Rodney Brooks

Robots, AI, and other stuff

Where are the crewed eVTOL videos?

I see lots of hype about eVTOLs being on the verge of being big, but I can’t find any videos of prototypes doing what the hype says will be common place by 2025.

Here is a story from November 1st, 2022, about a $352M series E financing for air taxi company Volocoptor. More about Volocoptor below. The story claims that there will be $1.5B (yes, billion) in revenue for the global air taxi market in 2025, rising to over $150B by 2035.

By ‘air taxis’ everyone seems to mean autonomous small flying machines, most likely electric powered vertical take off and landing flying machines, that can be used for short trips and commuting.  These go by the acronym eVTOL. Here, from a year ago, McKinsey experts predicted the market to be tens of billions of dollars by 2030; they also describe how someone will use such air taxis and how inclusive it will be.

If there is going to be $1.5B in revenue in 2025 from such vehicles then how many flights annually does that translate to?  I don’t think many people would pay more than $100 to commute to work one way, as that adds up to $50,000 to commute both directions everyday for a work year.  [And remember that just $1,000 will get you a flight between any two points in the continental US on an ordinary plane.] So we would need 30,000 commuters paying that price for $1.5B in revenue, or 15 million individual flights of eVTOLs by 2025. And for the number by the McKinsey experts about 200 million flights per year.

Suppose they are over optimistic by a factor of 100 (a little rounding error for technology prognosticators).  That still means 150,000 flights per year, or around 450 per day, just three years from now.  How many eVTOL flights per day are there now? Even if we go really high growth and assume the market increases by a factor of four per year (which has pretty much never happened at that rate for any technology) we should be seeing 7 flights per day right now. So world wide there should be over 2,000 flights per year, with a person in the vehicle, and approximating the flight profiles needed for commercial deployment.

That’s a lot. So shouldn’t there be some videos of them somewhere?  My best estimate is that there are actually zero such flights (at the commercial deployment stage) per day at the moment.

A week ago I asked my 27,000 twitter followers to send me links to videos with the following context:

People helped me out and sent me things they had seen on YouTube.

The closest video to what I asked for has since disappeared from YouTube in the last five days.  It was from the German company Lilium which can be read about at this wikipedia page. There are no reports there of a crewed flight, and there have been failures and redesigns. You can find a ‘B-roll’ video which is downloadable as I write this on Lilium’s news page. The direct link to that video is this, which has ‘July_2022’ in the file name. There is footage in there of the test flight shown in the now disappeared YouTube video. From this B-roll it is clearly remote crewed, and flown from the ground. Although there are pictures on the web site of what seems to be a seven seat airplane the one flying has a different door structure, and seems most likely to be a one or two seater. In the disappeared video the altitude and air speed was shown and it was less than 100km/hr, and only a couple of hundred meters up. BTW, if you watch the graphics on the home page they use $200 as their example price for a flight. Lilium has been operating since 2015 and has 800 employees, but has not yet moved a person around in an eVTOL flight.

Another twitter follower sent me a link to this five foot high test hop by Joby Aviation on September 14th, 2022. It appears that the seats are empty.

I had previously seen a tethered and crewed five foot high test hop by the company Vertical Aerospace but that YouTube video has also disappeared. That test hop happened on September 26th, 2022, according to the company’s press release.

In the twelve days between those two hops it was reported that Larry Page’s 12 year old ‘flying car’ company Kitty Hawk was shutting down. A few days later the Washington Post had a story essentially saying that if Larry Page’s pockets were not deep enough to get this technology developed then whose would be? There are a handful of videos of Kitty Hawk’s Heaviside vehicle flying (here, here, and here; they seem to share some footage), and all seem to be uncrewed, though the vehicle looks crew capable. These tests seem further along than the ones referenced above. But remember, this company has announced that it is shutting down.

And what about Volocoptor and their massive series E? They had their first crewed flight back in March 2016, in a rather fragile and ungainly vehicle. Not exactly ready for prime time commuters, but that is OK — all technology takes many steps to get to deployment. In June of this year there was a report that Volocoptor had completed three test flights of a much more practical craft ranging over 60 miles and 155mph. That is much closer to commercial viability, but even Volocoptor is saying that its first commercial flights will not be until 2026. AND, I cannot tell whether these test flights were crewed or not.

What is my conclusion?

All radically new products, and air taxi eVTOLs certainly count as radically new, require the convergence of many different capabilities and technologies. Often one or more technology will be lagging and it may take decades for them all to come together in the right place at the right time.

It took about 125 years for steam engines to get from running water pumps to revolutionizing transportation world wide with railways and a further fifty years to change sea travel. We have only had electric quadcoptors for about 20 years, starting at a small scale. It may take a few more decades for them to hit it big for human transportation. Not for lack of dedicated people trying to make it happen, but rather because it just may be that there are still quite a few components and improvements that yet need to be invented.


7 comments on “Where are the crewed eVTOL videos?”

    1. Blackfly is not trying to be an air taxi service. It requires 10 to 15 hours of training to ride in it (and pilot it). Their website has disappeared. Their promises of when these personal hobby aircraft would be available for sale have not been met. This is not the way to the revenue being promised.

      1. Thank you for this article. I don’t know when, or even if, battery technology will ever work in aviation, where energy density is so critical. Jet-A (diesel) has an energy density of about 2.7 kWh/kg and 10 kWh/L to Li-ion’s 0.3 kWh/kg and almost 0.7 kWh/L. Even taking into account the (in)efficiency of conversion of Jet A into flight energy of only 50%, battery performance needs to increase…what, 2X, 3X, more to be doable?

        Maybe hydrogen, compressed or Plasma Kinetics’ solid state hydrogen, either burning or fuel cells is a promising vector?

  1. I strongly believe the flying car will never be mainstream …

    First, it takes more than just being feasible for a tech innovation to become mainstream. It needs to be suitable and significantly more advantageous than the established tech.

    Second, does even the “grounded taxi” market reach the 1.5B dollars size now? Why having flying taxis would boost the need for taxis?

    Third, come on, let’s get down to Earth. Who pays 100 dollars everyday for going to/returning from work/school?

    I can only think of two examples where the flying car succeeded:

    Just joking … 😉

  2. Leeham News & Analysis has a series of articles on eVTOLs / VTOLs that you might be aware of, and that are an interesting read.

    This one for example discusses the lack of standardization for pilot interaction with Flight Control Systems:

    The series covers many aspects of this new technology, from operating costs to technical realities, and it’s pretty sobering 🙂

    1. These are nice videos, of vehicles flying short distances at low altitude, over water only, on a very, very, very calm and windless day. These may one day be real air taxis, but these videos are not showing what is needed for an actual commercial service. One needs long flights over densely populated areas, at altitudes of a thousand meters, and in all weather.

      The point of my post is that if, as the pundits say, electric air taxis are going to be deployed at scale in just three years then there would need to be multiple flights per day of commercial profiles already. Otherwise neither the operational bugs nor the permitting could be done in time for those predictions to be realized. And if there are those necessary flights going on already, where are the videos?

      These videos ain’t them.

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