AAM Set to 'Change the World,' Innovators Tell BACE Attendees

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“How quickly the world has changed,” said moderator Cyrus Sigari, executive chairman and co-founder of jetAviva and co-founder and managing partner of AAM venture capital investment firm UP.Partners, before introducing the six panelists on Wednesday at the NBAA-BACE 2021 Day 2 Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) keynote session. The six—Eric Allison, head of product at Joby Aviation; Kyle Clark, CEO of Beta Technologies; Martin Peryea, CEO of Jaunt Air Mobility; Sebastian Thrun, CEO of Kitty Hawk Corp.; Melissa Tomkiel, president of Blade Urban Air Mobility; and Benjamin Tigner, CEO of Overair—lead companies that are bringing new technologies and solutions to AAM.

They explained what is happening and what’s coming in an inspiring session that evoked events from the debut of the Jetsons on television 60 years ago to William Shatner’s journey to space aboard Blue Origin on the day of the forum.

All agreed that in getting public acceptance of AAMs, “the biggest issue is noise,” as Blade’s Tomkiel noted. Aircraft these companies are developing all incorporate quiet technology, in addition to electric motors, dramatically reducing sonic impacts. 

Blade, rather than building its own AAM vehicle, is creating a support infrastructure while currently providing urban mobility via conventional rotorcraft. Tomkiel noted current service from New York City to JFK Airport is the same cost as black car service, and that airport landing fees represent most of the cost. She called for “partnerships with government and municipalities” to reduce such fees to promote greener eVTOL solutions.

All agreed vertical integration is “critical” for manufacturers, as Joby’s Allison said, with each company developing their own aircraft, engines, and operational support “to connect engineering and production, and quickly bring aircraft to market and keep up the cycle of innovation.” Joby, which bought Uber Elevate, is developing a piloted four-passenger eVTOL.

The six companies represented all have somewhat unique business models, aimed at exploiting different opportunities in the emerging AAM market. 

Beta Technologies, which is developing a six-passenger, mast-mounted single propeller eVTOL, is pursuing an “early adoption path” within the existing regulatory environment, said Clark, starting with transporting organs for transplant, then cargo operations, and passenger service later.

“By the time the urban environment will accept AAMs, we’ll have thousands of aircraft and millions of hours of operational experience.”

Jaunt Air Mobility is developing a commuter eVTOL with a large, mast-mounted single propeller complemented by four smaller, fixed wing-mounted engines “that behaves like a typical airplane,” said Peryea. He cited a need for more public awareness of AAM’s benefits, noting that Uber’s car service had succeeded in educating consumers about its on-call offering, but “that voice is gone,” he said. “Everybody on stage needs to work on getting word out to the public.”

Kitty Hawk is developing the Flyer, a personal electric aircraft with eight propellers, with “the vision to make every person fly every day,” said Thrun. “We want people to make traffic congestion go away, and make transportation faster and greener.” 

Thrun sees a “set of new technologies that are completely mind-blowing,” including AI and machine learning, to transform AAM and “at some point get rid of pilots altogether,” he said. He predicted major advances following “a big moment where Silicon Valley gets interested in aviation.”

Overair, a spinoff of Karem Aircraft, is developing the Butterfly quad tiltrotor eVTOL, which Tigner believes can provide lift options “totally complementary to the existing aviation landscape.” With the company’s experience in already providing drone lift for the military, “We can put larger rotors on the system, with four vector thrust engines on its fixed wings,” and hover “in very challenging weather conditions.”

All six also see AAMs as helping “turn the corner on climate change,” as Beta Technologies’ Clark said. 

Joby’s Allision promised attendees, “We will democratize flight, and you’ll be part of it.”

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