Flying taxis, hypersonic air travel, electric-powered aircraft, space tourism and ultra-long-haul travel may be closer than we realise, writes Victor Hill.
Way back in 1940 the great Henry Ford (1863-1947) dreamed of a day when cars could fly. Anyone who has driven in London recently (something I assiduously avoid doing) might get the point. Our roads are congested with fossil-fuel powered cars which belch out pollution. Even when all road vehicles are electric in 2040 (or might that be 2032?), the congestion problem will remain. In fact, some commentators have suggested that thousands of self-driving or autonomous vehicles might make the congestion problem even worse.
Now it seems that Henry Ford’s dream might soon become reality. The rise and rise of drone technology has made the concept of small flying pods bearing at least two passengers quite feasible in technical terms. The main issue is one of viability, given health and safety concerns.
Last month a German start-up called Volocopter raised £45 in a new funding round. It hopes to bring its VoloCity aircraft to market within three years. This is designed to transport two passengers plus hand luggage for distances of up to 22 miles at a speed of 70 miles per hour. In the UK, another start-up, Vertical Aerospace, has developed a vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft with four electric fans. The company claims that this craft could transport passengers from Heathrow airport to Canary Wharf, a straight-line distance of about 20 miles, in 13 minutes.
Naturally, Uber (NYSE:UBER), the global leader in hail-and-ride technology, has shown interest. Google founder Larry Page has also set up a participant in this space called Kitty Hawk which already has three VTOL aircraft in production in California. Another German start-up, Lilium has recently unveiled its five-seater electric tilt-wing “Jet” which has 36 engines mounted on its flaps. This will be able to transport four passengers plus a pilot over up to 300 kilometres at a speed of 300 kilometres per hour.
A number of major players in both the automotive and aerospace sectors have been working on small VTOL aircraft (if that is the correct word – some people call them vehicles). These include China’s Geely (HKG:0175) which owns Volvo, Lotus and several other car brands. And BMW (ETR:BMW) has been working with Alakai Technologies on its Skai vehicle, the electric motors of which run on hydrogen fuel cells. This can reportedly fly for up to four hours and has a range of 400 miles. Boeing (NYSE:BA) is just one aerospace giant that has been investing in this technology. Morgan Stanley estimates that the sector could be worth $650 billion by 2040.
Such is the level of expectation that serviceable flying taxis are just around the corner that regulators have already started to draw up the rules that will govern the new technology. In the UK, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) recently launched a widespread consultation programme. It seems that, in the first phase of roll-out, a trained pilot will be required to fly the aircraft and journeys will start and finish in designated landing pads akin to helipads. At the European level, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has already published a draft certification manual for small VTOL aircraft.
To be able to fly a VTOL aircraft over an urban area, manufacturers would have to demonstrate that there was a less than one-in-a-billion-chance of a fatal accident. That may be achievable with piloted aircraft, but clearly the direction of travel is to create an aerial version of driverless cars – that is, autonomous flying taxis, known in the industry as passenger drones. Obviously, the economics of a two-seater pod flown by an expensive human pilot are much less attractive than one which flies two paying passengers autonomously.
At present, most aviation regulators stipulate that drones may not go out of sight of their operators. Another issue is how and where to recharge these electric VTOL aircraft. Uber has suggested that it will land its aircraft at designated recharge points between trips. In contrast, Volocopter is proposing to carry replacement batteries on board which could be switched for the return journey. That entails more weight and thus less efficiency.
In its first phase the flying taxi market will probably be pitched towards the rich and rides will be expensive. (It is significant that Vertical Aerospace’s website uses Heathrow to Canary Wharf as an example of a ride). But the fact that Uber is getting interested at all anticipates a second phase where both supply and demand increase, making passenger drones accessible to all.
No doubt the next generation of Extinction Rebellion protestors will be able to arrive at their demonstrations vertically.
London to New York in one hour?
Oxfordshire-based start-up Reaction Engines is working on a new generation of jet engines that will make it possible to fly at 3,800 miles per hour – thus making the London to New York trip possible in just one hour in an aircraft that soars into near-space. If you think that this is pie in the sky, consider that the US activist investor Elliott Management as well as Odey Asset Management are reported to have invested more than £100 million in the company. Reaction’s last funding round in 2018 valued the company at £180 million.
