Indian start-up ePlane is aiming to fly a subscale model of its planned two-seat, all-electric eVTOL aircraft by early July. With a payload of 50 kg (110 pounds), the technology demonstrator will be around one-quarter of the size of the 200 kg aircraft it aims to start flight testing around 12 months from now.
The Chennai-based company was founded in 2019 by Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy, who is an aerospace engineering professor at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras (IIT-Madras), along with one of his students Pranjal Mehta. It has just raised $850,000 in seed funding from venture capital group Speciale Invest, private investor Naval Ravikant, JavaCapital, FirstCheque, and CIIE.
Chakravarthy told FutureFlight that in India’s lower-cost environment the current level of funding will be sufficient to start flight testing with the full-scale prototype, which it has designated as the e200. The quarter-scale model is called the e50 and an even smaller model, the e6, has been built with a payload of up to just six kg.
So far, ePlane has released few details about the e200’s projected performance and specifications. The company says that it is aiming for the ability to make around 10 short trips of 10 to 15 km (up to almost 10 miles) on one charge of its batteries.
The design will feature a short wing adapted to allow low-speed operations and achieve a sweet spot in terms of maximizing the use of available power in urban air mobility operations. Chakravarthy said that his team has rejected any dependence on being able to swap out batteries as being impractical given current regulatory and infrastructure limitations. “Most Uber [car] rides now have just one passenger and it’s in the urban areas that this is needed to overcome congestion on the ground,” he commented.
The two subscale models have been developed with a view to assessing alternative propulsion architectures, with the e6 having open propellers and the e50 ducted fans. The choice has now been resolved in favor of using ducted fans and the final design also will feature a small canard.
Initially, ePlane will aim to market the e200 to a relatively small contingent of high-net-worth individuals that it expects will pilot the aircraft themselves or use trained pilots for private transportation. It will also target ride-hailing groups such as Ola or Uber as prospective operators but still holds open the possibility of launching its own commercial services.
Despite his own background as an expert in combustion engines, Chakravarthy dismissed employing hybrid-electric propulsion as a first step to the commercial use of eVTOL aircraft while battery technology matures. “All-electric aircraft will be far cheaper from the start and it’s in the short-range services that we can achieve the low-cost base that is needed,” he commented.
The ePlane team currently consists of 16 employees, some of whom have been recruited from established aerospace groups to provide deeper industry experience. The team is expected to increase to 30 people in the next few months. The business operates out of IIT-Madras, where it is incubated.
The company believes its aircraft will prove to be competitive in markets well beyond India. The company says it will seek to bring its technology into commercial service wherever this proves to be most viable, based on local conditions.
At face value, India's heavily congested cities would appear to be well suited to benefit from eVTOL air taxi services. For example, according to helicopter charter operator Blade India, residents of Mumbai lose around 209 hours each year while stuck in cars on the cities gridlocked streets. However, Indian authorities have been slow to ease restrictions and improve access to infrastructure for airlines and other new flight service providers, raising questions as to how open they may be to advanced air mobility initiatives.