The electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) developer AIR unveiled its AIR ONE vehicle and began taking pre-orders in October 2021. In an interview with Avionics International, CEO and co-founder Rani Plaut discussed the company’s approach to designing its personal aerial vehicle and achieving FAA certification by the end of 2023. AIR looks to be growing rapidly over the last few months and has already received pre-orders for over 50 units.
There are two prototypes of the AIR ONE—a full-scale, semi-functional prototype for ground demonstration, and another large-scale that is, technologically, fully functional. Plaut explained, “We have a division of functionality so we can really sharpen the product on both the aesthetics and on the technological side.” The technologically functional prototype is set to take off in the next 4–6 weeks.
AIR has worked to differentiate the AIR ONE from other players in the eVTOL market as a vehicle intended for personal use, for “making flight accessible to regular people,” said Plaut. “Of course, a pilot license is required, but we are aiming for a very low level of training.” The eVTOL market includes small, recreational aircraft that have a very short range, and the larger eVTOLs and air taxis produced by companies such as Volocopter, Lilium, Archer, Joby, and others are designed for commercial applications. The AIR ONE, then, is sthe car of the category—a personal vehicle intended for commuting or leisure purposes.
The key features of AIR’s eVTOL are practicality, affordability, safety, and ease of handling. The range is over 100 miles, and units are priced at $150,000 each. Plaut describes the aircraft’s “extreme simplicity and high redundancy that creates a very high level of safety and very easy handling. If I train you, within an hour you will be able to operate it. You are truly enveloped in our software and are very safe.”
AIR’s vision is to bring its vehicle to the mass market, producing and selling thousands of units each year. To grow public acceptance and ensure smooth assimilation of the aircraft into low altitude airspace, the team is focusing on safety and noise reduction. “At the end of the day,” said Plaut, “the product needs to coexist with people. It’s not about the user; it’s about the whole community.” While the U.S. market is the primary target for AIR’s eVTOL, customers from Israel and the U.K. have already pre-ordered units, and Australia is another potential market.
One of the company’s priorities is designing an aircraft that can be used in a variety of applications but is not tailored to any one specific use. A rescue helicopter, in comparison, is designed with one specific set of operations in mind. Just as a car owner can use their vehicle for commuting, leisure, or a taxi service, the AIR ONE could be used by package delivery companies like UPS, by first responders, or by those working in agriculture. “It’s like an F150. You can be a plumber with an F150; you can take your family in an F150,” remarked Plaut.
“If enough people [are interested in] using the air as a means of day-to-day transportation, companies will invest in engineering efforts in order to decouple skillsets from safety. In the air, your skillset is your safety—if you’re skilled, you’re alive. In a car, the vehicle protects you. We’re trying to make things that fly as easy to live with as cars.”
Swiss eVTOL developer Dufour Aerospace is partnering with Sweden-based Savback Helicopters: Dufour’s Aero3 aircraft will now be exclusively distributed by Savback in Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, and Iceland. Savback offers expertise in use cases and market prospects in the vertical lift market based on the company’s 30-year experience in helicopter sales. The Aero3 tilt-wing aircraft is an 8-seater, has a range of about 634 miles (1,020 km), and uses a hybrid-electric propulsion system.
The first full-scale prototype of Aero3 will be built in 2022 and will begin test flights close to the end of this year, according to Dufour’s CCO Sascha Hardegger in an emailed interview with Avionics International. 2026 is likely the earliest year that Aero3 will achieve its first certification, according to Hardegger.
Dufour Aerospace has also developed an unmanned aircraft, Aero2, and its third-generation prototype is currently undergoing test flights. This vehicle’s design is also based on the tilt-wing principle. The first delivery of Aero2 is expected to occur within the next two years, stated Hardegger.
Aero3 is being developed with the requirements of today’s helicopter markets in mind. The main applications will be patient transportation, cargo applications, surveillance, and public safety. Hardegger explained that the eVTOL’s unique design enables redundancy, which increases safety. “The tilt-wing design of Aero3,” he said, “allows for versatility by combining the best of the worlds of helicopters and aircraft, as it is both able to take off and land vertically like a helicopter and flies as efficiently as an airplane.”
