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Imagine a time in the not-too-distant future when personal and commercial electric-powered vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft could be as common as helicopters or airliners in Canadian skies, or as common as snowmobiles on a winter lake.
Since the dawn of the 21st century, the number of hybrid electric and pure electric cars on Canadian roads has been increasing exponentially; thousands of Canadians have become newly-minted pilots of electric-powered drones; and the first electric-powered fixed-wing aircraft have finally arrived.
Now, innovators are seizing the opportunity to develop new VTOL aircraft that leverage recent advances in electric motors, batteries, hybrid systems, control systems, low-cost manufacturing and autonomy that have been developed by the adjacent automotive, aerospace and unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) industries.
Nine years ago, Sikorsky converted a Sikorsky-Schweizer S300C from piston to electric power to create the Firefly. However, engineers soon discovered that connecting an electric engine to a helicopter drive train doesn’t work if the batteries are too heavy, and the Firefly never flew.
Instead, most of the electric-powered VTOL craft being developed today are following a technology path that utilizes distributed electric propulsion (DEP) as a gateway to sustainable aviation that could reduce operating costs, fuel burn, external noise and emissions.
The idea of DEP is to replace the single complex rotor system in a helicopter–cyclic, collective, swashplate, transmissions, gearboxes, shafting, hydraulics, etc.–with multiple electric thrusters and perhaps a wing for more efficient flight that conserves energy and achieves higher speed and longer-range cruise.
Most experts recognize that the energy density of lithium-ion batteries still falls well short of what an eVTOL requires for a one-hour flight, so more investments are required to develop high performance lightweight batteries and hybrid-electric systems.
Electric VTOL Revolution
“The eVTOL revolution is being supported by some of the world’s largest aerospace companies (i.e. Airbus, Bell, Boeing and Embraer), automotive companies (i.e. Aston Martin, Audi, Geely, Honda and Toyota), and technology leaders and investors (i.e. Google, Intel, Tencent and Uber),” observed Mike Hirschberg, executive director of the Vertical Flight Society.
“Piloted and autonomous eVTOL aircraft are being developed for various missions, including personal air transport, urban air mobility, air taxi, emergency response and package delivery.”
To date, almost US$2 billion has been committed to eVTOL development, and the short history of the industry has been re-written numerous times as stealth companies reveal their secret aircraft for the first time.
In April 2017, the Vertical Flight Society (then known as the American Helicopter Society) compiled its first directory–which included 24 eVTOL aircraft in development. After a two-year frenzy, the Society’s World eVTOL Aircraft Directory now documents more than 130 different eVTOL programs.
The aerospace industry is traditionally very conservative and slow moving when it comes to adopting transformational technology.
What sets eVTOL apart is that it has attracted a lot of Silicon Valley technology leaders and investors, major aerospace companies that want to disrupt themselves, brilliant students, and teams pursuing the US$2 million GoFly Prize to build a remarkable near-VTOL aircraft. Companies around the world are taking Uber very seriously with its plans to develop an urban air taxi network called Uber Air, utilizing potentially tens of thousands of small, electric eVTOL aircraft.
Not surprisingly, Canadian engineers and the Canadian aviation industry are part of this emerging industry, which began with grassroots ultralight aircraft development eight years ago and now encompasses the 6,000-pound hybrid-electric Bell Nexus eVTOL air taxi that was officially unveiled at the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show (CES).
On July 12, 2018, Opener of Palo Alto, Calif., announced its BlackFly eVTOL with a spectacular video of the aircraft flying and hovering over the scenic California meadows and mountains.
The previously unknown, amphibious BlackFly had a pod-shaped carbon fibre fuselage, single-seat bubble canopy and two fixed wings, each outfitted with four electric propellers.
Two weeks after the launch, Opener brought three members of the BlackFly aircraft family to EAA AirVenture 2018 in Oshkosh, Wis., where CEO Marcus Leng told Skies about the history of his aircraft program and the eVTOL’s technical features.
Leng grew up near Toronto, learned to fly before he could drive, and graduated from the University of Toronto with a mechanical engineering degree in the early 1980s. After working in aerospace for a few years, Leng changed direction and founded a company in 1986 to develop urethane foam applications well-suited for use in office chairs and automotive seating. The company was one of the largest of its kind in North America when Leng sold it in 1996 and retired at the age of 36.
