Following Archer’s exciting announcement in going public as part of a joint SPAC merger with Atlas Crest Investment Corp, we spoke to Tom Muniz and Geoff Bower – Archer’s VP of Engineering and Chief Engineer respectively – about its eVTOL aircraft.
Archer’s engineering team has amassed an incredible amount of experience in the eVTOL space – more than 200 years – after previous roles at companies such as Airbus, Joby Aviation and Wisk. Archer’s aircraft will travel at 60 miles at speeds of 150mph – with no single point of failure – and a full-scale version is set to be revealed later this year.
eVTOL Insights spoke with both Tom and Geoff to get an idea about the company’s work so far.
Q: With so many eVTOL aircraft developers already in the market, can you tell me more about Archer’s design and where you think it can have the greatest value?
Tom Muniz: “It’s a really interesting story where a lot of us have been working on these vehicles for a while. I think, both in Geoff’s case and mine, we’ve built five different full-scale vehicles in the past so there’s this great opportunity to leverage the lessons learned at a high level.
“The other really unique and powerful thing about Archer is that the company has a unique culture where everything is focused on building the right product, to go do something really meaningful and add value to people’s lives and not just push technology for technology’s sake. We’re building a really cool product with a great business case around it.
“So when it comes to aeroplane design, we were very pragmatic. We laid out all of the potential configuration pros and cons and did a relatively detailed, multi-disciplinary analysis. And I think what we’ve zeroed in on is something that has good performance, but will have a relatively straightforward path through certification, leveraging traditional manufacturing processes and techniques. Everything is just about getting an aeroplane out of the door and certified.”
Geoff Bower: “On the vehicle design side, I don’t think there’s an obvious ‘best configuration’. There are probably quite a few that will work. We have one we really like and know from past experience which features are challenging and that we want to avoid.
“There are a lot of designs that obviously don’t work. Although maybe not so obviously because there are still people out there pursuing them. We’re really taking a pragmatic approach, focused on the right balance, and simplicity to get through certification.
Q: You mentioned about leveraging lessons learnt in the past. Are you able to disclose what they were in particular, from your time at other companies in the eVTOL space?
GB: “There’s definitely the right trade off between disk loading and wing loading, that’s a really important one. But I think that gets back one step to the business case. And what’s really required in terms of payload, range and speed.
“We believe that you need a reasonable range, say 40 to 60 miles to address really interesting trips. Most of your flights will probably be a little bit shorter than that, somewhere in the 20 to 30-mile range, but you don’t want to necessarily be using the full battery every flight.
“And then speed is important. Because ultimately what we’re doing is selling people their time back, the goal is to reduce transportation times. So you need to fly reasonably fast. There’s a question of exactly how fast, but it’s pretty obvious that if you’re flying the speeds of cars, it doesn’t make sense. If you’re trying to push it to 200-300 miles per hour there’s diminishing returns.”
TM: “The other lesson learned from the past is that it’s much more efficient to engage with the regulator from the very beginning, and have the certification path coming together as your aeroplane design can still adapt and come together with it.
“Trying to take an aeroplane and shove it into a box with a regulator is a pretty challenging thing to do. So, our approach has been like Geoff said, to really think about the business case and why we’re making the trades that we’re making.
“But then also think about it in terms of what the regulatory constraints are going to be, and make sure we’re not doing something that we’ll end up needing to undo or modify later. I think that’s a key thing here.”
Q: We’re entering the start of a really exciting time for electric aviation. How excited are you, given all your previous experience, to be with Archer and building an aircraft that will play a key role in the future of mobility?
GB: “Yeah, it’s super exciting. As Tom said we’ve both been doing this for about 10 years now, so to be on the cusp of actually having a product that we can get into people’s hands is really exciting. And the team we’ve put together at Archer is probably the part that I’m most excited about.
“Working with all these super experienced and knowledgeable folks every day, trying to bring people in from diverse backgrounds to really show us the best design and the best way to get to market.”
