Eviation’s all-electric Alice aircraft makes its maiden flight

Eviation’s Alice electric aircraft took off for the first time yesterday, teasing a future in which regional flights of hundreds of miles will be done with zero emissions and a lot less noise. It’s still a ways off, but today’s demonstration shows it’s at least just a matter of time and money.

The Alice is a prototype of what will eventually be a passenger plane capable of carrying around 2,500 pounds total, which equates to 6-10 people and their luggage depending on how you want to break it down. It’s powered by a pair of MagniX engines — that company just scooped up $74 million from NASA to develop more of them — and a hefty battery system from AVL. It has a max air speed of about 260 knots.

For the test flight, it took off from an airport in central Washington, ascended to 3,500 feet, then landed again, for a total flight time of 8 minutes. That’s just about enough to show that the aircraft can do what it’s meant to do, but it’s still a long ways to full passenger flights.

“Today’s first flight provided Eviation with invaluable data to further optimize the aircraft for commercial production. We will review the flight data to understand how the performance of the aircraft matched our models,” Eviation CEO and President Gregory Davis told TechCrunch.

This wasn’t just a big press event to show off their shiny new aircraft — it was an incredibly important validation of what had, until left the tarmac, been an aircraft only in theory. This flight will be followed by more test flights as they explore the limits of the aircraft and how it performs under a variety of conditions.

A magniX Electric Propulsion Unit (EPU) in the Alice aircraft.

Of course ultimately they’ll need to commit to a design and certify it, and Davis said that 2025 is their target for performing tests with the production prototypes of the aircraft. These things move slow by design — there’s a reason air travel is so safe.

What Eviation (and many other ambitious electric and hybrid flight companies) envision is an activation of many new points of travel, like regional airports primarily used by cargo companies and private plane owners. Cheap, clean flights between these smaller hubs could simplify both commutes and cargo.

Why don’t we use them already, you ask? Gas-powered planes are loud and the logistics of fueling, pickup, and other infrastructure don’t always work out. Smaller, quieter planes delivering packages to a more local delivery hub might make sense. Investment from municipal or county governments to reactivate a bit of disused but valuable infrastructure could help defray the cost of updating regional airports as well.

“Electric aviation opens up more opportunities to connect communities where noise concerns have been a deterrent to flights, and restrict operating hours,” Davis said.

As for passengers, we’ll see how the new transport network plays out — maybe you’ll land and get straight into a robotaxi by the time Eviation is flying in your neck of the woods. It should also be a quieter ride on the inside, though don’t expect total silence.

Left to right: Steve Crane, Test Pilot; Richard F. Chandler, Chairman, Clermont Group, Majority Shareholder of Eviation; ; Greg Davis, President and CEO of Eviation.

The company declined to speculate as to the timing of its first major flight, which I defined as 50 miles or more, saying that all depends on the testing and certification process. Which is fair — you don’t just take the only prototype out for a spin when millions of dollars are riding on it.

And there are definitely customers waiting at the door: it might be a few years before Alice (or its successor — Bob?) is operational, but more than 100 aircraft have already been reserved.

Cape Air and Global Crossing Airlines ordered 75 and 50 aircraft respectively; both are regional airlines that could use Alice type electric craft to cover a majority of their flights. It’s a big investment, but the fuel and potentially maintenance savings would be enormous. DHL Express has also ordered a dozen planes, clearly preferring to dip its toe into the pool first.

The electric aviation space is heating up, and companies are finally moving past the concept stage and into real testing — you can expect continued growth and diversity in the next few years as the industry further embraces a greener, quieter future.

Eviation’s all-electric Alice aircraft makes its maiden flight by Devin Coldewey originally published on TechCrunch

Pyka adapts its autonomous electric plane for cargo runs with a $37M round

It isn’t easy getting a new plane certified and flying — let alone an autonomous one, and electric at that. But Pyka has done just that, clearly impressing the powers that be enough to raise a $37M A round and get to work on a new cargo-carrying variant of the Pelican aircraft.

The company raised an $11M seed round in 2019, and since then has tested and deployed several of its Pelican small aircraft, which can take off, perform complex spraying patterns, and land entirely autonomously. It can be checked and operated by a single person. And the benefits of electric vs gas motors hardly need to be explained.

The Pelican is Pyka’s first plane, and they’ve built 7 of them so far (in addition to 5 smaller E; 3 are in active use in Latin America, where Norcia said the frequency of spraying is higher due to pest pressure on crops grown there.

