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:
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.
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.