving in highly congested urban areas. AAM’s flight profile and distance determine if it is a more sustainable and beneficial option than driving in a car. VTOL flights can be divided into several phases: takeoff hover, climb, cruise, descent, and landing hover. VTOLs have different travel times, speeds, and power consumption profiles throughout their flight. If the flight profile is dominated by efficient cruise with multiple passengers, the Jetson Family does quite well. However, if the flight profile is dominated by short hops and many hovers, flight benefits drop. One caveat is that for really short trips, less than 22 miles, a single person driving a traditional gasoline car produces less greenhouse gas emissions than a single individual driving an autonomous VTOL. To put that into perspective, the average commute is approximately 11 miles.
For sure work needs to be done, and AAM does not solve the sustainability equation in future mobility on it’s own, but on a regional basis it is quite compelling.
What does this mean for eVTOL design if you want to actually be sustainable with your “e”VTOL?
– Up your passenger count
– Focus on regional travel (over 22 miles)
– Create an infrastructure that encourages proper framing of the mode of transportation (i.e. not like urban bus stops, but like short flights in partnership with an airport, or in partnership with bus stops to show that it’s NOT that.
– Interiors that are geared toward a medium-length flight
– Modular design for cargo or people
– Feasible interfacing with logistics and first mile or mid mile
At Sundberg-Ferar, we’ve been designing the future of moving people and things since 1934. As one of my colleagues put it the other day, “the best way to predict the future is to create it.” SF is doing just that by innovating in the new mobility sector and the future of EV flight. From personal vehicles, to mass transit, to electric micro-mobility and last mile solutions, we’re supporting our clients in Michigan and worldwide, creating their concepts for the future of mobility and transportation as well as immediate tactical products and experiences.
We’ve got our heads on what eVTOL means for the future of transportation, what the passenger experience should look and feel like, how the mode interfaces with communities and infrastructure, and we’re eager to work with like-minded companies like YOU to help you realize your eVTOL vision and create a market-winning experiences.
Reach out to us today! We’d love to hear about your eVTOL platform, infrastructure product, or enabling technology and discuss how you can leverage design and innovation to create a viable, human-centered, and sustainable future.
eVTOL Aircraft Design and Sustainability
Director of Business Development
Scott has deep experience in business development and business model design, product innovation, ideation, strategy, sustainability and product management in global and cross-border enterprises. A serial technology entrepreneur, he fell backward into innovation and product design as the Entrepreneur-in-Residence for the F+F coLAB, a collaboration between IDEO, the MIT Media Lab, and Target, exploring new technologies and creating ventures that tackle major global human system challenges.
Scott strives to connect with the essential needs inherent in both sides of a partnership to maximize client value, believing building new product platforms can be done in a sustainable and resilient manner.