“Brazil is probably the most relevant market market for this technology, in terms of the intersection of huge market, intense spray work because it’s tropical, and more of an appetite to foster new tech,” Michael Norcia, CEO and founder of Pyka, told TechCrunch. “The regulators are smaller, and want to push autonomous solutions forward because could have a meaningful impact on their country.”

Feedback from the early deployments of Pelican prototypes has led the company to make a few changes. “But we’re design freezing it,” Norcia said. “The next one we build will most likely be the one we go with for certification in the U.S. and Brazil.”

Specifically, he explained, it’s “type certification,” though the planes are cleared to operate in other ways already. Being type certified will help scale up quickly; “It’s the ultimate in rubber stamps,” he said.

This newest version of the Pelican differs pretty significantly from the early models, with larger wings, a stronger structure, bigger batteries, improved payload capacity and more. (Sadly they don’t have any good photos of the latest version yet.)

“But one of the most exciting things is the new aircraft has zero single points of failure; there’s no single system that if it fails, will lead to a catastrophic event. That’s pretty cool! And it’s not easy to do that with an aircraft,” Norcia said.

The new model has 4 motors instead of 3, and it can run like normal if any one of them fails. It also has 3 elevators, again allowing any to fail and still operate as normal. the plane also now has a parachute that will help it float to a soft belly landing. Making the flight control system itself redundant was more of a challenge, but they added a high reliability, narrow scope backup unit that can finish the job for sure if the main one has a fault.

A Pyka Pelican aircraft flies close to a grassy field.

Image Credits: Pyka

But while getting to this final version of the Pelican in crop duster configuration is good, it’s not the endgame.

“Our master plan is and always has been to leverage the technology we’re developing in agriculture for larger markets, so cargo and eventually passenger transit,” Norcia said.

To that end they are working on a cargo-carrying Pelican that will be able to carry 400 pounds of payload up to 200 miles. The plane itself is almost identical except for a larger forward fuselage so it can fit larger items like pallets. Interestingly Norcia said they’ve moved away from their bespoke high-power-density batteries to automotive ones, possibly to simplify maintenance.

They intend to test it out in a low-risk situation like small inter-island commerce, making daily deliveries to places that normally would wait a week or more for a larger, piloted plane to load up enough to justify the trip. Even then it’s quite expensive.

Daily autonomous flights could change the economies of smaller islands where communities or tourist destinations are located — if your groceries only come once a week that kind of limits the menu. But every day? Fresh milk and fruit for everyone, not to mention mail, medicine and other must-haves.

The company is aiming for first flight of Pelican Cargo in 4 months, and plans to deliver the first plane to its new tropical home before the end of the year.

As for the money they raised, it will largely go towards boosting manufacturing capabilities, allowing Pyka to build a Pelican a month and get them out the door to waiting customers. The round was led by Piva Capital and Prelude Ventures.

Volocopter raises $170M, now valued at $1.87B, to fuel the first commercial launches of its flying taxi fleet

Volocopter, the startup out of southern Germany (Bruchsal) that has been developing electric VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) aircraft and a business model for operating them in taxi-style fleets in urban areas, has picked up another big round of funding as it inches closer to its first commercial launches. It has raised $170 million, funding that it said it will be using to kick off its first air taxi services, which it noted in an announcement would be “in cities like Singapore, Rome, and Paris.”

The money is part of a Series E, and Volocopter describes it at a first closing made at a pre-money valuation of $1.7 billion, which works out to a post-money valuation of $1.87B. I’ve asked what its target is for the full Series E and any other details it can share on the timing and will update as and when I learn more.

This first tranche is being led by WP Investment, a new backer of the company from South Korea, with strategic investor Honeywell (also a new investor), previous backers Atlantia, Whysol, and btov Partners, and other unnamed existing investors also participated. It has raised $579 million in total to date, and other investors include Geely, Mercedes-Benz Group, Intel Capital, and BlackRock.

Volocopter made a big mark in the autonomous vehicle space when in 2017 — backed by giants like Intel — it ran its first autonomous flying car test in Dubai. (Intel also imported and showed off the Volopter’s self-flying capabilities at an over-the-top event of its own.)

Notably, the announcement of the funding today doesn’t have even a single mention of autonomy or self-driving capabilities, underscoring some more realistic framing as these services get closer to being rolled out.