The 45-member team at Dufour will likely grow this year in order to increase capacity for developing, testing, and certifying new aircraft, particularly building the full-scale prototype of Aero3. The aircraft could one day be used to meet advanced air mobility needs, but the initial focus is on applications such as search and rescue which do not require new infrastructure.
CEO of Savback Helicopters, Reja Savbäck, said, “We strongly believe that Dufour Aerospace’s Aero3 provides options for both today’s helicopter market as well as new use cases—which its cutting edge technology opens up for us,” according to the company’s announcement. She continues, “We are proud of this partnership, as it shows that Dufour Aerospace trusts both our vast experience and our network in the aviation industry.”
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Electra.aero, a relatively new company pursuing new aircraft solutions for the urban and regional air mobility markets, on Tuesday said that it has received a lead investment from Lockheed Martin for a funding round that will help it get to its first flight of a technology demonstrator later this year.
The amount of the investment wasn’t disclosed and Electra is still lining up additional investors for its Series A funding round.
In addition to the investment by Lockheed Martin Ventures, the aerospace and defense giant’s venture capital unit, Lockheed Martin also signed a strategic cooperation agreement where it will work with Electra on potential solutions for the U.S. government.
Electra, which was founded in 2020 and is based in Northern Virginia, is developing a full-scale hybrid-electric ultra-short takeoff and landing (eSTOL) aircraft that can transport up to 1,800-pounds of cargo or seven to nine passengers up to 500 miles. The demonstrator aircraft will not be a full-scale model but a two-person plane to test key technologies, Robie Samanta Roy, Electra’s chief operating officer, said in an emailed statement.
Last year, Electra received a contract from the Air Force’s Agility Prime initiative, which is investing in, and leveraging, companies in the commercial electric vertical takeoff and landing for its potential future aviation needs.
“Hybrid-electric propulsion will influence every aspect of aviation,” John Langford, founder and CEO of Electra, said in a statement.
Roy said that Lockheed Martin is also essentially seeding technology “incubation,” with its investment in Electra. They are “clearly thinking about the future of air mobility” in an era of “contested logistics” that would complement the company’s existing air mobility portfolio and examine key technologies that could eventually be “brought to scale,” he said.
“Electra’s technical approach to sustainable aviation is differentiated, and we are excited to see this concept mature,” Chris Moran, vice president and general manager of Lockheed Martin Ventures, said in a statement. “We invested in Electra because of its focus on hybrid-electric technology. Hybrid-electric aircraft have the potential to deliver operational and environmental advantages over other aircraft, including increased payload and range without gambling on battery improvements. We look forward to working with the Electra team and hope to partner on opportunities in the future.”
Electra is integrating two fundamental technologies for its eSTOL aircraft, a hybrid-electric propulsion system and a blown lift wing. The company’s website shows eight motors, four on each side of the fuselage attached to the leading edge of the wing, to create distributed electric propulsion that is more cost-effective flexible for a blown lift wing than jet engines used in government-developed technology demonstrator decades ago.
Electra says its aircraft will be able to operate from small spaces, 300 by 100-feet, and operate in urban areas and remote landing strips, including from building tops.
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Skyportz, a Melbourne, Australia-based startup that is developing the foundations of an air taxi network, has partnered with Secure Parking—a car parking provider—to add 400 landing bases for electric air taxis. The first landing bases, or “drone ports,” will likely be established in cities within Victoria, Queensland, and New South Wales in order to promote advanced air mobility throughout Australia.
In a recent interview, Skyportz CEO Clem Newton-Brown told Avionics International that the partnership with Secure Parking opens up numerous options for drone ports at new sites, particularly as Skyportz works to change some government policies in order to activate operations. “The key to an air taxi network,” wrote Newton-Brown, “is access to a multitude of landing sites.” He also shared that the company plans to open up to potential regional franchises throughout the world in the near future.
