Interview

“Commercial air taxi operations expected in 2025, autonomous flight in the next decade”

Vertical

Vertical Aerospace’s VA-X4 electrical Vertical Take Off and Landing (eVTOL) vehicle is expected to enter commercial service in 2025 - Eduardo Dominguez Puerta, the company’s Chief Commercial Officer, looks at the challenges ahead and the road beyond to autonomous flight.

Can you provide a brief overview of your eVTOL programme?

Our VA-X4 is a vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, fully electric, zero emissions and, initially, with a pilot on board. We thought that for certification and public acceptance purposes this is the best place to start. We believe that autonomy will develop over time once the regulatory frameworks are in place.

However, we’re also trying to upload as much technology as we can and prepare for the autonomy step-change that will probably happen during the 2030s. We have gathered a great group of partners such as Rolls-Royce, Honeywell, Microsoft, GKN and Solvay to help us on the development, certification and industrialisation of the build.

We also have an interesting strategy in the partnerships we are building with our customers. We want to be an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) and provide vehicles to experienced customers who know how to operate them in an aeronautical environment and who already have a network of passengers and routes in place.

We are aiming at certifying the vehicle at the end of 2024 under UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) Special Condition Regulations. We plan to start producing at scale after that, introducing the vehicles into service in 2025.

We have a plan to increase and scale production to volumes that are close to the car industry, so we are targeting a thousand aircraft per year in 2026. We know many other things will have to be developed in parallel and a full ecosystem will need to be created, including infrastructure, energy and integration with other means of transport.

Airspace integration, so these vehicles can be managed in our urban skies and integrated with traditional air traffic managed by air navigation service providers (ANSPs), is a major part of this.

What are the performance characteristics of the vehicle?

Take-off weight will be around three tonnes and it can carry up to four passengers with a pilot. It has an expected range of a hundred miles with a maximum speed of 200 miles per hour.

There will be different mission requirements. Some customers will want to use these vehicles to fly passengers to airports from city centres and the wider catchment area. This will require a range of between 20 to 50 miles.

We also think there will be an increase in the performance and capabilities of batteries, in terms of energy and power density, we so foresee an increase in range and payload. We see that market expanding to point-to-point routes, linking cities that today suffer from a lack of infrastructure or connectivity. That will complement existing means of transport in a much more distributed, and I would say flexible, way. We see these services enabling economic development of those regions.

So it’s not just for the urban skies, these aircraft will fly routes that are currently covered by general aviation aircraft?

Yes, we will see some natural additions to general aviation and the replacement of light helicopter missions. Our vehicles are going to provide a much lower noise footprint, will have far fewer emissions and will be more economical. That will create new opportunities.

I also see additional markets opening up in inter-island transport sectors and developing services to isolated areas. There are many island groups in the world usually connected by networks of ferries. These services are not fully optimised and they have a heavy carbon footprint.

We also see a new market in transporting tourists who today have to travel by minibus. When you land at your tourist destination after a nine hours’ flight you still need to get into a minibus and drive to your destination for an hour on roads that can be dangerous and uncomfortable. Then there are traditional sightseeing excursions today provided by helicopters.

In all these sectors we believe that we can provide services at a much better direct operating cost than helicopters, with increased safety - due to redundancy and no single point of failure – and much improved sustainability.

How much airspace integration work – both inside and outside an urban environment – have you done?

We want to create ecosystems through partnerships. We understand you cannot create an industry on your own – you need to rely on competent partners.

Airspace management is a very national-centric service and requires partnerships with ANSPs. But “classic” ATM is going through a major transformation. Digitalisation is required not only to manage the future in terms of autonomy and to ensure autonomous vehicles can communicate with piloted vehicles, but also to improve the capacity and management of airspace.

ATM is a very traditional industry and still relies on UHF, voiceover and legacy technologies. ANSPs understand that transition is required and we want to be part of that transition. Regulators have also been very active in areas such as vehicle certification and regulations such as U-space that define rules for lower airspace management. These rules will enable the introduction of drones and other lower-altitude airspace vehicles and support integration with higher airspace classes and more classical traffic. So, I think the moment is right. I can see that all the different stakeholders have the same needs and are talking along the same lines.

