Archer Aviation reveals 2-seater demonstration aircraft, a “stepping stone” toward commercial operations

Archer Aviation unveiled its autonomous electric two-seater aircraft dubbed “Maker” on Thursday, which it will use for testing as it works towards certification of a larger piloted five-seater announced in March 2020.

The aircraft unveiled on Thursday is not what would take to the skies should the company reach commercial operation in 2024. However, Archer’s Head of Certification Eric Wright told TechCrunch that starting with an autonomous vehicle allows the company to move through the testing process more efficiently.

“The [two-seater] Maker aircraft is a stepping stone in the path to certification,” Wright explained. He said it was a “a testbed that really helps us to increase our knowledge and awareness on say, the flight control systems and the electric propulsion and the things that we’re putting into the certified aircraft, and to help the [Federal Aviation Administration] gain confidence in that design as we as we put it through its paces, and of course, they will be involved in in watching that development occur.”

Both Maker and the unnamed five-seater aircraft bear similarities in their specs: both have a “tilt-rotor” design, meaning that of the total 12 rotors on the aircraft, the front six can tilt position. This tilting mechanism is what allows the aircraft to ascend vertically like a helicopter and move forward like an airplane.

The two also have six independent battery packs each for safety purposes, as the rest of the batteries should operate even in the case that one fails. It’s these batteries that give the crafts a 60-mile range at 150 miles per hour. While the two-seater design has a 40-foot wingspan and clocks in at around 3,300 pounds, the larger aircraft will likely weigh more, Wright said.

The Palo Alto-based company also said it anticipates Maker will generate only 45 decibels of sound from 2,000 feet. The noise specification is especially important for electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) companies that have air taxi aspirations. Mass adoption will only likely be acceptable – both by the public and by regulators – if the aircraft is sufficiently quiet.

Archer had been slowly trickling information on Maker over the past few months, including releasing a high-quality rendering of the two-seater after the company announced it had landed a $1 billion order with United. (The release of those renders helped trigger a lawsuit from rival eVTOL developer Wisk Aero alleging trade secret misappropriation.) The event on Thursday marks the first time the public has been able to see an actual aircraft from the startup that’s valued at $3.8 billion.

When asked why the debut aircraft is autonomous, Wright said it would help the company move more efficiently through the testing and validation process. “By making the vehicle autonomous you can do things quicker without having the pilot in the aircraft actually having to fly it,” Wright said. “So you can look at the response that the aircraft has to the inputs, from an autonomous standpoint, much quicker, much more efficiently.”

While it may be years yet that autonomous air taxis are ferrying people across cities, Archer, like other eVTOL developers, does see autonomy in its long-term blueprint – as operational aircraft, rather than simply facilitating a larger certification process.

“If we’re going to have a really large impact on transportation, I think it’s really difficult to think about doing that in a piloted way really long term,” Archer CEO Brett Adcock told TechCrunch in a separate interview. “I think piloted is for sure the right way to enter the market as relates to getting into the airspace and getting certified and making that happen, basically, right away. And then I think over time, in order to drive up safety for both passengers and the network, it’s really going to be important to move to autonomous airspace. So I think [autonomy] is inevitable to the extent the industry scales really well and gets big.”

The three-year-old startup aims to launch commercial operations in 2024 starting in Los Angeles and Miami. The company’s system simulation team is using a simulation tool called Prime Radiant to determine where to place its vertiports. That team is led by the former head of data science at Uber Elevate, Uber’s air mobility arm that was later sold to Joby Aviation in December 2020.

Adcock also said the company’s had conversations with ride-sharing companies about working together to integrate the first- and last-mile car trips that will inevitably be needed with the air taxi routes.

In advance of the proposed 2024 launch date, Goldstein said the company is working with its partner, the automaker Stellantis, on two facilities: one that would deliver traditional aerospace volumes in the hundreds of aircraft per year, and a future facility that would build an even higher volume.