As far as the timeline for setting up the landing bases, it depends on a State-based planning approval process to ensure alignment with regulatory requirements. “When an OEM chooses a launch city, there are years of work required to first get the policy and regulatory changes required and then to source the property partnerships,” commented Newton-Brown. “Our Federal government has committed $30M to advance the industry, and we are partnering with several OEMs to develop concepts of operations in Australia, hopefully with the support of this fund.”
Skyportz recently signed an agreement with Electra.Aero to purchase electric short takeoff and landing (eSTOL) aircraft which can be used in applications within Australia such as connecting regional areas. Additional purchase agreements for electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircrafts are expected to be finalized soon. Newton-Brown explained that eVTOLs are better suited for transportation in urban areas due to the ability to land in a smaller space.
Regarding the company’s outlook for 2022 and beyond, the CEO stated: “We have been working at this for three years already. While there is still some way to go to be able to activate the sites, we expect to be able to offer a quick route to commercial activation.” Australia was selected by Google’s Wing delivery service because of the positive regulatory environment as well as support from the community support. These aspects, said Newton-Brown, also apply to air taxi trials. “Our goal is to attract the frontrunners to commit to Australia by offering a readymade Skyportz network.”
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The company Johnson Matthey just launched their HyCOgen technology that enables the conversion of carbon dioxide (CO2) and green hydrogen into sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). Over 95% of the CO2 is converted into synthetic crude oil through the Reverse Water Gas Shift (HyCOgen) technology.
The FT CANS Fischer Tropsch technology, developed in coordination with bp, is combined with Johnson Matthey’s HyCOgen—a catalyzed process that forms synthesis gas, or syngas—to produce renewable fuel. The crude oil that is produced can be transformed into drop-in fuel products such as SAF, renewable diesel, and naphtha. The combination of these technologies is now available as a solution from Johnson Matthey.
According to a press release from Johnson Matthey, the scalable integration of HyCOgen and the FT CANS technology will serve to increase SAF supply and therefore mitigate CO2 emissions. The company claims that the aviation industry collectively produces 12% of the world’s transportation-related CO2 emissions. Sector Chief Executive at Johnson Matthey, Jane Toogood, explained, “There are significant hurdles in moving from hydrocarbon-based aviation fuel to alternatives such as battery electric or hydrogen. [Our expertise] in syngas generation technology can play a crucial role, by providing solutions that enable the production of sustainable drop-in fuels that are deployable today.”
Johnson Matthey played a role in United Airlines’ achievement last month of the first commercial flight using 100% drop-in SAF in one of two engines. Part of the process of enabling the SAF production was the BioForming process which uses a catalytic process to convert sugar feedstocks into BioFormate. The resulting BioFormate can be used to make biofuels that are then blended to produce the SAF. Renewable fuels and chemicals company Virent invented this technology and has partnered with Johnson Matthey since 2016 to further develop and commercialize it.
Johnson Matthey also entered into an agreement this week with European ethanol producer CropEnergies AG to establish a plant for producing renewable ethyl acetate using sustainable ethanol. Production of renewable ethyl acetate is estimated to reach 50,000 metric tons each year and will utilize renewable energy. According to the announcement, “The plant will also generate renewable hydrogen as a co-product that, together with biogenic CO2 from the CropEnergies fermentation process, will be the basis for further conversion of renewable energy into PtX (power-to-X) downstream routes, to produce e-fuels.”
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Aviation technology company Neuron performed a set of drone trials sponsored by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) of the U.K. Government. These trials were performed in Scotland in April and October 2021 and involved using the Hedera network to record flight data collected from sensors tracking the drones. The aim was to demonstrate the ability to track drone movements beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) while ensuring safety.
Hedera’s contribution, the Hedera Consensus Service, is a decentralized public ledger that collects data, including time-stamping, from the drone flights. The Hedera network was selected after a long period of consideration based on speed, refresh rates, high levels of system security, and the low transaction price.