Thirteen years later, Leng was working on a small aviation project in the summer of 2009, when he said “it became apparent that there was going to be a convergence of three technologies that would make it possible for practical electric flight. These were the energy density of batteries, the power density of motors, and the control associated with IMUs [inertial measurement units] used for … DIY drones.
“You could see a convergence was going to take place, but the technology wasn’t there yet,” added Leng.
That’s when he drafted a business plan and started designing and building his proof-of-concept eVTOL aircraft using off the shelf components and a fly-by-wire flight control system he designed himself.
On Oct. 5, 2011, Leng hovered a small, eight-rotor tandem-wing electric aircraft over the front yard of his property in Warkworth, Ont., about 105 kilometres (65 miles) northeast of Toronto. Although the first flight lasted only about 20 seconds, this aircraft–known as the SkyKar Rebel–made aviation history, because it was the first eVTOL aircraft in the world to lift a person!
Next, Leng designed the larger BlackFly V1 and built the two single-seat prototypes at “an obscure stealth laboratory” in Cobourg, Ont.
The first V1 made one tethered flight behind the Cobourg office in August 2014 and then Leng moved the program to the Silicon Valley, where Opener was founded with the strategic support of investors like Google co-founder Larry Page and Alan Eustace, Google’s senior vice-president of knowledge.
Since its founding, Opener has flight tested at least 20 BlackFly aircraft of three models–V1, V2 and V3–in the U.S. and Canada.
A fleet of 10 BlackFly V2s autonomously flew a combined distance of more than 16,100 kilometres (10,000 miles) with a 200-pound payload–in legs of 48 km (30 miles) or longer–before Leng made the first manned flight in California on March 19, 2018.
He explained that BlackFly can take off vertically or with an extremely short takeoff run of one to three feet; it can ascend vertically or at 35 degrees, 45 degrees or 70 degrees following a diagonal flight path. The cockpit controls consist of a fly-by-wire joystick with a thumb stick.
“If you are hovering and you want to transition to cruise control, all it requires is for you to pull [the] joystick forward and pull the trigger back … and as you pass 45 degrees you transition right into cruise and the aircraft will automatically hold altitude during the transition,” said Leng.
The BlackFly V3 is much more aerodynamic than the V2, and first flew (unmanned) on Oct. 20, 2017. It will be sold as an ultralight in the U.S. and a basic ultralight aircraft in Canada with a heavier battery.
Since 2014, the BlackFly has flown more than 37,000 kilometres (23,000 miles) and more than 1,600 flights, with its most recent flights traversing 50 kilometres (30 miles).
“Several years ago, we began testing at a remote Northern Canadian site to stay away from prying eyes and maintain our stealth mode,” revealed Leng. “Northern Canada offers extremes of temperature and challenging weather conditions ideal for developing a very tough and robust vehicle.”
The location of the Canadian flight test centre remains a mystery, but Opener has recently been hiring flight test engineers to work in Saskatchewan!
The BlackFly can be flown with a Canadian ultralight licence (or better) in Canada, and will sell for the “same price as an SUV,” which still covers a wide price range.
Kitty Hawk Flyer
On April 24, 2017, Kitty Hawk of Mountain View, Calif., unveiled its prototype Flyer with the first in a series of aspirational videos that teased the market and inspired the viewer to fly.
In the first video, the pilot of the Flyer ‘sky danced’ over the surface of a scenic lake like a personal watercraft that suddenly broke free of gravity and started to fly. It was easy to imagine Flyers being as numerous as speedboats, personal watercraft or kite-boarders on a popular lake.
To keen observers, the pilot at the controls of the Flyer in the video also established a Canadian connection. He was Dr. Todd Reichert, who co-founded (with Cameron Robertson) a student group (later called Aerovelo) at the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies (UTIAS) to develop super-efficient human-powered vehicles.
Aerovelo achieved that goal three times with the Snowbird human-powered ornithopter (HPO), the Atlas human-powered helicopter (HPH), and the Eta speed bike.