Archer has similar manufacturing needs as an automaker, Goldstein said, “where we use lightweight carbon fiber for a lot of the parts, we have electric motors, batteries all that like autos do.” 

German eVTOL maker Lilium partners with Honeywell for flight control and avionics systems

German electric air mobility company Lilium has partnered with aerospace manufacturer Honeywell to develop the electronics and mechanical systems for the 7-seater Lilium Jet, the company’s debut eVTOL.

Honeywell will supply its compact fly-by-wire system, a flight control component that will be responsible for controlling all of the Jet’s moving parts, and the aircraft’s avionics system. eVTOL company Vertical Aerospace is also using Honeywell’s compact fly-by-wire system in its aircraft, but the avionics system for the version Lilium will be using was designed to suit the specific technical requirements of the Lilium Jet.

Honeywell is a giant in the aerospace manufacturing industry, and one of the first to create a dedicated Urban Air Mobility team. The company has also become an investor in Lilium by participating in the common stock private investment in public equity (PIPE) offering announced in connection with Lilium’s SPAC merger with Qell Acquisiton Corp.

The two companies have been in discussion and collaboration since February 2019, Lilium’s chief program officer Yves Yemsi told TechCrunch. He said Lilium identified core competencies it wanted to keep in-house – the design and assembly of the propulsion and battery systems and the final aircraft assembly, for example – and will partner with experienced suppliers for other parts of the aircraft.

“Collaborating with experts, aerospace partners, is a deliberate choice for us,” he said. “It will help us to reduce our time to market and still be safe.”

A key advantage of the partnership is how it will help the certification process, Yemsi explained. Some of Honeywell’s components have achieved a Technical Standard Order (TSO), which is a minimum performance standard recognized by the FAA. Using TSO authorized components could help save time in the certification process.

Lilium already has teams of people working on getting Design Production Approval and Production Organization Approval, two types of approvals issued by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) that essentially verify the company is able to bring a product to market. These approvals complement the type certification that Lilium aircraft (and all other eVTOL) must achieve with both the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and the EASA before the company can start commercial operations.

The partnership with Honeywell, an established aerospace manufacturer, marks a major point of progress for Lilium. The next step after Honeywell starts delivering components is to develop and test the aircraft in a system integration laboratory, which tests on the ground that the avionics and electronic systems, Yemsi said.

“Now the hard work begins,” he said.

Joby Aviation targets parking garages for its aerial ridesharing network

Joby Aviation is partnering with one of the country’s largest parking garage operators and a real estate acquisition company to build out its network of vertiports, with an initial focus on Los Angeles, Miami, New York and the San Francisco Bay Area, the company said Wednesday.

The partnership with REFF Technology and Neighborhood Property Group will give Joby “access to an unparalleled range of rooftop locations across all key metropolitan areas in the US, as well as a mechanism to fund the acquisition and development of new skyport sites,” Joby said in a statement.

Building out a convenient, accessible and large network of locations to hitch a ride on an air taxi will likely be a key factor determining which companies succeed in attracting would-be riders to their service. The current infrastructure to support helicopters is limited, especially in urban areas, where electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) companies intend to launch.

The deal will give Joby exclusive access to the sites for a period, during which it said it can secure long-term leases within REEF’s real estate network.

Until now little has been known about the electric aircraft giant’s intentions regarding its aerial ridesharing network, although founder and CEO JoeBen Bevirt has publicly talked about the benefits of using existing parking garages.

Such structures are typically in dense areas, they’re large, and they’re built out of robust material that can support multiple small aircraft. But perhaps most importantly, parking garages already house cars, another form of transportation that will likely work hand-in-hand with air taxis in serving first- and last-mile segments of a journey.

REEF, which began as parking lot management and servicing company ParkJockey, now operates around 4,500 mobility and logistics hubs that it says reaches 70% of the North American urban population. REEF raised $700 million from SoftBank, the Mubadala Corp. and others last November.

