Joby, Volocopter demonstrated their aircraft over the East River, but will that help win public acceptance?
By Paul Brinkmann|November 17, 2023
New York City leaders promise less noise pollution, emissions, through shift to electric rotorcraft
There are at least two views about the piloted demonstration flights that air taxi developers Joby Aviation and Volocopter performed over New York City’s East River on Monday in a press and VIP event hosted by Mayor Eric Adams and livestreamed on X, formerly Twitter.
Richard Aboulafia of the Michigan-based AeroDynamic Advisory consultancy described the demonstrations as “irresistible catnip for politicians” and added, “I don’t see how it means anything.”
“Helicopter flights have been available for some time in the New York area,” he noted by email, predicting that the coming electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft will reduce fares by “maybe only by 15 percent.”
The other view is a less dim one.
“Overall, I think all public flights are important as they help build public understanding and further public perception” of electric air taxis, said Robin Riedel, an analyst with the New York-based McKinsey firm, by email.
A decrease in noise topped the list of characteristics that officials from the city government and executives from Joby of California and Volocopter of Germany sought to highlight.
The goal is to shift from conventional helicopters to electric rotorcraft and create a “cleaner, greener and quieter New York,” said Andrew Kimball, president and CEO of the New York City Economic Development Corp.
First to fly was Joby’s S4 prototype. Some meters beyond the lectern where Kimball and Adams spoke, the aircraft’s six rotors began to whirl with a soft hum, and the aircraft lifted off from the Downtown Manhattan Heliport.
“We’re able to tune the acoustic signature such that it can blend into the background, so instead of the low-frequency wop, wop of the helicopters that travels for miles and penetrates buildings, the acoustic signature of our aircraft blends in the background,” Joby CEO JoeBen Bevirt told the crowd in a normal voice over a microphone, as the aircraft lifted away over the East River, where it was joined by an FAA-required chase helicopter.
Following Joby’s flight, Volocopter’s 2X prototype spun up the blades on its circular rotor rim. As the aircraft flew away from the heliport, Volocopter Managing Director Christian Bauer noted that it was no longer audible. “So basically, when we are around 100-meter distance, you will not hear it at all,” he said.
New York City officials used the event to announce a plan to install electric charging stations at the downtown heliport and the second city-owned heliport on East 34th Street.
While helicopters have ferried passengers around the New York metro area for decades, the city has fielded frequent noise complaints about them. After a deadly accident in 1977, the city reportedly limited helicopter to flying to and from heliports located safely away from buildings, rather than permitting them to operate from rooftop helipads. In the accident, five were killed when a Sikorsky S-61L’s landing gear collapsed atop the Pan Am Building (now called MetLife Building). A rotor blade detached, striking passengers waiting to board and one person at street level where the fractured blade fell.
Joby described its flight as the “first ever electric air taxi flight in the city and the first time Joby has flown in an urban setting.”
The company expects flights from Manhattan to John F. Kennedy International Airport to be among its first routes under a partnership with Delta Air Lines. Joby’s Eric Allison told me the fare for the route will be equivalent to that of an Uber Black. Today, that fare came up as $110 when I checked the Uber app. Joby aims to receive an FAA type certificate for the S4 design by the end of 2024, with passenger flights beginning in 2025.
Volocopter plans to earn a type certificate in Europe in 2024 and plans to be ready to operate in New York City in 2025, Bauer said during the event.
Along with aircraft from Joby and Volocopter, Vermont air taxi developer BETA Technologies provided an electric aircraft charging station for display at the event. Kimball, the development corporation chief, said the station “is the type of infrastructure that will be deployed at heliports to support electric aircraft.”