Reaction has developed a versatile propulsion system – a hybrid air-breathing rocket engine that can propel an aircraft to over five times the speed of sound for hypersonic flight in the atmosphere, and to over 25 times the speed of sound in space. The company claims that its proprietary Synergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine (SABRE) represents a break-through in propulsion technology. SABRE sucks in air, which at high speeds can reach a temperature of 1,000 degrees Centigrade, and uses specialist technology to cool it almost instantaneously. This engine technology has been described by some engineers as a form of heat exchanger.
Elliott Advisers now has an eight percent stake in the company while BAE Systems (LON:BA) took a 20 percent stake in 2015 with an investment of £20.6 million. The SABRE rocket engine has recently undergone a series of tests in Colorado. These tests will hopefully be continued at a new test site at Westcott Venture Park in Buckinghamshire when it is completed soon. The first launch of a rocket powered by SABRE is expected to be at least five years away.
One application of the heat exchanger technology is now ready for commercialisation in Formula One. This technology prevents racing cars from over-heating. The same technology could also be used to stop batteries in electric cars from catching fire.
The initial business plan was for Reaction to build its own SABRE-powered aircraft. But the company has decided to focus on the development of the engine technology alone and it will be for the aerospace giants to build the aircraft-cum-rocket that will exploit it.
Aircraft powered by the sun
BAE Systems has recently acquired Prismatic, based in Alton, Hampshire as part of its bid to become a leader in solar-powered aircraft. Prismatic has developed a solar-powered aircraft called the Phasa (persistent, high-altitude, solar aircraft) 35 which has a 35- metre wingspan but weighs just 150 kilograms. This aircraft can remain aloft for up to one year continuously at high altitudes of up to 65,000 feet using ultra-light photovoltaic fuel cells to charge itself as it flies. It could be used, amongst other things, to facilitate 5G mobile networks in remote areas.
Phasa-35 is now undergoing tests at BAE’s Warton, Lancashire plant. Flight tests are expected to be initiated early next year. The aircraft could be operating by as early as 2021.
Prismatic’s founder, Paul Brooks, and his team originally worked on an unmanned aerial vehicle which became the Zephyr Programme sponsored by the Ministry of Defence. Mr Brooks also worked at Airbus’s high-altitude systems division.
Electric-powered commercial flights are coming soon
Cranfield Aerospace Solutions Ltd., a spin-off from Cranfield University, has launched Project Fresson, an initiative backed by the UK government to the tune of £18 million. The aim is to convert the nine-passenger Britten-Norman Islander aircraft to hybrid-electric propulsion. This is the aircraft used by Loganair for short inter-island hops in the Outer Hebrides and Western Isles of Scotland. Cranfield plans to fly a demonstrator in 30 months, with certification of the aircraft conversion expected to follow within 6-12 months.
The Islander will not be the only island-hopping aircraft to be electrified. Harbour Air Seaplanes of Canada has installed a 560 kilowatt electric motor in a de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver, and the first flight is planned by the end of November. British Columbia-based Harbour Air plans to begin commercial services using electric Beavers in 2022. The all-electric Beaver will be limited to 10-20 minute trips initially, but the plan is that range will increase as battery technology improves. The electric engines will be provided by MagniX, an Australian manufacturer of electric motors for aircraft which is wholly owned by Singapore investment firm Clermont Group.
Ampaire, based in Hawthorne California, is developing a hybrid-electric six-seat aircraft called the Electric EEL. This aircraft is basically a Cessna 337 Skymaster with an electric rear motor and a battery pod underneath. The US start-up flew the prototype in June for the first time. The aircraft will be flown by Mokulele Airlines (owned by Southern Airlines) early next year on a route between Kahului and Hana on Maui, one of the Hawaiian Islands.
Adapting existing certified aircraft suitable for short routes will probably be the best way to introduce electric propulsion into the commercial airline market. Using electric-powered aircraft for short hop flights between islands is a good starting place, given current battery technology. Moreover, islands such as the Outer Hebrides generally have a lot of renewable energy available in the form of wind power. Norway has a stated target that all domestic flights should be 100 percent electric by 2040.