“This funding round is a testament to Volocopter’s leading position in what is a highly attractive emerging market. We continue to make significant technical and commercial progress as we work toward bringing urban air mobility to life at scale in cities worldwide,” said Florian Reuter, CEO of Volocopter, in a statement.

It also does not specify any timing for the commercial launch, but in March 2021, Reuter told us the services were two years out (so, 2023). We’re also asking about the latest estimated launch date.

Currently, Volocopter highlighting three craft that will appear in its taxi fleets: VoloCity, VoloConnect, and VoloDrone, and it said that it is the “first and only” electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) company to receive Design Organisation Approval (DOA) from the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). That means if it plays its cards right it could have a clear shot at the market either as a standalone branded commercial provider, or as a partner to other urban transportation companies, before competitors — others hoping to make a mark in this space include Lilium, Kitty Hawk and Joby Aviation — move in.

On that note, this Series E is an all-equity round, but Volocopter has also been raising a lot of debt for the building of that bigger fleet. Earlier this year it inked a $1 billion deal “in principle” with Aviation Capital Group (ACG) to finance the sale and leasing operation of Volocopter aircraft (that will mean that it could borrow up to $1 billion in debt when the time comes). This will kick in only once Volocopter has full aircraft certification.

It has so far completed some 1,000 public and private test flights.

The company also noted in the announcement that its plan will be to use the funding to get to launch, but also to eventually going public.

“Volocopter has spectacular investors from around the globe, which puts us in an excellent position to focus on our first-to-certification and first-to-market strategies before we embark on the path to public listing,” said Christian Bauer, CCO of Volocopter, in a statement.

That fist-mover advantage, combined with the work that it’s been doing for the last ten years developing its air vehicles, seem to be the two factors that are lending it a lot of credibility right now with investors, even though it has yet to prove a market for the product.

“We are confident that Volocopter will be among the first to bring UAM to cities globally, since seeing its aircraft fly in Seoul last year. As a leader in ESG investment, we are excited to empower city sustainability through Volocopter,” said Dr. Lei Wang, chairman of WP Investment, in a statement. The firm’s co-chairman Tiffany Park added that Korea will be a part of the commercial launch as well.

Evolito’s electric motors look set to take off in aerospace where YASA left off in automotive

Back in July, British “axial-flux” electric motor startup YASA was acquired by Mercedes-Benz for an undisclosed amount. YASA’s electric motors generated considerable EV industry interest because of their efficiency, high power density, small size and low weight.

Indeed, Rolls-Royce, best known in aviation for its jet engines, employed YASA engines in its all-electric airplane “Spirit of Innovation” which recently completed a 15-minute test flight.

But it’s emerged today that there was, to put it mildly, more to the deal than met the eye.

It turns out that a new company, Evolito, was spun out of YASA before its acquisition by Mercedes Benz, taking with it an electric motor it describes as ultra-high performance, low-weight, and most suitable for the aerospace industry.

The prospect now is that Evolito will pick up in the aerospace world where YASA left off in the automotive world. Evolito’s investors lead are Waypoint Capital and Oxford Science Enterprises (OSE).

The implication is that because YASA’s technology has proven itself in high volume production in the automotive industry, Evolito could have particular advantages in aerospace.

Evolito claims its motors are “ultra high-performance, low-weight axial-flux motors” and its power electronics are “smaller, lighter and more robust than any other competing technology” with wide potential applications in Electric Vertical Take-off and Landing (eVTOL), Fixed Wing and distributed electric propulsion applications such as Urban Air Mobility (UAM).

Gareth Morris, Managing Director, Evolito said: “Electrification in aerospace is some ten years behind that of the automotive industry, but the market potential is huge. Electric Vertical Take-off and Landing, Electric Helicopter, Fixed-Wing, and Urban Air Mobility aircraft need high power density, low weight electric powertrains with inherently high safety factors – a combination of attributes that are unique to our axial-flux electric motor and power electronics. By leveraging YASA’s unique IP in the aerospace market, Evolito will fast-track the commercialization of electric flight and transform mobility as we know it.”

Evolito Motor

Evolito Motor

Many of these claims appear to ring true. After personally visiting the YASA factory and having the advantages of the “topology” of its engine explained in great detail, I would be extremely hard-pressed to argue against the claims made for it. It’s this technology that Evolito is now taking forward into the aerospace industry, and it looks like it will be a very bright future indeed.