In addition to the new partnership, Joby said its vertiport network will use existing heliport and regional airport locations.

“This is a landmark deal on Joby’s path to building a transformational ridesharing service in our skies,” Bevirt said in a statement. “NPG and REEF have an unbeatable network of sites across the US and we’re excited to be working with them to identify sites that will become the backbone of our future service.

Just 72 hours left to save $100 on passes to TC Sessions: Mobility 2021

So much can happen in 72 hours, and it’s easy to get distracted — especially when you’re building a startup in the fast lane that is mobility tech. But listen up: you have just 72 hours left to save $100 on your pass to TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 on June 9.

Don’t let “busy” distract you. Buy your pass to Mobility 2021 before the price increase goes into effect on Thursday, May 6 at 11:59 pm (PT).

Why should you attend TC Sessions: Mobility 2021? It’s where you can tap into the latest trends, regulatory concerns, technical and ethical challenges surrounding the technologies that will forever change how we move people and material goods across towns, cities, states, countries — and space.

Or, as Jens Lehmann, technical lead and product manager at SAP, told us:

“TC Sessions Mobility is definitely worth your time, especially if you’re an early-stage founder. You get to connect to people in your field and learn from founders who are literally a year into your same journey. Plus, you can meet and talk to the movers and shakers — the people who are making it happen.”

Take a gander at just some of the fascinating people and topics waiting for you and see the event agenda here.

  • Supercharging Self-Driving Super Vision: Few startups were as prescient as Scale AI when it came to anticipating the need for massive sets of tagged data for use in AI. Co-founder and CEO Alex Wang also made a great bet on addressing the needs of lidar sensing companies early on, which has made the company instrumental in deploying AV networks. We’ll hear about what it takes to make sense of sensor data in driverless cars and look at where the industry is headed.
  • EV Founders in Focus: We sit down with the founders poised to take advantage of the rise in electric vehicle sales. We’ll chat with Ben Schippers, co-founder and CEO of TezLab, an app that operates like a Fitbit for Tesla vehicles (and soon other EVs) and allows drivers to go deep into their driving data. The app also breaks down the exact types and percentages of fossil fuels and renewable energy coming from charging locations.
  • The Future of Flight: Joby Aviation founder JoeBen Bevirt spent more than a decade quietly developing an all-electric, vertical take-off and landing passenger aircraft. Now he is preparing for a new phase of growth as Joby Aviation merges with the special purpose acquisition company formed by famed investor and Linked co-founder Reid Hoffman. Bevirt and Hoffman will come to our virtual stage to talk about how to build a startup (and keep it secret while raising funds), the future of flight and, of course, SPACs.

Pro tip: Between the live stream and video on demand, you can keep your work schedule on track without missing out.

TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 takes place on June 9, but you have only 72 short hours left to save $100 on all the info and opportunity that TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 offers. Kick distractions to the curb. Buy your pass before the early bird price disappears on Thursday, May 6 at 11:59 pm (PT).

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at TC Sessions: Mobility 2021? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

Kitty Hawk ends Flyer program, shifts focus to once-secret autonomous aircraft

Kitty Hawk is shutting down its Flyer program, the aviation startup’s inaugural moonshot to develop an ultralight electric flying car designed for anyone to use.

The company, backed by Google co-founder Larry Page and led by Sebastian Thrun, said it’s now focused on scaling up Heaviside, a sleeker, more capable (once secret) electric aircraft that is quiet, fast and can fly and land anywhere autonomously.

Kitty Hawk is laying off most of Flyer’s 70-person team, TechCrunch learned. A few employees will be brought over to work on Heaviside, according to the company. Those who are laid off will receive at least 20 weeks of pay, plus tenure, depending on how long they were with the company. Former workers will also receive their annual bonus and have their health insurance covered through the end of the year. The company said it will set up placement services to help people find employment.

