While many eVTOL aircraft developers are building two, four and in Lilium’s case – seven-seater aircraft – a New York startup has unveiled its own model which will be capable of transporting 40 passengers.
Kelekona says it will provide a different class of eVTOL with an approach to mass transit. The model has eight thrust vectoring fans with variable pitch propellers for each stage of flight and has an incredible payload of 10,000lbs (4,540kg).
Speaking to eVTOL Insights, Braeden Kelekona said he found there was a ‘vast opportunity’ in late 2015 to scale up this type of technology for the aviation and aerospace sectors.
He said: “We decided to start with, in our opinion, the most important part of the aircraft: the battery. We’re all playing with the same energy density and relatively using the same cells depending on which lithium ion cell you’re using. I’m strictly talking about eVTOLs here.
“So we started with the battery and decided to build what’s known as a “flying battery”. We realised it was important to start with the battery, not create an interesting looking aircraft and then figure out how to fit a battery inside that airframe. We set out to build a flying battery and put things on top of that battery pack.
“By doing so, we have a 70 per cent battery to total weight ratio. We’re really hoping to hit the 80 per cent mark there but what this allows you to do is very different from other competitors in the space. It allows us not only greater energy availability, but it gives us greater performance and endurance.”
For an aircraft of this size, it’s going to need an incredible amount of power from battery packs. Kelekona says it will be addressing this by making its entire battery pack swappable, to minimise turnaround time when flying between cities. A video on its website shows the aircraft has a rollable section underneath to allow for the packs to be replaced in between flights.
Braeden said: “The sweet spot we’re looking at right now is a 3.6 megawatt hour pack, so it’s quite a lot of power and vastly different from anyone else in the space. We really do mean that we took a different approach by setting out to design a flying battery.
“When you break down all the components of our aircraft, nothing’s necessarily new. We’re not here creating new cells or a new form of propulsion; all the tech is very familiar to our engineers and we feel we’re just packaging it all together in a novel way. We use lithium ion cells, those cells form bricks and those bricks form modules and which makes up our swappable battery pack.
“It was important for us to be able to minimise turnaround time and so we decided to build the airframe on top of that [rollable battery pack]. We aim to swap the battery in and out at the same time it takes for passengers to board and de-board, which is about five minutes.”
In terms of achieving long distances, Kelekona says its eVTOL aircraft can make trips from London to Paris, Los Angeles to San Francisco and New York to Washington D.C in an hour. Braeden added that by utilizing that swappable battery, his company can start making hub-to-hub flights more accessible. Examples include Berlin to Frankfurt, Barcelona to Madrid, Munich to Berlin and Oslo to Stockholm.
A combination of stereo cameras and radar also gives Kelekona’s aircraft 100 miles of added environmental awareness for detect-and-avoid operations from unknown aircraft, birdstrike, weather anomalies and unchartered physical infrastructure.
The company is currently in its second round of funding and estimated it could begin test flights next year, starting off with indoor propulsion tests and then working with the FAA to do some limited range flying outside.
When asked what impact this type of technology can have on the market, Braeden said: “What we’re really hoping to do by taking the approach of mass transit is bring down the ticket price, not only for passengers but for cargo as well. That’s where we’re mainly focused, especially with the current landscape of certification process here in the US with the FAA, which will carry over to the EASA and the other regulatory agencies in Europe.
“We believe that by starting with this flying battery approach, we’re able to get more passengers on which makes the ticket price more accessible. It was important for us as a New York City startup to really look at the everyday person. I take public transportation and we have an amazing system here, from our subways to our buses, ferries and trains.
“Not everyone can afford to travel in a two to six-passenger aircraft. One of Blade’s main helicopter routes is from here to the Hamptons and the ticket price can reach about $800. We’re really hoping to bring the price down to more in the $85 range, so your average person who is paying for a train ticket could just as easily take our aircraft, but at a fraction of the time.”
Kelekona already has a planned roadmap to service, saying it hopes to be operational by 2024, with Braeden adding: “I think more than anything, it really depends on our relationship with FAA as we work closely with them to make sure we are meeting all the requirements. But by the end of next year, we hope to start beginning our cargo routes. That’s something which is a lot more feasible in terms of generating revenue in the short term.
“This is something we’re really focused on and excited about. We’re working with a couple of global logistics companies in the USA and will be testing a few routes before we move internationally. Since we have a large payload, we’re able to help these customers streamline what’s known as “mid-mile corridors”, connecting warehouses or airport hubs. We can transport up to 12 L9N or 24 LD3 containers so it’s quite a lot of space. For those who are well versed in this sector, you can really start to see how much of an impact we can make.”
Another important industry topic is infrastructure, and Braeden has said this is something which is ‘one of the biggest things going for the aircraft’, as it can fit on a normal helipad.
“We really want to utilise the airports in the USA, as we have so many. The smaller ones are being underused so being able to fit on a normal apron or helipad was important. We have three helipads here in Manhattan alone, and I think the smallest ones are 44ft in diameter. That really reduces the need for new infrastructure, which is very costly when you compare other forms of transportation.”
For more information about Kelekona, visit https://www.kelekona.com/