Cyrus Jilla, Partner and Board Director, Waypoint Capital said: “At Waypoint, one of our thematic interests is in energy transition and sustainability, including electrification. We look to invest in businesses with unique disruptive technology led by outstanding teams. Evolito is a perfect fit for us and we look forward to backing the team as they develop their game-changing electrification solutions for the aerospace market, making emissions-free flight a reality.”

Alexis Zervoglos, Senior Partner, OSE added: “The electrification of flight is one of the most exciting market opportunities of our time. Realizing this potential will require innovative new technology and an ability to scale to meet the fast-emerging demand. OSE is delighted to be supporting Evolito on its mission to accelerate the adoption of electric flight.”

The market for electric drive solutions for urban applications is forecast to grow to $90 billion and 160,000 vehicles by 2050, according to some industry experts.

(Just no-one tell them about Aviato, ok?)

Rolls-Royce’s all-electric aircraft completes 15-minute maiden voyage

Rolls-Royce, best known in aviation for its jet engines, has taken an all-electric airplane on its maiden voyage. The “Spirit of Innovation” completed a 15 minute flight, marking “the beginning of an intensive flight-testing phase in which we will be collecting valuable performance data on the aircraft’s electrical power and propulsion system,” the company announced.

Rolls Royce said the one-seat airplane has “the most power-dense battery pack every assembled for an aircraft.” The aircraft uses a 6,000 cell battery pack with a three-motor powertrain that currently delivers 400kW (500-plus horsepower), and Rolls-Royce said the aircraft will eventually achieve speeds of over 300 MPH.

The flight comes about a year after the originally scheduled takeoff and about six months after taxi trials. Rolls-Royce is also developing an air taxi with manufacturer Tecnam, with the aim of delivering an “all-electric passenger aircraft for the commuter market,” according to the companies. It has previously teamed with Siemens and Airbus on another e-plane concept.

Aircraft companies have been exploring electric airplanes for a number of years, as air travel and cargo accounts for an increasing amount of greenhouse gases. The World Wildlife Foundation has called it “currently the most carbon intensive activity an individual can make.”

Weight is a much bigger problem for airplanes that it is for cars, however. Ford’s all-electric Lightning pickup weighs 1,800 pounds more than the gas-powered model, and offers a range that’s slightly under half. However, if you added 1,800 pounds to to a Cessna 206 Turbo Stationair, you’d exceed its useful load by 500 pounds before you even loaded passengers (or the pilot) — so it wouldn’t even get off the ground.

The project was half funded by the Aerospace Technology Institute and UK government, with the aim of eventually creating all-electric passenger planes. “This is not only about breaking a world record; the advanced battery and propulsion technology developed for this programme has exciting applications for the Urban Air Mobility market and can help make ‘jet zero’ a reality,” said Rolls-Royce CEO Warren East.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on Engadget.

Solar-powered aircraft developer Skydweller Aero adds $8M to Series A, partners with Palantir

Airplanes and drones today, regardless of size or fuel type, all face the same limitation: eventually they have to land.

Skydweller Aero, the U.S.-Spanish aerospace startup, wants to break free from that constraint by developing an autonomous solar-powered aircraft it says will eventually be capable of perpetual flight.

Their pitch, which helped the company raise $32 million in a Series A, has led to an additional $8 million in oversubscribed funding led by Leonardo S.p.A, Marlinspike Capital and Advection Growth Capital. The company has also entered into a partnership with Palantir Technologies to use its Foundry analytics platform to process information at-scale and onboard the aircraft designed for telecommunications, government operations and emergency services.

“[Palantir is] the best at creating value from your data, whether it’s putting data into their system to create operational insights for how we may fly our aircraft, putting data in to understand the sensing systems that are coming off of our aircraft and what those might provide, or to understand what’s coming through the networks in the aircraft,” Skydweller co-founder John Parkes told TechCrunch in a recent interview.

And Skydweller will be generating a lot of data. The company is focused on three data-rich markets: telecommunications, geospatial intelligence and government surveillance. Skydweller plans to use the Foundry platform to help its customers, which includes the government, better understand whatever areas are being monitored.

The Foundry platform will also come in handy for route and mission planning, as Skydweller intends to leverage weather and atmospheric information to ensure the aircraft can efficiently use the sun’s rays to stay in the air.

“What it’s all about is creating a persistent aerial layer or pseudo satellite,” Parkes said. “We’re focused on building a perpetual flight aircraft. The goal is to create a plane that will fly for forever, so long as the sun rises.”