Neuron’s eventual goal is to create a decentralized platform for various mobility solutions from drones and air taxis to autonomous vehicles and ground robots, according to the announcement. Niall Greenwood, CCO of Neuron, discussed the company’s leveraging of the Hedera system in an interview with Avionics International along with Neuron co-founder James Dunthorne and Hedera’s CMO, Christian Hasker. “We’ve been building this product for the last couple of years,” said Greenwood. “We are now progressing a number of larger trials with larger partners, under the Future Flight Challenge. We’re partnered with three of the partners globally including Atkins, the leading professional services provider, and Cirium, the leading aviation data provider.” The trials that Neuron conducts will demonstrate different aspects of future flight and advanced air mobility for both unmanned aircraft and eVTOLs.
When asked about targeted end-users and applications, Greenwood explained that the service is provided for drone operators. “To characterize the situation at the moment, aviation is pretty much broken. Unmanned aircraft, particularly drones, have to fly within the visual line of sight, which is hugely limiting. Our technology allows pilots to fly to the limits of the aircraft’s capability.”
In enabling advanced air mobility, Greenwood asks, is it more important to have traffic managers or to know where the aircraft are? “I think you have to know where the aircraft are. We have lots of UTMs but we have no way of knowing where the traffic is, or sharing that traffic positional data with other aircraft. There’s a fundamental issue that really needs to be considered about how UTMs are going to work together and how they are going to have the data that they need to actually manage unmanned or crewed traffic at these increased distances.”
Neuron’s James Dunthorne added, “A lot of work going on has been developing core infrastructure around UTM services. Part of that relies on a distributed architecture—the DSS—which is essentially a telephone directory for all the UTMs so they can interact with each other. One of the core fundamental missing pieces is around the airspace picture about where all the aircraft are. That piece hasn’t really been solved yet, and this is where we’ve been focusing our energy.
NASA’s development of a traffic management system for unmanned aerial systems (UAS) which was announced last week is intended to enable growth of UAS operations at lower altitudes for civilian applications. Dunthorne commented that this system “essentially provides instructions for drones on how to avoid each other, how to navigate through the airspace. It’s more about what you do with the data, not how you get the data in the first place.” In comparison, he says, Neuron is more focused on how to get the data to make decisions, and the UTM subsequently will provide the ability to make those decisions.
In the big picture, Dunthorne explained, “We’re trying to create an ecosystem where the communications between these vehicles can happen over shared infrastructure. With multiple competing systems used for communicating, what you end up with is siloed data which becomes unsafe. You can’t have three different views of the sky. There clearly needs to be some form of shared infrastructure.” Hedera allows Neuron to independently audit every single transaction that goes through their network.
Christian Hasker of Hedera commented on another benefit of using their system: “One of the promises of these new modes of transportation is that they are much more gentle on the environment than existing modes of transportation. The Hedera network is by far the most sustainable network. It is orders of magnitude more efficient than other networks. The governing council actually purchases carbon offsets to make the entire network carbon negative.”
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Tokyo-based startup SkyDrive revealed its full-scale demonstration model SD-03 aircraft at CES 2022 (Consumer Electronic Show) in Las Vegas last week. The vehicle has completed testing for piloted flight, and the Model SD-05 air taxi is already in development, having received its type certification from the Japanese transportation ministry—which no other developers in the country have achieved so far.
SkyDrive develops zero-emission aircraft, including cargo drones and manned vehicles. The startup was founded in 2018 and began performing driving and indoor flight tests of its unmanned SD-01 vehicle in the same year. Its first public flight test with a manned aircraft, its SD-03 model, was accomplished in 2020, and the team continues to work towards commercialization with a goal of presenting its SD-05 air taxi at the World Expo 2025 in Osaka. SkyDrive’s cargo drones are already employed at work sites in mountainous areas of Japan. The drones can carry payloads of over 66 pounds.
The Chief Operating Officer of SkyDrive, Takehiro Sato, remarked, “The SD-03 model is the culmination of our expertise in drone technologies and aerodynamic engineering. What we want to see in the future is that SkyDrive’s emission-free vehicles take off from and land in your parking lot and helipads atop buildings, making door-to-door air travel a realistic choice of daily urban transportation,” as quoted in the announcement.