ZeroAvia, a US-UK start-up is developing zero-emissions fuel-cell propulsion for small aircraft and plans to conduct test flights in Orkney under a project supported by a £2.7 million grant from the UK government. Its Powertrain engine aims to deliver the same performance as a conventional aircraft engine with much lower operating costs. ZeroAvia plans to start supplying its engines to commercial operators and aircraft manufacturers in 2022, initially targeting up to 500-mile regional flights in 10 to 20-seat fixed-wing aircraft.
ZeroAvia is partnered with Cranfield Aerospace, UK fuel-cell developer Intelligent Energy and the European Marine Energy Centre, which produces renewable hydrogen in Orkney using wind and tidal energy. Cranfield’s partners on Project Fresson include Rolls-Royce (LON:RR), Denis Ferranti Group, Delta Motorsport and Warwick Manufacturing Group.
There are about 800 Islander aircraft in service, and Britten-Norman estimates about three-quarters of those are used for short-haul flights and are therefore suitable for conversion. In addition to electric motors replacing the Islander’s twin-piston or turbine engines, the conversion adds a range-extender combustion engine to recharge the batteries. The electric-powered Islander will be able to fly for 60 minutes with 30 minutes in reserve.
Energy costs are projected to be less than 20 percent of the cost of kerosene to power the existing piston-powered Islander. Thus an operator might be able to recover the cost of conversion in three years thanks to reduced energy and maintenance costs.
The island-hopping market is also attracting new designs. Scylax, a German start-up formed by electric aircraft manufacturer Elektra Solar and aerospace engineers EADCO, is developing the E10, an all-electric 10-seater aircraft. FLN Frisia Luftverkehr, a small German airline operating to the East Frisian Islands with Islanders, has become a shareholder in Scylax.
NASA believes electrically propelled aircraft will significantly cut emissions while boosting efficiency in the future. But in order to realise the full potential of electric propulsion the conventional tube-and-wing airliner configuration may have to be re-engineered. One problem has been where to locate the engines in order to maximise efficiency. As a potential solution, NASA is studying a hybrid “propulsive fuselage” design with one or more tail-mounted electric fans. Thus small electric-powered aircraft in the future may look quite different from the traditional aircraft that we are used to.
Virgin Galactic to launch at last – in every way
Documents filed in the US last month revealed that Sir Richard Branson will cash in some of his stake when Virgin Galactic finally floats on the New York stock exchange later this year. The billionaire founder of the Virgin Group is believed to have invested around $880million in Virgin Galactic since founding the space firm in 2007, alongside around $200million of additional investment from Mubadala, Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth fund. Both parties will sell down their holdings in the expected floatation.
Not only that – but Sir Richard told CNN on 16 October that he will be aboard the first tourist space flight that will hopefully launch in the spring of 2020. Passengers are already booking rides at reportedly $250,000 a go. Virgin Galactic’s main hub is their space port in New Mexico. This may serve as a model for other players in the space tourism sector. Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin is likely to follow shortly.
Sydney to New York non-stop
As I write this early on Friday morning (18 October) Qantas is making a non-stop test flight from Sydney to New York – a distance of some 10,000 miles which takes 20 hours. The Australian airline hopes to open the route commercially, as well as Sydney to London non-stop, in 2022.
Currently, no aircraft, not even the Boeing 787 Dreamliner (which Qantas already uses for its London-Perth non-stop route), has the range to fly from Sydney to New York with a full passenger and cargo load. For the test flight, the airline is using a brand-new Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, but to give the aircraft the range required for the non-stop flight Qantas has allowed only about 50 people on board.
Both Airbus (EPA:AIR) and Boeing are developing airliners that will have the required range fully-laden. Qantas has said that it will decide by the end of 2019 which airliner it will use for the two new ultra-long-haul routes.
The 2020s will be a soaring decade for aviation enthusiasts as mankind takes to the skies in ways only dreamed of by previous generations. This opens up huge opportunities in this sector for investors.