What Are eVTOLs? Are They the Future of Aviation?

Electricity-powered flying taxis are almost ready for liftoff.

Written by Jacob Biba
What Are eVTOLs? Are They the Future of Aviation?
Image: Shutterstock
UPDATED BY
Andreas Rekdal | Jun 01, 2023

Electric aerial ridesharing? Flying taxis? The sky could one day have a new aircraft cutting through it — one that’s much quieter, with fewer emissions, and that’s potentially safer than helicopters and even planes. These aircraft are called eVTOLs.

What Are EVTOLs?

Like helicopters and drones, eVTOLs are aircrafts that hover, fly, and take off and land vertically. Electric powered, they are sometimes called air taxis or flying taxis.

 

What Are eVTOL Aircrafts?

One of the latest innovations in transportation technology, eVTOL aircrafts are electric aircrafts that take off and land going straight up and down. Short for electric vertical take-off and landing aircrafts, eVTOLs are sometimes referred to as air taxis or flying taxis. Powered by batteries, eVTOLs hover and fly, much like a helicopter, and are typically designed to carry two to six passengers including a pilot. (A helicopter is considered a VTOL.)

“At the end of the day, it’s a very simplified electric helicopter,” Rani Plaut, CEO and co-founder of the eVTOL company AIR, told Built In. 

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Are eVTOLs in Use Yet?

Outside of testing, eVTOLs haven’t taken to the skies in the United States, according to Farhan Gandhi, director of the Center for Mobility with Vertical Lift (MOVE) and director of the aerospace program at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.

While Gandhi believes eVTOL aircrafts will soon be ready to fly outside of testing, certification by the Federal Aviation Administration will take time.

According to Gandhi, negotiations between eVTOL companies and the FAA are ongoing, but companies will ultimately have to prove to regulators that these aircrafts can operate safely. To do that, they’ll have to show what recovery mechanisms will be in place if there’s some sort of mechanical failure.

“Nobody is ever quite 100 percent sure how long it will take,” Gandhi said. “Especially because we’re talking about brand-new aircraft.”

 

Personal eVTOL Use

One way to get eVTOLs in the sky quicker is to certify them for personal use. The certification process for non-commercial aircraft is less rigorous, according to Plaut, whose company has developed an eVTOL marketed toward individuals and is currently taking preorders with an expected delivery date of 2024,

“You need to solve the equation of where do you land, how do you control it, noise regulation and so forth,” Plaut said. “So, I don’t think [a commercial approach] is the first step. I think the first step is going personal.”

“You can land in any private property, wherever you deem it safe and you have authorization from the owner.”

AIR’s AIR ONE is currently awaiting its Part 91 aircraft operator certification from the FAA, which would allow the eVTOL to operate for private or personal uses. “In this section, for example, you can land in your backyard,” Plaut said. “You can land in any private property, wherever you deem it safe and you have authorization from the owner.”

With nearly 300 preorders — according to Plaut, the majority of customers are doctors, former pilots and people from Palo Alto — AIR ONE could be one of the first eVTOLs outside of tests to take to the skies in the United States. The Israel-based company sees the United States as their primary market — Plaut said it’s the most prolific and easiest market to break into — with a few hundred being sold in the first few years to a few thousand after. “We’re talking about a fractional element in the general scheme,” Plaut said. “It’s not like you’re going to have 200,000 of those flying over Austin.”

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Commercial eVTOL Use

When it comes to commercial use of eVTOLs, Andrew Schmertz, CEO and co-founder of Hopscotch Air, a private commercial aviation company operating in the New York metropolitan area, is keeping a close eye on the sector, given the limitations of airplanes (they require airports) and the high costs associated with helicopter service, Schmertz told Built In.

“The vTOLs and eVTOLs we’ve seen, the numbers, if it’s to fruition, are much more favorable,” Schmertz said. “You can carry a couple more people at price points that make the service much closer to airline service than to private helicopter service.”

In 2021, Michael Liskinen, president of United Airlines Ventures, told CNBC that the main reason eVTOLs cost less to operate is because so much can go wrong with a helicopter. “The electrification makes the aircraft safer,” he said, regarding eVTOLs. “Safe aircraft also becomes less costly to maintain.”

“You can carry a couple more people at price points that make the service much closer to airline service than to private helicopter service.”

Today, companies like Joby, Archer Aviation and Eve Air Mobility are working to get their eVTOLs in the sky, in hopes of establishing electric aerial ride-sharing services that would transport people from airports like John F. Kennedy or Newark Liberty to downtown Manhattan.

But Schmertz has his doubts about the battery technology involved in commercial eVTOLs, which limits the aircraft’s range and carrying capacity. “The batteries, they’re going to need to grow the range without adding weight rapidly to get to where they want to be,” he said. “I think there’s debate in the industry as to whether they can do that.”

Additionally, there’s concerns about infrastructure, like the need for vertiports where eVTOLs can take off and land as well as how to charge them. Fire suppression is another issue, as batteries could pose a risk of fire, much like they do with electric vehicles.