In December, the company spun out its Cora project — a two-person, autonomous taxi that Kitty Hawk unveiled in 2018 — into a joint venture with Boeing. The joint venture, newly named Wisk, signed an agreement in February with the New Zealand government to set up and run an air taxi trial in the region of Canterbury, with the goal of flying passengers once its Cora aircraft is certified to do so by the country’s aviation authority.

That leaves Heaviside as Kitty Hawk’s one and only mission — unless the company is working on another secret project, which is possible, considering its history. Heaviside is led by physicist and electrical engineer Damon Vander Lind.

“Going forward, we are doubling down on Heaviside as our primary platform,” Alex Roetter, president of Flyer and Thrun wrote in the blog post published Wednesday. “But we would never have gotten here without launching and learning from Flyer, and the amazing team of people who built and operated it.”

For Kitty Hawk, “doubling down” will mean hiring more people and a singular focus on this aircraft. Kitty Hawk is in discussion with the FAA and other parties to move Heaviside from a prototype to an aircraft that can be broadly used.

The moonshot

Kitty Hawk launched its Flyer program in 2015. The single-seater, all-electric, vertical take-off and landing vehicle is powered by 10 independent lift fans and operates between three to 10 feet off the water. The company’s aim was to make it light and easy to use — a goal it says it achieved.

Kitty Hawk built and flew 111 Flyer aircraft and conducted more than 25,000 successful crewed and uncrewed flights with its fleet, according to the company. Kitty Hawk’s mission for the aircraft is what captured the attention and imagination of industry watchers and the media. It wasn’t going to be another lightweight aircraft meant for pilots. The entire aim was to make it accessible for anyone.

“We proved to ourselves that people could safely operate Flyer — and become a pilot — with less than two hours of training,” Roetter and Thrun wrote. “In a single day, we trained 50 new novice Flyer pilots, none of whom were licensed.”

kitty hawk flyer

The business model proved to be the bigger challenge.

The Flyer flies low and slow over water, narrowing Flyer’s customer base and use cases. Kitty Hawk explored recreational and commuter applications, but failed to find a path to a profitable business.

“No matter how hard we looked, we could not find a path to a viable business,” Thrun told TechCrunch in an email exchange.

In the past five years, the so-called flying car industry — more accurately described as electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft — has evolved. The aircraft are more powerful and longer-range now. And Kitty Hawk has adjusted.

Heaviside, which was under development for two years before it was revealed at TechCrunch Disrupt in fall 2019, is fast, quiet and can be flown anywhere. The aircraft has a range of 100 miles and can reach speeds of up to 180 mph. It can also fly over cities.

Kitty Hawk Heaviside eVTOL

Heaviside has proven it can fly. The company has been testing Heaviside — a low-slung, orange and black aircraft with eight rotors and a 20-foot wingspan — for more than two years in a secret location in California.

The focus now is building more reliable systems with software and hardware, as well as implementing more manufacturing and quality control systems.

Volocopter extends Series C funding to $94M with backing from logistics giant DB Schenker and others

Autonomous air mobility company Volocopter has added to the Series C funding round it announced in September 2019. The German electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft maker announced €50 million ($54 million at today’s exchange rate) in funding at the time, and the C round has now grown to €87 million ($94 million) thanks to new lead investor DB Schenker, a German logistics company with operations all over the world.

This round also includes participation by Mitsui Sumitomo Insurance Group, as well as the venture arm of its parent MS&AD, along with TransLink Capital . Existing investors including Lukasz Gadowski and btov also participated in this round extension.

With this new funding, Volocopter brings its total around $132 million, and it says it will use the newly acquired capital to help certify its VoloCity aircraft, its air taxi eVTOL designed to transport people, which is on track to become the company’s first ever vehicle licensed for commercial operation. Meanwhile, Volocopte will also use the new funds to help continue development of a next-generation iteration of its VoloDrone, which is the cargo-carrying version of its aircraft. It aims to use VoloDrone to expand its market to include logistics, as well as construction, city infrastructure and agriculture.

