For most of 2021, the soundtrack to the advanced air mobility (AAM) movie has sounded like a noisy modern jazz ensemble, with multiple performers trying to outplay each other to get the attention of the audience, namely investors for their eVTOL and eSTOL aircraft. Then last month, from Toulouse in France, we heard the sound of the Airbus symphony orchestra playing the opening movement of what the European aerospace group believes will be its magnum opus in this highly competitive new sector of aviation.
On September 21, Airbus unveiled its long-awaited plans for an eVTOL aircraft, building on extensive flight trials with the CityAirbus and Vahana technology demonstrators. The fixed-wing aircraft CityAirbus NextGen model, with a V-shaped tail and eight sets of electric motors and propellers, will carry up to four passengers on flights of up to 80 km (50 miles) and at speeds of 120 km/h (75 mph).
Airbus Helicopters is leading the engineering work for the program. The rotorcraft division aims to fly a full-scale prototype in 2023 with a goal of completing type certification in 2025.
“The CityAirbus NextGen combines the best design elements of both the CityAirbus and Vahana technology demonstrators,” Joerg-Peter Mueller, managing director of Airbus Urban Air Mobility, told FutureFlight. “Our main aim has been to develop the optimum performance for relatively short intracity trips that Airbus sees as the main initial applications for urban air mobility.”
The environmental sustainability of aviation is another key objective, according to Balkiz Sarihan, Airbus’s head of urban air mobility strategy, execution, and partnerships. She explained that the company’s work on the eVTOL is part of a much wider green aviation strategy that also encompasses Airbus’s ZeroE program to bring hydrogen-powered airliners to market by 2035, in work that is benefitting from significant financial and political support from the French government and the European Union.
With the CityAirbus NextGen announcement, Airbus became the third major aerospace group to announce plans for the AAM market. Rivals Embraer, Bell, and Boeing have all thrown their hats in the ring, although it remains unclear how committed they are to the market.
The Eve Urban Air Mobility subsidiary of Brazil’s Embraer is developing a four-passenger eVTOL under the working title Electrical Vertical Aircraft (EVA) that it says will be ready for commercial service in 2026. Earlier this year, Embraer, which makes business jets and regional airliners, announced plans to spin off Eve through a merger with special purposes acquisition company Zanite Acquisition, leading to a share flotation that would raise funds for the program. However, the companies have since gone radio silent over progress with this deal, while several eVTOL rivals, such as Joby, Archer, and Lilium, have noisily converged on Wall Street.
Back at the start of 2019, Bell unveiled plans for an eVTOL called Nexus, and then in February 2020, it disclosed a few details about a revised version called the Nexus 4EX. Since then, nothing has been heard about the project except for a curious announcement last month that the Nexus mockup is to go on display in the Smithsonian Institution’s Arts and Industries Building. Bell’s intentions for the AAM sector remain unclear, but given that parent company Textron quietly established an electric aviation subsidiary at the start of 2021, it seems unlikely that it is walking away.
Just over 12 months ago, when Boeing pulled the plug on its Boeing NeXt innovation division, it seemed that the U.S. aerospace giant’s commitment to AAM might be waning. However, the company retains its 50 percent stake in the Wisk Aero joint venture with KittyHawk that is working on what could prove to be a family of eVTOL aircraft.
In a media briefing on October 19, Brian Yutko, Boeing’s vice president and chief engineer for sustainability and future mobility, said his company's engineers are participating in Wisk’s efforts to develop the autonomous, two-seat Cora eVTOL. He said that Boeing’s extensive experience in certifying aircraft is a valuable asset to Wisk and added that the company expects to announce details of another larger eVTOL design soon.
The CityAirbus NextGen design marks a significant change in approach after the earlier technology demonstrators, mainly with the introduction of a wing. Based on learnings from the CityAirbus and Vahana projects, engineers have determined that neither the propellers nor the wing will tilt. “This avoids complexity and reduces weight, and simplicity is generally best,” Mueller explained, adding that the new eVTOL will be certified under EASA’s special conditions VTOL Part 23 rules.
According to Sarihan, the fixed-wing architecture provides a platform for adding more range and payload for what could prove to be a family of eVTOLs, just as Airbus does with its narrow- and widebody airliner dynasties. Unlike some of the eVTOL start-ups, Airbus has no intention of operating the aircraft itself.
“As with our existing airliners and helicopters, we will work with customers [i.e., aircraft operators],” she explained to FutureFlight. “This relationship will be based on the structure of its global product and customer support network. Discussions will be held with operators around the world to understand how the aircraft could be best used in different locations.”
Much of the engineering work to prepare a prototype for a first flight will be handled by Airbus Helicopters teams in Donauworth, Bavaria. This business unit, which has been running the CityAirbus demonstrator program, is working with clusters of urban air mobility partners in the Paris area and in Bavaria that are focused on developing ecosystems to support eVTOL operations.
The overall impression given by Airbus and its fellow aerospace behemoths is that they are happy for the attention-seeking, cash-hungry eVTOL start-ups to grab much of the attention in an arena that is not short on smoke and mirrors. While many of the newcomers are fixated on 2024 as being some kind of make-or-break year-zero for launching air taxi and other eVTOL-based services, the established players seem to view this as more of a long game than a space race.
Even during the worst of Covid’s battering of the air transport sector last year, Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury was adamant that his company would sustain, and indeed increase, investment levels in new aviation technology. The CityAirbus NextGen announcement was tangible evidence of that commitment, with the company seeming determined to orchestrate lasting change in the industry.