Transformational flight business ramps up with mergers and purchase orders

The Transformational Flight Integration Committee serves as a focal point for a community of practice engaged in technical, business and societal issues associated with transformational approaches to on-demand air mobility enabled by the convergence of advanced technologies.

The year began with a realignment in the urban air mobility ecosystem as Joby Aviation of California completed its acquisition of Uber’s Elevate initiative, consistent with an agreement announced in December 2020. The deal reshaped the UAM sector as Elevate transitioned from serving as a catalyst for many vehicle developers to being absorbed by one.

At the beginning of the year, multiple advanced air mobility aircraft developers announced plans to raise capital and become listed on public stock exchanges by merging with special purpose acquisition companies. Joby, U.K.-based Vertical Aerospace, Germany-based Lilium and California-based Archer announced mergers. Many of these deals were supported by aircraft purchase agreements from passenger and cargo airlines, as well as UAM operators. These agreements are typically conditional on type and production certification. As of September, Joby completed its merger and is listed on the New York Stock Exchange, having raised $1.6 billion.

In February, two companies conducted demonstrations of autonomy stacks they are developing for conventional and AAM aircraft with the goal of certifying cargo aircraft that are remotely supervised from an operations center. San Francisco-based Xwing completed a gate-to-gate demonstration of a modified Cessna Caravan autonomous cargo aircraft. Based in part on the flight, Xwing raised $40 million. At nearly the same time, Reliable Robotics of California completed a series of remotely supervised test flights, also using a modified Caravan. Reliable Robotics previously announced a partnership with FedEx to develop and certify autonomous cargo aircraft over several years.

The regional air mobility market gained prominence this year. In April, NASA released a white paper co-written by 21 researchers in government, industry and academia laying out a vision for RAM. In February, an acquisition of Ampaire, a California electric aircraft developer, by the subscription-based operator Surf Air was announced. Swedish startup Heart Aerospace, which is developing a 19-seat electric aircraft, received conditional orders for 100 aircraft from United Airlines, and Israeli company Eviation unveiled a new design for its nine-passenger Alice aircraft along with orders from DHL in July.

In May, “NOVA” on PBS premiered an episode titled “Great Electric Airplane Race,” documenting the motivations, challenges and progress toward developing practical electric aircraft, with an emphasis on AAM. This episode is evidence of the growing public interest and awareness of transformational flight activities. In July, Volocopter, based in Germany, announced the purchase of composite sailplane manufacturer DG Flugzeugbau’s manufacturing operation. The acquisition enhances Volocopter’s ability to bring its multicopter to market by leveraging DG Flugzeugbau’s production organization approval.

In July, Vermont-based Beta Technologies and Joby Aviation conducted long-distance test flights of their electric aircraft prototypes. Beta’s Alia aircraft flew 330 kilometers in its conventional aircraft configuration with an onboard pilot. Although designed as an eVTOL aircraft, the flight was performed with the vertical lift system removed, resulting in weight and drag reductions. Joby’s prototype of its S4 aircraft completed a flight of 247 km, including vertical takeoff and landing segments. While the production S4 is designed for an onboard pilot, the test flight was remotely piloted.

NASA’s Advanced Air Mobility National Campaign series hosted its first eVTOL flights with the Joby S4 prototype aircraft, completing acoustic measurement scenarios in August and September. The flights resulted in the first known high-resolution acoustic measurements of an eVTOL aircraft in hover and low-speed flight and will be used to inform noise modeling and eVTOL certification requirements.

Transformational flight business ramps up with mergers and purchase orders