TM: “I think the other thing that comes to mind is that the public hasn’t really seen a lot of the development work that’s happened over the last decade, so looking forward to the next five or 10 years it should be really exciting seeing programmes turned from technology development into, hopefully in the near future, certified aircraft that people can engage with and use. It’s a super exciting point in the industry.”
Q: On the topic of the public, how important is it that we get this public acceptance right from the start?
GB: “I think it is vital. Safety is an obvious point, but the other one is the acoustic signature and footprint. One of the major impediments to helicopter operations in urban areas today is the noise impact, so both are things we’re obviously very heavily focused on.”
TM: “And then I’d add cost as another significant factor. If these vehicles are so expensive that they’re not accessible to the majority of the population, then I think it’s going to be tough to get a wide acceptance. We’ve all probably flown on a helicopter one or two times in our entire life. Why? Because they’re outrageously expensive. So I think it’s really important that it is affordable to fly in these vehicles, and I think they can be operated at very reasonable costs long term.”
Q: How are developments coming along with your Archer’s aircraft, and do you have a planned certification route?
TM: “We’re in the final integration stage of our full scale demonstrator aircraft, which will be unveiled in a public event coming up in a few months. Then we’ll fly that vehicle for the first time later this year.
“In parallel with that, we’re working really closely with the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] to finalise the certification basis for our product vehicle. We’re planning to certify as a Part 23 aeroplane under Amendment 64 and then we’ll launch into the detailed design effort for that later in the year as well. So there is a lot going on.”
Q: When coming together to build Archer’s aircraft, what were the main ideas that wanted to achieve?
GB: “In addition to the performance, we think it’s important to have a really strong customer focus. So we’ve been thinking hard about things like ingress and egress and the cabin interior.
“If you look at some of the concepts out there, these are things where there probably hasn’t been a ton of effort and they are going to be vital in gaining public acceptance and having people be really comfortable around these aircraft. We’ve put quite a lot of work into the aesthetic design and understanding the ergonomics of being in and around the aircraft.”
TM: “From a pure airplane design perspective, we talked about some of the trades i.e. you need enough range to make the mission useful, enough airspeed speed to save people time and it has to be done at a relatively low cost, which means your plane needs to be relatively simple.
“And then when we lay out all of the configuration options, it’s really a matter of designing a vehicle that’s efficient in all phases of flight. So as Geoff said earlier, having enough disk area for reasonable hover and take-off and landing performance. But then low enough drag in cruise so you can get reasonable range, so that pushes you in a particular way in the design space and makes certain designs more challenging.”
GB: “The fundamental challenge of eVTOL design in my mind is that you need enough disk area for hover, and then you either need to use it in cruise or get it into a low drag state and out of the way. I think we have the right balance of those.”
Q: It’s brilliant that you’re building the next generation of aircraft and you’re clearly very passionate about what you do. What do you enjoy the most about it?
TM: “I think aeroplanes are very interesting because it’s this multidisciplinary optimisation problem, where to make good aeroplanes lots of competing priorities need to be balanced in order to get an optimal solution.
“And in our case, since the vehicle is electric, that means you now have to add in the battery and powertrain trades – in addition to the aero performance and structure trades. Noise is another trade, so if you want to be able to go quieter it’s going to be heavier and have worse performance.
“So you have all these knobs which you can turn to explore the infinite number of solutions. Thinking about it holistically and coupling it with the right use case, it’s this really fascinating design problem. As Geoff said, I don’t think there’s any one answer. And it’s up to people to make good decisions and help identify where we should be.”
Q: And finally, are you able to expand on the safety case for Archer’s eVTOL aircraft?
GB: “We’ve put on an intense amount of effort into the architecture of the aeroplane and the systems to meet a high level of safety. It’s really not as simple as adding redundancy; having extra motors doesn’t equal safer, necessarily. So there are a lot of details in the design that if you’re not looking for them, you may not know why they’re there.
“A lot of design decisions are really driven by the safety case. For example, the details of the fly-by-wire flight control system, the high voltage system, the electric propulsion system architecture – there’s a lot of really interesting stuff in there. I won’t go into too much detail on it other than to say those are really where we focus a lot of our efforts.”