SkyDrive’s aircraft achieved type certification at the end of October from Japan’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism (MLIT). The type certificate from MLIT confirms that the aircraft’s design, structure, and performance adheres to specific safety and environmental requirements.
The first manned flight of the SD-03 model that took place in August 2020 lasted four minutes and carried one person. PR Manager Mayumi Ishii mentioned in an interview that one of the main roadblocks for the aircraft is its weight. “We hope we will have a final version by approximately 2040, but we are aiming to have a vehicle flying by the Osaka Expo in 2025,” she said.
Boom Supersonic, the Denver, Colorado-based aerospace company developing a supersonic airliner capable of flying at Mach 1.7, announced a new contract award from the U.S. Air Force on Tuesday valued at up to $60 million. The Strategic Funding Increase (STRATFI) contract, issued to Boom through the Air Force’s innovation arm, AFWERX, and its AFVentures division, will be used to accelerate research and development of military applications for Overture—the supersonic commercial airliner currently under development.
According to Boom’s Jan. 11 announcement of the new contract, potential defense users and applications for a military variant of Overture could include “executive transport; Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance; Special Operations Forces; and the Pacific Air Forces (PACAF).”
Tuesday’s announcement is the latest financial investment by the Air Force in Boom, and a substantial increase over the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase 2 contract award issued in September 2020 toward the development of a military executive transport configuration of Overture. Blake Scholl, founder and CEO of Boom Supersonic, said in the Tuesday announcement that the STRATFI contract allows the company to “collaborate with the Air Force on the unique requirements and needs for global military missions, ultimately allowing Boom to better satisfy the needs of the Air Force where it uses commercially-derived aircraft. As a potential future platform for the Air Force, Overture would offer the valuable advantage of time, an unmatched option domestically and internationally.”
2021 was a year of progress on several aspects of Boom’s future supersonic air transportation plans, including the addition of Dr. Mark J. Lewis, Executive Director of the National Defense Industrial Association’s Emerging Technologies Institute—and one of the leading hypersonic experts in the U.S.—to its Advisory Council. American Express also became one of the latest investors in Boom through its Amex Ventures arm, and United Airlines committed to a purchase of 15 Overture airliners in July.
Boom’s current supersonic research and development focus revolves around its XB-1, the sub-scale supersonic demonstrator aircraft first unveiled in October 2020, which the company expects to make its maiden flight in 2022. The company also anticipates breaking ground on its manufacturing facility for Overture this year, with future targets including rolling out Overture in 2025, flying Overture in 2026, and carrying passengers by 2029.
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Airbus and Boeing reported their full-year 2021 commercial aircraft deliveries this week, with both of the manufacturers seeing increases over 2020 delivery activity. Both OEMs plan on providing more details in press conferences scheduled to occur over the next month.
The reported delivery total for Airbus includes 611 commercial aircraft to 88 customers last year, up from 566 in 2020. According to a Jan. 10 announcement from the French airplane maker, Airbus completed 483 total A320 family deliveries last year and also more than doubled its gross order intake compared to 2020 with “771 new sales (507 net).”
Guillaume Faury, Airbus Chief Executive Officer, described the 2021 results as a year that “saw significant orders from airlines worldwide, signaling confidence in the sustainable growth of air travel post-COVID. While uncertainties remain, we are on track to lift production through 2022 to meet our customers’ requirements.”
The company also notes that 25% of its commercial aircraft were transported to airlines through the “e-Delivery” process that uses a new electronic Transfer-of-Title and ferry flight approach introduced by Airbus in 2020 to reduce the need for airlines to travel to receive newly manufactured aircraft. Air Lease Corporation also became the launch customer of the A350 Freighter—the air cargo variant of the A350 introduced by Airbus last year—during the Dubai Air Show in November.
At the end of 2021, the Airbus commercial aircraft order backlog stood at 7,082 aircraft.
