Urban Air Mobility: the nearly realised future of ‘flying cars’

Render of Horizon Aircraft’s Cavorite X5 (Image: Horizon Aircraft)

Everyone who has watched the 1960s movie Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines is captivated by the romanticism of those early personal craft and their daredevil pilots.

The 20th century ushered in the wide use of commercial aircraft, while the 21st century democratised flying to the extent that accessibility removed every last vestige of glamour. 

Private air charter gathered traction during the pandemic and spurred ever-greater demand for more innovative models and technologies because, beyond the pandemic itself, the aircraft industry at large has an urgent need to address its carbon footprint. 

VTOLs, an acronym for vertical take-off and landing aircraft, are nothing new. They first captured the imagination when that arch-disruptor, Richard Branson, was first reported to have put a down payment on a “flying car”. 

Since then, a number of companies have not only pioneered the development of their own product, they have also grappled with the regulatory conundrum: safety certification, licensing, use of airfields/airports and government approvals. 

From the experimental to the fanciful, to the well-engineered and right down sophisticated, VTOLs have evolved at an accelerated pace, many graduating to eVTOL class electrical and hybrid craft with greener credentials.

Early adopters are, as usual, VCs, industry and institutional investors willing to bet on technically advanced craft that has honed its R&D process and stands a good chance of being approved by regulators.

Horizon Aircraft

One such (relative) start-up, Horizon Aircraft, has just been acquired by Astro Aerospace, a publicly quoted company, in a sign of investors’ and market confidence.

The company was founded by a Canadian father and son team, respectively Brian Robinson, who is also the chief engineer, and Brandon Robinson. 

The Robinsons’ credentials in the industry are impeccable. Brandon, whose grandfather was a WW2 pilot, introduced him to flying at the age of 6 months. By the time he was 3 years old, he was already a “frequent flier”.  He went on to have a career in the air force, as an F18 fighter aircraft pilot for almost 20 years. 

The story of Horizon Aircraft properly begins with the family’s 1946 Republic Seabee, an amphibious aircraft, which Brian moved into Transport Canada’s flexible Amateur-Built category in order to support multiple performance-enhancing modifications. Eventually this would form the technical foundation needed for creating a vertical take-off machine. 

Horizon Aircraft was established in 2013, developing an operational aircraft, rather than a mere “flying car”. The Cavorite X5’s design can take off and land like a helicopter, but the new craft is twice as fast and with just 15% of helicopters’ operational costs.

The Robinsons identified a strong business case for using the product not just as personal craft, but also for transporting organs, medical supplies, goods and services.

In terms of private use, almost anyone who flies a helicopter would benefit from the Cavorite X5’s vastly superior functionality, i.e. massive savings of time, fuel and costs. 

“Its configuration is unlike any other.”

The new craft’s patented fan-in-wing system and a hybrid electric engine allow it to travel at 450 km/h, with a 500 km range fully loaded, and a 5-passenger capacity. It can take off and land at any constricted space (“Like a tennis court!”, says Brandon), helipad, or indeed any airport.  

It allows for both a vertical and a conventional take off, its hybrid system comparing much more favourably to a purely vertical take-off craft that are naturally sensitive to weight. Instead of carrying 1,000+ lbs of batteries, the Cavorite X5 carries only a few hundred pounds of batteries. Over a normal flight, it will use 50% less fuel than a conventional aircraft, giving it a massive advantage in terms of comparative emissions and operating costs.

Robinson estimates the first craft to hit the market around 2024-2025, with a price tag of $3.5m. His initial manufacturing target is a single facility and production capacity of up to 250 aircraft per year, with additional facilities strategically located as global demand increases.

Perhaps less certain is the issue of licensing. Horizon Aircraft will argue that it can be flown by a pilot, possessing a conventional aircraft license, with an additional ‘vertical endorsement’.

A crowded (air)space

The new generation of companies in what is termed Urban Air Mobility are at at a stage of establishing their differentiation, USPs and market share in a space worth up to $1.5 trillion USD according to Morgan Stanley. There are already a number of players on the market, at different stages of development and certification:

California startup Pyka is using unmanned eSTOL aircraft for crop-dusting operations.mThe design does not use powered lift but has a sailplane-like wing with full-span flaps for high lift at low speed. With a cruise speed of 90 mph and battery swaps between flights, the aircraft can cover 85-135 acres per hour.

The Metro Hop concept for a two-seat eSTO is able to take off and land in 200 ft. and fly a 990-lb. load at 250 mph. The initial application envisaged is express delivery of medical supplies from central warehouses to local hospitals, says CEO Bruno Mombrinie.

UK startup Faradair is taking a different approach to STOL regional transport with its Bio Electric Hybrid Aircraft (BEHA) concept. Designed to take off and land in under 985 ft., the BEHA’s takeoff is primarily done on batteries to reduce noise and emissions, transitioning to the turbine to cruise and recharge the batteries, which provides a reserve power capability in case of engine failure. Faradair aims to compete mainly with helicopters, flying faster, farther and more efficiently with less noise. 

“John Langford, founder and former CEO of Aurora Flight Sciences, has launched Electra.Aero to develop a super-STOL (SSTOL) hybrid-electric aircraft for regional mobility using DEP and powered lift. He is working with a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that has been studying SSTOL as an alternative to eVTOL for urban air mobility (UAM).

Langford’s Electra is working with the MIT team, led by professors Mark Drela and John Hansman, on the next steps. The team is looking at four-, nine-, 19- and 35-seaters and conducting market studies on which to launch first. Langford sees an opportunity between small urban air taxis and large regional jets for aircraft that can take off “in a couple of hundred feet” and fly 50-500-mi. stage lengths, a market now dominated by automobiles.

(Source: Aviation Week)