Stakeholder Forum

Watch our EUROCONTROL Stakeholder Forum on developing U-space for Urban Air Mobility

Featuring Vertical Aerospace’s Chief Commercial Officer Eduardo Dominguez.

How do the U-space regulations, developed for drones, impact what you are doing and have you thought about what communications methods you’re looking at in terms of conspicuity and talking with controllers – if you have to?

We are a UK company and already have had very collaborative discussions with NATS. The U-space regulations will enable drone services but these types of missions are usually very short and localised in time and space. To support large vehicle operations there will need to be a real integration between U-space rules and classical ATM. That still needs to be worked out. I believe that EUROCONTROL, national ANSPs and the European Union - along with the UK Future Flight programme – have been investing heavily in this work and will start demonstrating real-world use cases.

We will need to demonstrate interoperability between vehicle classes and different OEMs, and this is something that is very important to us. We need standards groups that will define some of the rules and technical requirements that all vehicles will need to fulfil, so we can integrate them into the same system.

I think we need to be humble and we need to be collaborative. As an OEM, we cannot define the rules and the regulations; ANSPs and regulators are much better placed than us in determining airspace definition. We will provide all the input that is required to make sure the rules and regulations are properly defined.

When do you see those first demonstrations taking place?

We would like to undertake some demonstrations in the UK in 2024. By then we will have vehicles manufactured and the flight tests for certification will be under way. Between now and then we will need to continuously engage the public; people need to see, feel, touch and imagine what is coming so that they will be able to feel they can support it.

We have already signed a conditional pre-order with Virgin Atlantic and we plan demonstration flights during 2024 in London in preparation for the expected commercial service roll-out in 2025.

We’re trying to gather all the key stakeholders, such as NATS, Heathrow Airport, the Department for Transport in London and other airports such as Farnborough and London City, to understand all the preparation work that needs to be done.

How do you plan to introduce autonomy into the system – not just autonomous flying, but an autonomous ecosystem?

Through partnership. Honeywell is developing our flight control systems and we need to simplify to the maximum extent possible the pilot’s tasks. We need to protect the envelope these airplanes will fly in, so we minimise the risk and offload many of the traditional heavy piloting tasks.

The biggest hurdle I see for autonomy is not technology. I’ve seen the integration of radars, LiDARs, machine learning, machine vision, artificial intelligence, all that linked via flight controls so the aircraft can sense and avoid. All that exists. The question is, what are the means of compliance and what are the regulatory checks that need to be made on new technologies such as AI and machine-learning?

It’s not easy for regulators to ensure that these algorithms will do what they are built to do. Shoot for the moon, you will get to the sky. But sometimes it’s better to shoot for the sky, learn how to fly and then you will get to the moon.

How do you regulate non-deterministic machine learning?

I think that’s a question that regulators, industry, academia, science, will need to solve together. As these new technologies are developing, we are becoming more capable at gathering and analysing data and simulations. But the regulatory landscape needs to move, from a requirement-based to a performance data-based type of certification.

In the future we will go beyond that and have some type of simulated, synthetic scenarios that we can analyse and understand without putting anybody in danger.

Can you paint a picture of what the urban sky is going to look like in 2035?

It will depend on what the investors will do. There has been a great deal of hype. Five years ago, we were told that by now we would have our coffee and pizzas delivered by drones. I think we have all realised that some of these ambitions need to be more pragmatic.

I don’t see a future in the near term where the urban sky is full of drones and eVTOLs. I think we will start with very controlled operations – not on-demand, but probably scheduled – from places where infrastructure and airspace control already exist. It will develop progressively.

I can picture the sky in London in 2025 and beyond where some of those machines will be flying up to 5,000 feet – which in terms of the noise footprint will be nearly imperceptible - and we will get used to seeing them there. We already see them there in the form of medical and public services helicopters.

So, I think it’s going to be progressive, I think it’s going to be controlled, and I think it needs to be on real-use cases that provide value.

I think it’s important to keep a system-of-systems view of how that reality will look like. I think that is fundamental in terms of architecture and integration. But we need to be humble, and I think we need to continue with the “crawl, walk, run, fly” approach which has always been the basis for any successful technological or industrial development.

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