Boeing’s 2021 delivery total of 340 commercial aircraft more than doubled the 157 that the company delivered in 2020, reflecting a staggered lifting of the 737 MAX grounding by civil aviation regulators internationally.
The results reflect the COVID-19 recovery period both companies went through in 2021, a year where Boeing was also able to re-start deliveries of its 737 MAX to airlines in countries that lifted bans on the model. 2021 deliveries reported by Boeing come following a significant fleet order win by the company last week by all-Airbus fleet operator Allegiant Air for up to 100 total 737 MAX aircraft.
One issue that remains unresolved for Boeing is the temporary suspension of 787 Dreamliner deliveries enacted in July when deliveries were halted due to a manufacturing issue associated with some components of the aircraft located in the forward pressure bulkhead and within sections of the fuselage. Only 14 total 787s were delivered last year, compared to 41 in 2020, with Boeing still un-determined on a re-start date for the 105 Dreamliners currently sitting in inventory awaiting the suspension to be lifted.
According to a report published Tuesday by The Associated Press, the Chicago-based company reported a total of 479 net orders in 2021, slightly lagging behind the 507 recorded by Airbus after both accounted for order cancellations.
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Dublin, Ireland-based auto parts maker Aptiv announced a new agreement on Tuesday to acquire mission-critical software provider Wind River for $4.3 billion from TPG. Under the agreement, Wind River will become a stand-alone business unit within Aptiv’s Advanced Safety and User Experience division.
The deal, which is still subject to regulatory approval, comes four years after TPG—a San Francisco-based alternative asset management firm—acquired Wind River from Intel. While Aptiv’s acquisition of Wind River will focus on exploiting their technology to enable increasingly software-defined automotive systems, Wind River remains one of the largest suppliers of real time operating systems (RTOS) and intelligent edge solutions to the aerospace and defense industry. Their VxWorks 653 RTOS for example has been used for avionics enablement on the Airbus A400M, Boeing 787 and Northrop Grumman’s Black Hawk UH-60V cockpit upgrade program among others.
Kevin Dallas, president and chief executive officer of Wind River, stated in the company’s announcement of the acquisition that, “Combining Wind River’s industry-leading software, customer base and talent with Aptiv’s complementary technologies, global resources and scale will realize our vision of the new machine economy. Together we will accelerate the digital transformation of our customers across industries through best-in-class intelligent systems software.”
In recent years, Wind River has shifted its focus to supplying software for what the company describes as the “intelligent edge,” or the increasingly expanding scope of connected systems and devices that are constantly transmitting, receiving, analyzing and processing data. Christine Stevens, who served as the director of aerospace and defense business development for Wind River through August of last year, described the digital transformation that the company envisions avionics—and mission critical electronics systems in other industries—undergoing within the next decade.
“Digitally transformed avionics will rely heavily on advanced software for motion planning, trajectory prediction, and predictive analysis integrated with sensor fusion. These systems will analyze massive amounts of data to perform next gen functions. They can develop and deploy systems running applications such as machine learning and analytics. This allows them to make constant improvements as part of a digital feedback loop, which in turn enables endless adaptability,” Stevens wrote in an April 2021 blog post.
Kevin Clark, president and chief executive officer of Aptiv, in a statement released by the company, said that the acquisition is timely for his company as they look to compete in the automotive industry’s “largest transformation in over a century, as connected, software-defined vehicles increasingly become critical elements of the broader intelligent ecosystem.”
During a conference call held with investors announcing the acquisition Tuesday, Clark said that the combination of their existing automotive capabilities and Wind River’s cloud-native software platform will allow them to create the type of digital feedback loop and cloud-based fleet management for cars that many of their automotive manufacturing customers want to establish.
“We’re more confident than ever that the software-defined vehicle will become one of the most important devices on the intelligent edge requiring grater levels of in-vehicle compute and connectivity,” Clark said.
Wind River generated approximately $400 million in revenue in 2021. Clark expects Aptiv to officially close the acquisition with regulatory approval later this year.
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