Vertical Aerospace is a British startup that has built and flown a fully electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft. As strange as it may seem, that doesn’t make them particularly unique in the year 2018; there is a surfeit of drone-helicopter hybrids being tested around the globe. What does make Vertical standout is the company’s more realistic approach to the utility of so-called “flying cars.”
The pilotless demonstrator aircraft weighs 750 kg (or around 1,600 pounds) and flew across Cotswold Airport in Gloucestershire earlier this summer as part of the company’s first flight tests. Vertical Aerospace says it aims to launch a fully operational “air taxi” service by 2022, but plans to do so with pilots, rather than without, in order to comply with existing aviation regulations. The company believes it can overcome regulatory and safety concerns by delivering piloted, fixed-wing aircraft that capitalize on existing innovations, rather than promising more pie-in-the-sky outcomes.
“We are investing in all the technology evolution taking place in aerospace, but we are trying to apply that to something that’s real world and is possible to execute four years out,” Stephen Fitzpatrick, the Vertical Aerospace founder and chief executive, told Reuters recently.
Other flying car aspirants are working toward launching autonomous aircraft early in the next decade. These competitors range from giant companies like Airbus and Uber, as well as well-funded startups like Volocopter, which is testing drone taxis that resemble a small helicopter powered by 18 rotors, and Kitty Hawk, which is one of three flying car firms founded by Alphabet chairman Larry Page.
Fitzpatrick, who is also the CEO of OVO Energy, an energy supply company based in Bristol, cites traffic congestion and air pollution among his motivations for sky-diving into the hype surrounding eVTOL. A one-time Formula 1 racing team owner, Fitzpatrick says he is using technological techniques he learned on the racetrack for his new endeavor in the sky.
“We’ve learned a lot from Formula 1, both in terms of technology and pace of development,” Fitzpatrick said in an email. “The lightweight materials, aerodynamics and electrical systems developed through F1 are highly applicable to aircraft, much more so than to road transport. By putting those technologies in the hands of experienced aerospace engineers, we can build cutting edge aircraft for the 21st Century.”
Since its inception in 2016, the firm has hired 28 veteran aerospace and technical experts from Airbus, Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Martin Jetpack, and GE with extensive experience building certified commercial aircraft.
Vertical’s first aircraft was granted flight permission by the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority and the company is already working with the European Aviation Safety Agency to gain certification for its next model. “Regulation evolves along with new technology but it takes time,” Fitzpatrick said. “We are working alongside regulators throughout that process.”
While there is a surplus of flying taxis being tested today, very few are far enough along to feel comfortable testing with a human pilot in the cockpit. Kitty Hawk’s single-pilot Flyer aircraft is currently for sale, but its Cora air taxi prototype is still under development. Volocopter has conducted limited piloted tests, while German startup Lilium is aiming for 2019 for its first tests with a pilot. Vertical Aerospace has not said when it plans to conduct its first piloted tests.
By Andrew J. Hawkins