Already, Volocopter has formed partnerships with companies including John Deere for pilots of its VoloDrone, but it says that a second-generation version of the vehicle will help it commercialize the drone. On the VoloCity side, the company recently flew a demonstration flight in Singapore, and then announced that they’d be working with Grab on a feasibility study about air taxi services for potential deployment across Southeast Asia in key cities.

Alongside this round extension, Volocopter adds two advisory board members – Yifan Li from Geely Holding Group, which led the first tranche of this round closed in September, and DB Schenker CEO Jochen Thewes. Both of these are key strategic partners from investors who stand to benefit the company a lot not only in terms of funding, but also in terms of supply-side and commercialization.

Volocopter and Grab to study the feasibility of deploying air taxi services in Southeast Asia

Air mobility startup Volocopter will be working together with on-demand transportation, food delivery and payments company Grab on a feasibility study around air mobility in Southeast Asia. The joint study is part of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed by the two companies that covers exploration of the potential deployment of air taxi services in some of the cities in the region.

This is the first step in a partnership that could eventually result in actually running test flights and establishing routes for air taxi service deployment, though how far things go will likely depend on the results of this study and the subsequent appetites of both parties involved.

Volocopter, a German startup that has been building and demonstrating vertical takeoff and landing craft powered by electricity since 2011, has already demonstrated its aircraft in Singapore, working with local Singapore aviation regulators. It also unveiled a “world first” full-scale air taxi “VoloPort” last October in the city, working with partner Skyport to develop a commercially scalable model for these urban air taxi stations.

Grab seems to see Volocopter and its aerial taxi services as another potential piece of the overall puzzle that it’s putting together across various transportation methods. “This partnership will enable Volocopter to further develop urban air mobility solutions that are relevant for Southeast Asian commuters so they can decide on their preferred journey option based on their budgets, time constraints and other needs, in a seamless way,” said Grab Ventures CEO Chris Yeo in an emailed press release.

Volocopter has said Singapore could be one of the best contenders for commercial service launch, and opened offices in the region last year. Other potential commercial launch markets include Dubai and Germany, the company has said previously.

Alphabet’s Loon and SoftBank’s HAPSMobile turn solar-powered drones into flying cell towers

Alphabet-owned Loon, the company that had been focused on delivering internet communications to remote areas via stratospheric balloons, has completed development work on a new payload for partner HAPSMobile, a subsidiary of SoftBank that’s building high-altitude solar-powered uncrewed aircraft. The two companies jointly adapted the communications technology that enables Loon’s balloons to beam communications networks to Earth for use on HAPSMobile’s drones, effectively turning them into high-flying mobile cell towers.

This is the result of a strategic partnership that the two companies announced back in April of last year, but an important step because it means that Loon’s technology will get its first functional tests on vehicles other than its ballon-based platform. The HAWK30 aircraft that HAPSMobile developed is a solar-powered electric aircraft that flies at speeds of over 100 km/h (around 60 mph) in the stratosphere (with an operating altitude or around 65,000 feet) which is much faster than Loon’s balloons, which meant adapting the payload to perform at these speeds. Part of that customization included making the antenna used to beam the LTE connectivity to devices on the ground much more responsive, allowing them to rotate quickly to maintain the best possible connection.

Loon and HAPSMobile say the their communications technology can provide connections between devices as far as 700 km (435 miles) apart, with data transfer speeds reaching as high as 1Gpbs. HAPSMobile’s goal with the HAWK30 project is to expand the scope of coverage vs. terrestrial cell towers, since their high-altitude position can cover a much larger surface area vs. even the tallest cell towers. In fact, the company notes that just 40 of its aircraft could provide coverage to the entirety of Japan, vs. “tens of thousands of existing terrestrial base stations.” Plus, fewer areas would be considered out-of-range as a result of inhospitable terrain or difficult to reach areas in terms of infrastructure installation.