Weather and atmospheric data is especially important as it will determine, in part, the altitude at which the aircraft flies. While the plane will be able to fly at high altitudes, “the harder problem and the more useful problem,” according to Parkes, is to capture enough energy and use weather planning to stay at lower altitude. Lower altitudes give better internet quality, geospatial data, and provide more power for payload, he said.

Skydweller’s tech was born out of the Swiss solar aircraft project dubbed Solar Impulse, which was helmed by Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg. The project operated for 14 years and invested $190 million into the solar-powered aircraft, before the foundation behind it sold the intellectual property to Skydweller in 2019. The Solar Impulse was configured to be piloted, however, so much of the work since then has been to unman the platform and turn it into an ultra-long endurance aircraft, Parkes said.

The aircraft is all-electric, outfitted with 2,200 square-foot solar panel wings, 600 kilograms of batteries and a hydrogen fuel cell back-up power system. The solar panels aren’t only used to maintain flight; they will also power systems for customers, like a geospatial camera system or payload from a telecom company.

The company’s using standard commercial aviation parts but most of them haven’t been tested beyond a certain number of hours of use – certainly far less than the number of hours Skydweller plans to keep the aircraft in the air. Plus, like other planes built from emerging technologies, there isn’t a full certification framework already established for the vehicle

“You’re into that uncharted territory to break some of those hour paradigms,” he said.

Skydweller launched its flight test campaign in 2020, and has focused on installing and testing the autonomous systems tech since. He added that “in a very short horizon” the company will be test flying the autonomous aircraft, including take-off, full flight and landing, with future milestones focused on completing long-endurance flights. Customers will be able to start licensing the aircraft within a year to eighteen months, Parkes estimated.

Wright tests its 2-megawatt electric engines for passenger planes

Just like the automotive industry, aerospace has its sights set on going electric — but flying with battery-powered engines is a tougher proposition than rolling. Wright is among the startups looking to change the math and make electrified flight possible at scales beyond small aircraft — and its 2-megawatt engine could power the first generation of large-scale electric passenger planes.

Electric cars have proven to be a huge success, but they have an advantage over planes in that they don’t need to produce enough lift to keep their own mass in the air. Electric planes have been held back by this fundamental conundrum, that the weight of the batteries needed to fly any distance with passengers aboard means the plane is too heavy to fly in the first place.

In order to escape this conundrum, the main thing to improve is efficiency: how much thrust can be produced per watt of power. Since reducing the mass of batteries is a long, slow process, it’s better to innovate in other ways: materials, airframe, and of course the engine, which in traditional jets is a huge, immensely heavy and complex internal combustion one.

Electric engines are generally lighter, simpler, and more reliable than fuel-powered ones, but in order to achieve flight you need to reach a certain level of efficiency. After all, if a jet burned a thousand gallons of fuel per second, the plane couldn’t hold the amount needed to take off. So it falls to companies like Wright and H3x to build electric engines that can produce more thrust from the same amount of stored energy.

While H3x is focused on small aircraft that will probably be taking flight sooner, Wright founder Jeff Engler explained that if you want to take on aerospace’s carbon footprint, you really have to start looking at commercial passenger jets — and Wright is planning to make one. Fortunately, despite the company’s name, they don’t need to build it entirely from scratch.

“We’re not reinventing the concept of the wing, or the fuselage, or anything like that. What changes is what propels the aircraft forward,” said Engler. He likened it to electric vehicles in that much of the car doesn’t change when you go electric, mainly the parts that have operated the same way in principle for a century. All the same, integrating a new propulsion system into a plane isn’t trivial.

Wright’s engine is a 2 megawatt motor that produces the equivalent of 2,700 horsepower, at an efficiency of around 10 kilowatts per kilogram. “It’s the most powerful motor designed for the electric aerospace industry by a factor of 2, and it’s substantially lighter than anything out there,” said Engler.

The lightness comes from a ground-up redesign using a permanent magnet approach with “an aggressive thermal strategy,” he explained. A higher voltage than is normally employed for aerospace purposes and an insulation system to match enable an engine that hits the power and efficiency levels required to put a large plane in flight.

CG render of a plane using Wright's engines

Image Credits: Wright

Wright is making sure its engines can be used by retrofitted aircraft, but it’s also working on a plane of its own with established airframe makers. This first craft would be a hybrid electric, combining the lightweight, efficient propulsion stack with the range of a liquid fuel engine. Relying on hydrogen complicates things but it makes for a much faster transition to electric flight and a huge reduction in emissions and fuel use.