The record-setting Snowbird flight in 2010 earned Reichert and Robertson the Trans-Canada (McKee) Trophy in 2011–Canada’s highest aviation award. The Atlas captured the 33-year-old US$250,000 American Helicopter Society Igor I. Sikorsky prize in 2013. And, Reichert peddled the Eta speed bike to an astounding world record of 144.17 kilometres per hour (89.59 miles per hour) in September 2016.
Kitty Hawk approached Aerovelo to help develop eVTOL aircraft when they were developing the Eta speed bike. Reichert is the senior director of engineering and Robertson the director of engineering at Flyer.
When the Kitty Hawk Flyer publicly debuted at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh in July 2017, Reichert told Skies that Aerovelo was a perfect training ground for developing the Flyer, which qualifies in the U.S. as a Part 103 ultralight aircraft.
“With an ultralight aircraft, the constraint is the maximum weight limit. The design challenge is how we can build an aircraft that weighs less than 115 kilograms (254 pounds) that has sufficient range to do something incredible on battery power,” said Reichert after his first public flight.
Kitty Hawk’s goal was to design an eVTOL that was inherently stable and that anyone could easily fly. In the U.S., the FAA says an ultralight pilot doesn’t need to have a pilot’s certificate or medical qualification, which means it can be flown by non-pilots. (Outside the U.S., the aircraft will not have the same weight limits, but a pilot will need a licence.)
Kitty Hawk then “went dark” until June 6, 2018, when it unveiled the production Flyer to select media at its once secret flight demonstration centre on the shore of Lake Las Vegas, Nev.
The sleek new Flyer features a bobsled-style carbon fibre cockpit, roll bar, integrated pontoons, and 10 electric powered propellers. The endurance is between 10 and 20 minutes, based on the flight profile and pilot weight (with current battery technology).
In media interviews, Reichert explained that Kitty Hawk’s goal was to sign up partners “to help bring Flyer to your community” and book pre-sale orders from Founders Flyers, an invitation-only group of early customers.
The eVTOL price is said to be comparable to an “affordable electric car,” and the customer base tightly controlled initially to maximize safety, client feedback and learning opportunities.
Kitty Hawk declined to provide a product update to Skies in 2019; this is a common occurrence in the stealthy eVTOL industry.
In September 2018, Astro Aerospace of Texas announced that it had received a Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC) from Transport Canada to fly its 16-rotor “Elroy” eVTOL aircraft without a pilot at Toronto Markham Airport (CNU8).
Elroy conducted three unmanned flight tests, culminating on Sept. 19 in a four-and-a-half minute flight, reaching heights of over 18 metres (60 feet) and speeds of over 50 km/h (30 mph) while flying a figure-eight pattern.
The appearance of the bright red 16-rotor aircraft in Canada came as an industry surprise, since it was launched as the “PassengerDrone” in Europe in July 2017.
It turns out that the two Bulgarian developers behind the eVTOL–Boyan Zhelev and Ivaylo Nikolov–needed a strategic investor to move forward, and sold the program to Bruce Bent, a Canadian businessman and technology investor who lives in Texas and owns Astro Aerospace.
The eVTOL aircraft was shipped to Toronto in March 2018, new team members hired, and renamed the Astro Elroy 1.0. Elroy features an advanced navigation, communication and flight control system for autonomous passenger flights as well as simplified cockpit flight controls.
“We have created a new 24/7 simulation environment where we have completed more than 2,000 hours of simulated flights,” said lead engineer Zhelev. “This gives us great confidence in our system performance and reliability.”
In late December, Astro started working with an industrial designer to develop a modern new cockpit for the Elroy 2.0 with attractive side-by-side seating, and also began the preliminary design of Astro’s new CargoDrone called Orbit 1.0.
Paterson Composites in Toronto will build the new passenger and cargo cabins, with both new eVTOL aircraft scheduled to make their first flights this summer.
Paterson previously worked with Aerovelo on the Eta speed bike and produces parts for several eVTOL and UAV makers, including The Boeing Company’s subsidiary, Aurora Flight.
The Green Revolution has begun in Canadian aviation. A lot of creative minds are now developing new electric-powered VTOL aircraft, including personal models that almost any non-pilot can fly. That’s going to make aviation more accessible and pave the way for larger commercial models in the course of time.
Kenneth I. Swartz has spent most of his career in international marketing and PR. An award-winning aviation journalist, he runs Aeromedia Communications and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org