By Paul Brinkmann|November 2022
Dirk Hoke, CEO of Volocopter
Dirk Hoke has worked in Africa, China and Europe, and once ran one of the largest business sectors in the world, Airbus Defence and Space, which has 40,000 employees and $10 billion in annual revenue. Now, he runs Volocopter, a 700-employee company with no revenue yet from operating its planned fleet of an unspecified number of air taxis. Hoke’s cosmopolitan worldview might be just the match for Volocopter, which aims to draw the eyes of the world by flying its VoloCity aircraft during the Summer Olympics in Paris in 2024. Here is our conversation, lightly edited for readability.
Q: Tell us about Volocopter’s timeline for achieving certification and offering flights during the 2024 Olympics. Is it achievable?
A: I can tell you everyone at Volocopter stands up in the morning fully energized and motivated to drive toward that goal. I have to finish all my analytics to tell you how reliably this can be achieved, so this is too early to give you my five cents on it, but this is the target, and we will drive for it. I still believe that Volocopter is ahead of the crowd in this certification process, so it’s definitely a target to achieve type certification in 2024 and to fly during the French Olympics. But, I believe that we [in the industry] must all work together toward the same goal, that we are not really competitors because it’s about opening a totally new market, adding a new modality to the way we all can go from point A to B. This is, I think, what keeps us up at night, what the people are energized and motivated to work for, and I’m totally excited to be part of the team now.
Q: Are we talking about a few demonstration flights, or are you able to offer regular passenger flights? Will you be transporting athletes?
A: This is a partnership with our French partners, so they have predefined routes that will be part of that service. But of course, the exact operational mode will depend on Volocopter’s type certificate and license to operate. This will be finalized in due time before the Olympics.
Q: You’ve said demonstrating safety and ensuring public acceptance are keys to success. What is your plan to make that happen?
A: Aerospace has been built on trust, and that requires creating clear certification processes and safety rules to develop vehicles that can fly over houses and people with full confidence. This has been demonstrated over more than 100 years, and the trust of the people was created by ensuring that any kind of vehicle flying has been certified against these rules. To build on that trust, we need to ensure that we follow the same rules. So it’s not a question of whether we have the coolest design or coolest technology on board, but that we also certify against the same rules. This is, I think, one of the strong points of Volocopter. When I looked at the company, I was convinced that this is the base of future success because Volocopter has worked, from very early days, very closely with certification parties in Europe and elsewhere to ensure that the design is something that can be certified afterward.
Q: What is especially safe or reliable about Volocopter’s multicopter design?
A: I just spoke yesterday with one of the founders, Stephan Wolf, about this. They started with the very simple idea that we saw when toy drones were introduced in the market: the multicopter design.
[Volocopter is one of a small number of electric passenger aircraft developers pursuing a multicopter, a design that relies on multiple variable speed rotors — 18 in Volocopter’s case — to lift and maneuver. Others using this basic approach are China-based EHang and Jetson Aero of Sweden. Multicopters are an alternative to lift-plus-cruise designs that have separate rotors for lift and for forward motion, and to tiltrotors that pivot their rotors or engines to provide forward motion. — PB]
They thought that this design has a lot of advantages, and why should that not work for larger drones, either for cargo or personal transportation? So this was the original idea, that the multicopter is easier to pilot than a helicopter on a smaller scale. If you’ve ever flown a toy helicopter, that’s quite a challenge, not something you just pick up and do it right. You need practice and training. But with a multicopter, you can pick it up and you can fly it; little kids can fly it. Over the past few years, it’s been an evolution and learning through different phases of the development, building additional knowledge and then letting that flow into design and development phases. But I think the advantage is using the simplification of the multicopter principle — having more stability, being easier to fly and providing that map toward autonomous transportation eventually. Of course, at first, we are flying with a pilot, because this is the faster way to get to certification and revenues.
Q: What are the biggest challenges the company faces in providing a scalable, safe electric aircraft?
A: We have a timeline that is very challenging to certify and get ready for flight. The Olympics in 2024 is a challenge in itself. It’s a challenge on competencies. It’s a challenge on resources. We’re currently working on what we call our B model, which is what we use for the certification process before we start, let’s say, the production of the C model, which will be the serial product. So we have a step-by-step approach to make sure that we can achieve those things in a short time frame. We are growing very fast. We have hired a lot of people in the last 12 months, increasing our flight test teams and of course the engineering team, and getting prepared for the new production, building our first reference factory. We have a very diverse team from 59 nations. We have highly qualified people coming from all different backgrounds and companies. That diversity leads to a more successful solution because you have to engage to see the different opinions and learnings and the different backgrounds. Such diversity may require a few more discussions to make decisions than some teams would take, but you also make sure you aren’t taking the easy solution because you look from different angles and backgrounds at the topic.
Q: What concerns do you have about the concurrent validations Volocopter is pursuing? Are you hoping to get more clarity soon from FAA about its certification process for vertical-lift aircraft?
A: We are actually focused on our partnerships in Europe and Asia first, where we have partnerships with 40 cities, but none in North America yet. We are also involved, of course, in the certification process with FAA, and we still expect that there will be more clarification coming. I think it will not be the final status, and we will follow that discussion very closely. But as I said, we follow right now the certification process primarily with EASA [European Union Aviation Safety Agency] and keep it closely linked toward the FAA certification process.
Q: How is Volocopter handling the critical battery technology required for a successful electric passenger aircraft?
A: We have a partner for the cells, but we do the packaging and battery management system ourselves. And we use our own core intellectual property to integrate the battery system into the vehicle. Everything you’ve read so far on targets regarding range and distances and speeds has been based on the current battery technologies. The good news is all future battery technology will be an upside on the existing limits. We see a strong push for sustainability, especially in the automotive industry for electric cars, which will definitely lead to new innovations — replacing rare earth materials, for example. However, battery weight is much more critical for aircraft, and that is why design of batteries is more challenging in aviation. And that’s why only a few companies in the world are specialized to produce the battery cells for the aerospace industry.
Q: Regarding supply chain issues, is Volocopter actively engaged and trying to build up a supply chain in Europe, Singapore or elsewhere?
A: Right now, we do the design and development in Europe, which also means that mostly we concentrate on European suppliers, but not exclusively. When we expand in the future toward Asia and then to the U.S., we will definitely look at local production and the local supply chain. We will have our first factory, our reference factory here in southwest Germany in this manufacturing hub.
[The Baden-Württemberg region around Stuttgart is home to Mercedes-Benz Group and Porsche. – PB]
Q: You’ve had a career spanning continents from China to Morocco and Germany, of course. How has that shaped you as an executive and a person?
A: As our family was growing, our kids grew up in Beijing and Casablanca. I was also the first-ever CEO for all Siemens African operations and created a new Africa story and strategy. It was quite a complicated setup, as my headquarters were in Johannesburg and my family in Casablanca. In order to travel, I had to first go to Europe and then you can travel to South Africa. So it was a complicated time and challenging, but also very rewarding and a good learning experience.