For Loon, this is a signifiant expansion of their current operating model, providing another path to revenue that includes adapting their communications technology for use on different types of aircraft and delivery models. It’s yet another example of the type of commercial partnerships available to the company, even as it ramps up its existing balloon-based deployment plans with partners including Telefonica and others.

Wisk signs deal to deploy an air taxi trial in New Zealand

Air mobility company Wisk has singed an agreement with the New Zealand government to set up and run an air taxi trial in the region of Canterbury, with the goal of flying passengers once its Cora aircraft is certified to do so by the country’s aviation authority. Cora is an electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft with space for two passengers that works primarily autonomously, with a remote pilot as backup.

Cora was originally a project developed by Sebastian Thrun’s Kitty Hawk, which it revealed in 2018, and actually began testing quietly in New Zealand in 2017 with an eye towards eventual certification. Kitty Hawk partnered with Boeing on the project, and ultimately the two formed a more formal joint venture that became Wisk, while Kitty Hawk shifted focus to its Heaviside land-anywhere electric vehicle.

The aircraft features a 12-rotor flight system, which provides redundancy and vertical lifts, with one large fixed prop that kicks in post-take off to propel it around 100 miles per hour through the air. It’s definitely designed for short hops, with a range for around 25 miles initially, but the point is that it’s for getting around more flexibly in urban and more densely developed areas, replacing cars and other forms of ground transportation.

If this trial gets underway relatively quickly, it’ll be the first major initiative of its kind active in the world, which would be a significant step towards commercial short-hop air taxi service and definitely something closely watched by the rest of the aviation and mobility industry.

Joby Aviation raises $590 million led by Toyota to launch an electric air taxi service

Joby Aviation has raised a $590 million Series C round of funding, including $394 million from lead investor Toyota Motor Corporation, the company announced today. Joby is in the process of developing an electric air taxi service, which will make use of in-house developed electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft that will in part benefit from strategic partner Toyota’s vehicle manufacturing experience.

This brings the total number of funding in Joby Aviation to $720 million, and its list of investors includes Intel Capital, JetBlue Technology Ventures, Toyota AI Ventures and more. Alongside this new round of funding, Joby gains a new board member: Toyota Motor Corporation EVP Shigeki Tomoyama.

Founded in 2009, Joby Aviation is based in Santa Cruz, California. The company was founded by JoeBen Bevirt, who also founded consumer photo and electronics accessory maker Joby. Its proprietary aircraft is a piloted eVTOL, which can fly at up to 200 miles per hour for a total distance of over 150 miles on a single charge. Because it uses an electric drivetrain and multi rotor design, Joby Aviation says it’s “100 times quieter than conventional aircraft during takeoff and landing, and near-silent when flying overhead.”

These benefits make eVTOL craft prime candidates for developing urban aerial transportation networks, and a number of companies, including Joby as well as China’s EHang, Airbus and more are all working on this type of craft for use in this kind of city-based short-hop transit for both people and cargo.

The sizeable investment made by Toyota in this round is a considerable bet for the automaker on the future of air transportation. In a press release detailing the round, Toyota President and CEO Akio Toyoda indicated that the company is serious about eVTOLs and air transport in general.

“Air transportation has been a long-term goal for Toyota, and while we continue our work in the automobile business, this agreement sets our sights to the sky,” Toyoda is quoted as saying. “As we take up the challenge of air transportation together with Joby, an innovator in the emerging eVTOL space, we tap the potential to revolutionize future transportation and life. Through this new and exciting endeavor, we hope to deliver freedom of movement and enjoyment to customers everywhere, on land, and now, in the sky.”

Joby Aviation believes that it can achieve significant cost benefits vs. traditional helicopters for short aerial flights, eventually lowering costs through maximizing utilization and fuel savings to the point where it can be “accessible to everyone.” To date, Joby has completed sub-scale testing on its aircraft design, and begun full flight tests of production prototypes, along with beginning the certification process for its aircraft with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) at the end of 2018.