Several of Wright’s motors would be attached to each wing of the proposed aircraft, providing at least two benefits. First, redundancy. Planes with two huge engines are designed to be capable of flying even if one fails. If you have six or eight engines, one failing isn’t nearly so catastrophic, and as a consequence the plane doesn’t need to carry twice as much engine as you need. Second is the stability and noise reduction that comes from having multiple engines that can be adjusted individually or in concert to reduce vibration and counteract turbulence.

Right now the motor is in lab testing at sea level, and once it passes those tests (some time next year is the plan) it will be run in an altitude simulation chamber and then up at 40,000 feet for real. This is a long term project, but an entire industry doesn’t change overnight.

Engler was emphatic about the enthusiasm and support the company has received from the likes of NASA and the military, both of which have provided considerable cash, material and expertise. When I brought up the idea that the company’s engine might end up in a new bombing drone, he said he was sensitive to that possibility, but that what he’s seen (and is aiming for) is much more in line with the defense department’s endless cargo and personnel flights. The military is a huge polluter, it turns out, and they want to change that — and cut down on how much money they spend on fuel every year as well.

“Think of how things changed when we went from propellers to jets,” said Engler. “It redefined how an airplane operates. This new propulsion tech allows for reshaping the entire industry.”

Craft Aerospace’s novel take on VTOL aircraft could upend local air travel

Air taxis may still be pie in the sky, but there’s more than one way to move the air travel industry forward. Craft Aerospace aims to do so with a totally new vertical-takeoff and landing aircraft that it believes could make city-to-city hops simpler, faster, cheaper, and greener.

The aircraft — which to be clear is still in small scale prototype form — uses a new VTOL technique that redirects the flow of air from its engines using flaps rather than turning them (like the well-known, infamously unstable Osprey), making for a much more robust and controllable experience.

Co-founder James Dorris believes that this fast, stable VTOL craft is the key that unlocks a new kind of local air travel, eschewing major airports for minor ones or even heliports. Anyone that’s ever had to take a flight that lasts under an hour knows that three times longer is spent in security lines, gate walks, and of course in getting to and from these necessarily distant major airports.

“We’re not talking about flying wealthy people to the mall — there are major inefficiencies in major corridors,” Dorris told TechCrunch. “The key to shortening that delay is picking people up in cities, and dropping them off in cities. So for these short hops we need to combine the advantages of fixed wing aircraft and VTOL.”

The technique they arrived at is what’s called a “blown wing” or “deflected slipstream.” It looks a bit like something you’d see on the cover of a vintage science fiction rag, but the unusual geometry and numerous rotors serve a purpose.

The basic principle of a blown wing has been explored before now but never done on a production aircraft. You simply place a set of (obviously extremely robust) flaps directly behind the thrust, where they can be tilted down and into the exhaust stream, directing the airflow downwards. This causes the craft to rise upwards and forwards, and as it gets enough altitude it can retract the flaps, letting the engines operate normally and driving the craft forwards to produce ordinary lift.

During takeoff, thrust is redirected downwards by extending flaps.

The many rotors are there for redundancy and so that the thrust can be minutely adjusted on each of the four “half-wiings.” The shape, called a box wing, is also something that has been tried in limited fashion (there are drones with it, for example) but ultimately never proved a valid alternative to a traditional swept wing. But Dorris and Craft believe it has powerful advantages in this case, allowing for a much more stable, adjustable takeoff and landing than the two-engine Osprey. (Or indeed many proposed or prototype tilt-rotor aircraft out there.)

During flight, the flaps retract and thrust pushes the plane forward as normal.

“Our tech is a combination of both existing and novel tech,” he said. “The box wing has been built and flown; the high flap aircraft has been built and flown. They’ve never been synthesized like this in a VTOL aircraft.”

Again, to be clear, the company has demonstrated a limited scale model that shows the principle is sound — they’re not claiming there’s a full-scale craft ready to go. That’s years down the line, but willing partners will help them move forward.

The fifth generation prototype (perhaps the size of a coffee table) hovers using to the blown wing principle, and the sixth, due to fly in a few months, will introduce the transitioning flaps. (I was shown a video of the prototype doing tethered indoor hovering but the company is not releasing this test footage publicly.)

The design of the final craft is still in flux — it’s not known exactly how many rotors it will have, for instance — but the basic size, shape, and capabilities are already penned in.

