A Reed Smith LLP Commentary — Learn to fly: eVTOLs and autonomous flight

By Richard Hakes and Ash­leigh Standen, Reed Smith LLP

“Fly along with me,” sings Dave Grohl, “I can’t quite make it alone.” We can imag­ine eVTOL devel­op­ers singing along to this as they work towards autonomous flight, as so many of the vehi­cle mod­els will have to com­mence oper­a­tions – how­ev­er briefly – with a pilot onboard.

But the ulti­mate via­bil­i­ty of the eVTOL propo­si­tion relies in no small part on achiev­ing cer­ti­fi­ca­tion for (and con­fi­dence in) autonomous flight as quick­ly as pos­si­ble. It will take time for avi­a­tion author­i­ties, local coun­cils and the trav­el­ling pub­lic to get com­fort­able with this, but the eco­nom­ic real­i­ty is that the indus­try will only be able to oper­ate at a sus­tain­able scale if each vehicle’s full capac­i­ty is avail­able for pay­ing pas­sen­gers or rev­enue-gen­er­at­ing car­go.

We need to find a way to facil­i­tate safe pilot-free flight while also man­ag­ing the tech­no­log­i­cal and oper­a­tional chal­lenges autonomous flight presents – as Dave sings, hook me up a new rev­o­lu­tion.

So what might this new rev­o­lu­tion look like? Per­haps appro­pri­ate­ly, we can look to live music, which is lead­ing the way in using the meta­verse to sim­u­late phys­i­cal pres­ence with­out actu­al­ly requir­ing it. Ari­ana Grande used Fort­nite as a venue last year, and it seems only a mat­ter of time before the Tupac holo­gram from 2012 is reborn.

Would we go to a Rolling Stones con­cert to see an avatar of Char­lie Watts play, or a Foo Fight­ers gig to see Tay­lor Hawkins behind the kit? Absolute­ly. The pos­si­bil­i­ties seem end­less.

This tech­nol­o­gy could offer a huge oppor­tu­ni­ty in the eVTOL sec­tor by remov­ing the need for phys­i­cal pres­ence, just as effec­tive­ly as it can aug­ment live music by sim­u­lat­ing it. If ABBA can per­form on stage in Lon­don from any­where in the world via avatar, it is not much of a stretch to imag­ine eVTOL pilots doing the same thing. We would sug­gest there are quite a few ways in which remote­ly-pilot­ed or qua­si-autonomous air­craft could enrich and add real val­ue to the eVTOL ecosys­tem as we build it out. For exam­ple:

Eco­nom­ic ben­e­fits

Remov­ing the pilot from an eVTOL’s pay­load would have mean­ing­ful eco­nom­ic ben­e­fits for the oper­a­tor. If the pilot can fly a vehi­cle remote­ly rather than from on board, then the pay­ing pas­sen­ger capac­i­ty expands. The Lil­i­um, Ver­ti­cal Aero­space, Volo­copter, Joby, Archer, Wisk, CityAir­bus, Eve and EHang mod­els all fac­tor in a pilot at launch, and for a four-seat eVTOL (just as an exam­ple), remov­ing the pilot would rep­re­sent an imme­di­ate 25 per cent improve­ment in return for the oper­a­tor and would enable the indus­try to reach eco­nom­ic sus­tain­abil­i­ty soon­er, even before com­plete auton­o­my of flight is achieved.

Geo­graph­ic ben­e­fits

Pilots oper­at­ing eVTOL air­craft remote­ly could do so from any geo­graph­ic loca­tion, so an oper­at­ing com­pa­ny with an order for, say, 200 eVTOL air­craft to be used in a cer­tain city, will not also have to iden­ti­fy, recruit and train 200 new pilots in that same lim­it­ed area. There is already a pilot short­age, so this would huge­ly increase the options avail­able to oper­a­tors, and expand the reach of employ­ment oppor­tu­ni­ties avail­able to pilots glob­al­ly.

Train­ing and Cer­ti­fi­ca­tion ben­e­fits

Pilot train­ing and cer­ti­fi­ca­tion could be con­duct­ed (in large part) in sim­u­la­tors, enabling them to do their prac­ti­cal assess­ments in the Meta­verse, and which can be cen­tralised and stan­dard­ised for all reg­u­la­to­ry author­i­ties.

If the con­di­tions in the oper­at­ing loca­tion are repli­cat­ed accu­rate­ly such that a pilot in any loca­tion can oper­ate it safe­ly, pilots could train to oper­ate these vehi­cles in places far removed from their own. It might be pos­si­ble, for exam­ple, to over­lay a Google Earth-style func­tion­al­i­ty on top of the vir­tu­al repli­ca of the land­scape, includ­ing mark­ing safe glide paths for use in the event of a mal­func­tion and the ‘obsta­cle free vol­ume’ area stip­u­lat­ed for each ver­ti­port (as pro­posed by EASA’s Pro­to­type Tech­ni­cal Design Spec­i­fi­ca­tions for Ver­ti­ports).

This would need to be sup­ple­ment­ed in real time by each vehicle’s cam­eras and oth­er sen­sors (to deal with, for exam­ple, the cranes that are per­pet­u­al­ly in motion over London’s con­struc­tion sites, or where the day’s weath­er is hav­ing an impact). This might also mean that a cus­tomer book­ing an eVTOL flight would be able to see the pro­file of their allo­cat­ed pilot, which could include their train­ing and cer­ti­fi­ca­tion sta­tus for peace of mind.

These are mean­ing­ful ben­e­fits which would make real changes to an operator’s bot­tom line. Even if we ‘can’t quite make it alone’ on day one, tak­ing the oppor­tu­ni­ty to build eVTOL sup­port infra­struc­ture such that the vehi­cles can be oper­at­ed remote­ly from the out­set rather than retro­fitting it lat­er will no doubt sig­nif­i­cant­ly improve the eVTOL val­ue propo­si­tion and increase the returns for the industry’s many play­ers and investors from day one, increas­ing its suc­cess and longevi­ty. There’s the new rev­o­lu­tion.

From L‑R: Richard Hakes and Ash­leigh Standen from Reed Smith LLP.

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Jason Pritchard

Jason Pritchard is the Editor of eVTOL Insights. He holds a BA from Leicester's De Montfort University and has worked in Journalism and Public Relations for more than a decade. Outside of work, Jason enjoys playing and watching football and golf. He also has a keen interest in Ancient Egypt.

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