On top of all that, there’s community buy-in to consider, Schmertz said, citing uproar in New York City over helicopter service. “If you already have the community opposed to helicopters, how are you going to get them on board for eVTOLs?”

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Capabilities of eVTOL Aircrafts

Despite regulatory hurdles, the use of eVTOLs is increasingly rooted in reality. “You can look at it and you can say, ‘Yeah, this is a viable aircraft. I can see this flying in some period of time, and I can see it operating,’” Gandhi said. “As opposed to, you can look at something, you can roll your eyes and say, ‘Yeah, this is a pipe dream.’”

Gandhi believes eVTOLs will eventually be used for some sort of flying taxi service. “But also cargo, package delivery — this is where they might shine in the near term,” he said.

“And even for humans I feel it is likely to translate into reality,” he said. “The question will be, at what scale? I mean, will it be an elite limo service? Or will it be for the masses? That’s what remains to be seen.”

While the capabilities of eVTOL are similar to that of other aircraft in the sky, eVTOLs can potentially do it in a more sustainable way — especially when paired with other mobility services — by easing congestion and decreasing emissions, Plaut said.

 

What Won’t eVTOLs Be Able to Do?

The limited range of eVTOLs compared to other aircraft, along with reduced carrying capacities, don’t lend themselves to things like search and rescue or making long-haul deliveries that helicopters and airplanes are so good at, according to Ghandi. 

“Those kinds of very long missions, eVTOLs may or may not be able to do,” Gandhi said. “But if you want to fly from, say, Wall Street to LaGuardia, or Wall Street to JFK — 10 miles — that kind of thing, they will be great for and you’re beating all the city traffic. You might get there in six or seven minutes, instead of an hour and a half.”

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Benefits of eVTOL Aircrafts

Through both their design and power structure, eVTOL aircrafts have the potential to provide a series of benefits over helicopters and other aircraft.

“Helicopters are too noisy and cost too much to operate,” Gandhi said. “Safety is also an issue. The hope is that eVTOLs will be better in those areas.”

 

Less Noise

According to Gandhi, eVTOLs are quieter because much of their forward flight is using wing-borne lift, which pulls the aircraft forward once it acquires a certain velocity. Additionally, rotor speed is lower compared to helicopters, which also reduces noise levels. 

 

Increased Safety

The rotor design of eVTOLs lends itself to safety, according to Gandhi, because of the sheer number of rotors on eVTOLs typically have. If one of them fails, there’s many others to back it up. 

“You can tolerate that kind of failure,” Gandhi said. “The designs are inherently more robust.” 

It’s similar with batteries, too, as eVTOLs won’t rely on a single battery bank, Gandhi said, allowing for onboard energy to still be available even if a battery bank fails. 

“This redundancy built into these designs help make them potentially safer,” Gandhi said.

 

Ease of Use

For Plaut, one of the main benefits of eVTOLs is ease of use, thanks to a computerized flight control system that allows the aircraft to operate more like a drone or fly-by-wire system that translates controller movements into instructions for the aircraft’s components. “You don’t really control the actions, you control what you want to happen,” Plaut said. “And then the vehicle decides by itself what to do.” 

According to Plaut, 60 percent of preorders of his company’s AIR ONE eVTOL were made by people who aren’t trained pilots.

 

5 eVTOL Companies to Know

Here are the companies working to make eVTOLs the future of aviation.

 

Archer is an eVTOL company based in San Jose, California. With a goal of deploying 6,000 eVTOLs by 2030, they also have plans to launch an electric aerial ridesharing service. Last year, United Airlines purchased 100 eVTOL aircraft from Archer and announced a route from Manhattan to Newark Liberty International Airport with an anticipated 2025 start date. 

 

Based in Florida, Eve is an eVTOL company with its sights set on the electric flying taxi sector. Last year, United Airlines announced their intent to purchase up to 400 eVTOLs from Eve. Deliveries are expected in 2026. 

 

Capable of carrying a pilot and four passengers, Joby Aviation’s eVTOLs are able to travel 150 miles at speeds upward of 200 miles per hour, according to its website. So far, the company has completed more than 1,000 test flights and is currently taking part in a multi-year testing program with the FAA with hopes of launching an electric aerial ride-sharing service. In October, Joby partnered with Delta to provide city-to-airport service in New York and Los Angeles. That same month, Joby applied for certification in Japan, having applied for certification in the United Kingdom earlier in the year. 

 

Unveiled in 2020 with a max speed of 200 miles per hour and 100 miles of range, Vertical Aerospace’s eVTOL, dubbed VX4, is capable of carrying five people. Possible use cases for the VX4 include passenger travel, medical evacuation and cargo transport, according to the company’s website. The VX4 has an estimated delivery date of 2025.

 

Based in Mountain View, California, Wisk is an eVTOL company that’s developed an autonomous air taxi that’s capable of carrying four passengers. The company’s current eVTOL, which was unveiled in October, has a 90-mile range with a cruising speed of nearly 140 miles per hour. It also has a charge time of 15 minutes and its cruising altitude is between 2,500 and 4,000 feet. Wisk was acquired by Boeing in May 2023.

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