It’ll carry 9 passengers and a pilot, and fly around 35,000 feet or so at approximately 300 knots, or 345 mph. That’s slower than a normal passenger jet, but whatever time you lose in the air ought to be more than regained by skipping the airport. The range of the cleaner hybrid gas-electric engines should be around 1,000 miles, which gives a good amount of flexibility and safety margins. It also covers 45 of the top 50 busiest routes in the world, things like LA to SF, Seoul to Jeju Island, and Tokyo to Osaka.

It probably wouldn’t be flying at this altitude.

Notably, however, Dorris wants to make it clear that the idea is not “LAX to SFO” but “Hollywood to North Beach.” VTOL aircraft aren’t just for show: regulations permitting, they can touch down in a much smaller location, though exactly what kind of landing pad and micro-airport is envisioned is, like the aircraft itself, still being worked out.

The team, which has just worked its way through Y Combinator’s summer 2021 cohort, is experienced in building sophisticated transport: Dorris was a primary on Virgin Hyperloop’s propulsion system, and his co-founder Axel Radermacher helped build Karma Automotive’s drivetrain. It may not have escaped you that neither of those companies makes aircraft, but Dorris thinks of that as a feature, not a bug.

“You’ve seen what’s come out of traditional aerospace over the last 10, 20 years,” he said, letting the obvious implication speak for itself that the likes of Boeing and Airbus aren’t exactly reinventing the wheel. And companies that partnered with automotive giants hit walls because there’s a mismatch between the scales — a couple hundred aircraft is very different from half a million Chevy sedans.

So Craft is relying on partners who have looked to shake things up in aerospace. Among its advisors are Bryan Berthy (once Director of Engineering at Lockheed Martin), Nikhil Goel (one of Uber Elevate’s co-founders), and Brogan BamBrogan (early SpaceX employee and Hyperloop faithful).

The company also just announced a letter of intent from JSX, a small airline serving low-friction flights on local routes, to purchase 200 aircraft and the option for 400 more if wanted. Dorris believes that with their position and growth curve they could make a perfect early partner when the aircraft is ready, probably around 2025 with flights beginning in 2026.

It’s a risky, weird play with a huge potential payoff, and Craft thinks that their approach, as unusual as it seems today, is just plainly a better way to fly a couple hundred miles. Positive noises from the industry, and from investors, seem to back that feeling up. The company has received early stage investment (of an unspecified total) from Giant Ventures, Countdown Capital, Soma Capital, and its advisor Nikhil Goel.

“We’ve demonstrated it, and we’re getting an enormous amount of traction from aerospace people who have seen hundreds of concepts,” said Dorris. “We’re a team of only 7, about to be 9 people… Frankly, we’re extremely pleased with the level of interest we’re getting.”

Joby Aviation, aiming to go to market in 2024, completes 154-mile test flight

Santa Cruz, California-based Joby Aviation has completed the longest test flight of an eVTOL to date: Its unnamed full-sized prototype aircraft concluded a trip of over 150 miles on a single charge, the company said Monday.

The test was completed at Joby’s Electric Flight Base in Big Sur, California, earlier this month. It’s the latest in a succession of secretive tests the company’s been conducting, all part of its goal to achieve certification with the Federal Aviation Administration and start commercial operations.

The prototype spent more than an hour and 17 minutes in the air and covered 154.6 statute miles on a single battery charge, traveling along a predefined circuit. While the test flight was remotely piloted by Joby’s chief test pilot, Justin Paines, the company plans to have pilots in the aircraft when it opens its ridesharing service for customers.

Headed by JoeBen Bevirt, Joby Aviation has spent the past 12 years designing eVTOL – an electric vertical take-off and landing craft that ascends like a helicopter but flies like an airplane and is magnitudes quieter than both.

Joby is one of a suite of startups looking to make electric air travel a reality for the average American. The company’s website features a graphic showing a proposed trip from Los Angeles airport to Newport Beach – over an hour and 44 miles by car, but only 15 minutes and 35 miles with Joby. Joby aims to make such trips a reality by 2024, and tests like these are a major sign to the public, investors and regulators that it is on track to meet that timeline.

Significantly, the company uses commercially available lithium-ion batteries that it has adapted for air travel, so this test flight is also proof that its battery tech is up for the challenge. It’s tricky: The battery must have enough energy density to fly around 150 miles while also having enough power to take off and land vertically. But Joby says it’s nailed a specific combination of cathode and graphite anode to achieve these goals.

Besides being one of the oldest eVTOL developers, Joby is also the best-funded, having raised nearly $800 million in funding to date. That includes a $75 million investment from Uber after Joby bought its air taxi arm, Elevate, and a $400 million investment from Toyota Motor Corp. Joby is going to go public via a merger with special purpose acquisition company Reinvent Technology Partners, a business combination that will inject the startup with an additional $1.6 billion in capital.

It’s a lot of money, but designing and commercializing a novel aircraft is an expensive business. According to some estimates, it could cost up to $1 billion all told.

“We’ve achieved something that many thought impossible with today’s battery technology,” Bevirt said in a statement. “By doing so we’ve taken the first step towards making convenient, emissions-free air travel between places like San Francisco and Lake Tahoe, Houston and Austin, or Los Angeles and San Diego an everyday reality.”

Watch a video on the test flight here:

The air taxi market prepares to take flight

Twelve years ago, Joby Aviation consisted of a team of seven engineers working out of founder JoeBen Bevirt’s ranch in the Santa Cruz mountains. Today, the startup has swelled to 800 people and a $6.6 billion valuation, ranking itself as the highest-valued electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) company in the industry.

As in any disruptive industry, the forecast may be cloudier than the rosy picture painted by passionate founders and investors.

It’s not the only air taxi company to reach unicorn status. The field is now dotted with new or soon-to-be publicly traded companies courtesy of mergers and special purpose acquisition companies. Partnerships with major automakers and airlines are on the rise, and CEOs have promised commercialization as early as 2024.

As in any disruptive industry, the forecast may be cloudier than the rosy picture painted by passionate founders and investors. A quick peek at comments and posts on LinkedIn reveals squabbles among industry insiders and analysts about when this emerging technology will truly take off and which companies will come out ahead.

Other disagreements have higher stakes. Wisk Aero filed a lawsuit against Archer Aviation alleging trade secret misappropriation. Meanwhile, valuations for companies that have no revenue yet to speak of — and may not for the foreseeable future — are skyrocketing.

Electric air mobility is gaining elevation. But there’s going to be some turbulence ahead.

Big goals and bigger expenses

Taking an eVTOL from design through to manufacturing and certification will likely cost about $1 billion, Mark Moore, then-head of Uber Elevate, estimated in April 2020 during a conference held by the Air Force’s Agility Prime program.

That means in some sense, the companies that will come out on top will likely be the ones that have managed to raise enough money to pay for all the expenses associated with engineering, certification, manufacturing and infrastructure.

“The startups that have successfully raised or that will be able to raise significant amounts of capital to get them through the certification process … that’s the number one thing that’s going to separate the strong from the weak,” Asad Hussain, a senior analyst in mobility technology at PitchBook, told TechCrunch. “There’s over 100 startups in the space. Not all of them are going to be able to do that.”

Just consider some of the expenses accrued by the biggest eVTOLs last year: Joby Aviation spent a whopping $108 million on research and development, a $30 million increase from 2019. Archer spent $21 million in R&D in 2020, according to regulatory filings. Meanwhile, Joby’s net loss last year was $114.2 million and Archer’s was $24.8 million, though, of course, neither company has brought a product to market yet. Operating expenses will likely only continue to grow into the future as companies enter into manufacturing and deployment phases.

What that means for the future of the industry is likely two things: more SPAC deals and more acquisitions.

Mobility companies, including those working on electrified transport, are often pre-revenue and have capitally intensive business models — a combination that can make it difficult to find buyers in a traditional IPO. SPACs have become increasingly popular as a shorter, less expensive path to becoming a public company. SPACs have also historically received less scrutiny than IPOs. Should the U.S. Securities Exchange Commission start to take a closer look at SPAC mergers in the future, it may impair the ability of other air taxi companies to go public this way, Hussain said.

That means market consolidation is nearly guaranteed, as smaller companies may find it more advantageous to sell than continue to raise more capital. It’s already begun: At the end of April, eVTOL developer Astro Aerospace announced the acquisition of Horizon Aircraft.

Horizon cited “greater access to capital” as one of the many benefits of the transaction, and other companies will likely find the buy or sell route to be the most beneficial on the road to commercialization. And just last week, British eVTOL Vertical Aerospace, which has an order for 150 aircraft from Virgin Atlantic, said it would go public via a merger with Broadstone Acquisition Corp. at an equity value of around $2.2 billion.