Reprinted with permission from Neva Aerospace. Written by Robert Vergnes-Chairman & Co-Founder of Neva Aerospace
Engineers have always had a lot of fun with flying car concepts but, while most of what we see these days is CGI, we dismiss it as pure hype at our peril. There’s good science and good thinking behind it. The underlying engineering is going to change our world – just not quite in the way the popular headlines would have us believe.
Current battery technology still restricts flight time to no more than 20 minutes; we do not have agreed standards or airspace regulation in place; we do not have a certified ‘sense and avoid’ technology to enable autonomous vehicles to fly beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) of pilots and/or air traffic controllers. So we are not really expecting flying taxis in civil airspace within the next few years – but we do need to prepare for the future. The Gartner Hype Cycle has autonomous vehicles more than 10 years away, let alone flying cars.
‘Flying cars’ are just the tip of an emerging iceberg – an avatar of a strategic new technology of transportation. For transportation, they are the visible part of what PayPal co-founder and early LinkedIn and Space X investor Peter Thiel describes in his best selling book as going Zero to One. Zero to One is creating something really new, not just trying to improve or mass market something that already exists (Thiel’s “Zero to n”).
In an era where ‘high tech’ can mean little more than an App, longer-term development projects can be a hard sell to investors. Look behind the claims and predictions that are obviously hype, however, and we are witnessing, in real time, innovation that will fundamentally change our society, and will do so within our lifetime. While the well might run dry for investment in low-tech hobby drones, the potential rewards from next-generation commercial, electric and autonomous transportation are stratospheric – the smart money already knows that. Meanwhile, for civil and military users of transport technology, the implications of having no strategic view and relying on old, capital-intensive and operationally expensive vehicles are also enormous.
Transportation underpins social success
As Jeremy Rifkin reminded us as long ag as 2002 in his book The Hydrogen Economy, transport & energy are necessary for sustainable, dynamic civilisation. More efficient and affordable transport is critical for a dynamic society and the economy that supports it, and n the 21st century a pre-requisite for that is less fossil fuel consumption and much more cost-effective technologies (lower CAPEX and lower OPEX). The technology underpinning the current flying car concepts is pushing the boundaries for efficiency for all forms of movement of people and goods – it is driving the wide-reaching transport revolution that successful and secure societies need.
Don’t dismiss the development work that has already taken place – while it may not emerge as airborne Uber, this technology is laying the foundations for the future.
Distributed propulsion – the catalyst for Zero to One in electric aviation
Project teams have been trying to get a flying car off the ground for decades without success. So why should we think heavy-duty vehicles will ever fly? Well, the last 20 years have seen huge improvements in the efficiencies of BLDC (brushless DC motors); and calculators for flight controllers. Most important is our growing understanding of Distributed Propulsion. It is Distributed Propulsion (DP) that makes this a real, feasible Zero to One technology. Distributed Propulsion is not yet taught in Universities but strategists need to be aware of it.
The most accurate description so far is the one from NASA. It’s not an easy read, but it does explain how DP applies to fixed-wing aircraft, rotorcraft (helicopters) and x-wing-VTOL craft. In summary, DP is the use of many small engines to replace one or two larger ones. A quadcopter drone is a DP implementation for rotorcraft, for instance.
With modern electric BLDC motors and batteries and flight controllers modulating multiple small electric motors, DP can become a reality. And it is scalable! Developers of electric drones have embraced it, and are looking beyond the commodity hobby and camera drone market. It is these companies and their technology and service providers that are the ones to watch.
In 2009, Prf. David Brotherton-Ratcliffe, co-founder of Neva Aerospace, made a significant step forward when he conceived a flight theory for scalable 3D distributed propulsion (3DDP). By 2011, David and I, had started to popularise this as the “Axioms for 3D Distributed Propulsion” – which we now often refer to as the Axioms of Brotherton-Ratcliffe. They describe the necessary requirements for successful engineering using Distributed Propulsion.
Clearly, the move to electric DP is a Zero to One revolution. With scalable 3DDP, it’s scope is magnified. The move from old fossil-fuel twin-thermal-turbines to new electric DP is feasible for all vehicles (cars, trucks, helicopter, airplanes) which can have tens or even hundreds of electrical motors/thrusters. It improves safety, reduces CAPEX and reduces OPEX and it allows for new types of designs for transportation systems.
And the revolution has started. Already relatively low-tech drones have entered our everyday-life from small toys and cameras/survey drones (who could not have been awed and inspired by the Intel drones display that opened the 2018 Winter Olympics?) to light-professional multi-copters. The momentum is building fast and DP is being applied to wide range of transport needs. Let’s have a look at the current state of in more detail – the progress that is being made should give you pause for thought.
February 2018 saw the successful manned flight of the Ehang-184, a heavy-x8x2-multicopter (pictured). This machine is the perfect example of a rotorcraft distributed propulsion heavy multi-copter. It is also very close to the original electrical multi-copter flown by Volocopter from Germany in 2016. The flight time is probably limited around 15 minutes, but it will get better and the overall cost at some point might be less than the one of an electric car! This is very interesting from an economic and social point of view as it may change the transport landscape drastically.
The only critical hurdles delaying development of electric heavy-multi-copters are battery energy density and, for unmanned & remote piloting, a certifiable flight controller. Nevertheless, we are very close to a major shift in transport technologies.
Then, with the possibility of no more thermal helicopters, no more small but heavy and polluting airplanes requiring 50 hrs-checks, the economic arithmetic will take over. Suddenly the CAPEX will plunge by 5 times or more (20 times?) and the OPEX as well will be reduced by 6 times or may be much more (30 times?).
My view of the coming revolution
The first markets impacted will likely be ultra-light and light helicopters, and it will propagate rapidly, to ultra-light and light airplanes, and then to heavier helicopters and regional airplanes. EasyJet is already looking into such kind of design.
At the same time, DP is likely to impact other B2B markets where wheeled vehicles are used such as goods transportation within cities, construction, tractors, handlers, cranes and security, police and defence systems – and maybe some taxis, after all.
The cost cutting around maintenance (MRO) will be huge when changing from thermal engines to electric DP for aeronautics. Incumbent businesses in the small and medium sized turbines and turbo-fan markets such as Pratt & Witney, Safran/Turbomeca, GE, Bell, Airbus, Boeing, etc will see their helicopters, sub-regional and regional airplanes and turbines related businesses squeezed out in the small and medium sized markets – MTOW up to 2 tonnes at first. Their old technologies, dating back to the 1950’s will be replaced by cheaper and safer electric DP aircraft and rotorcraft. My guess is that this change will spread much more rapidly than the incumbents believe and/or could even react to.
The incumbents in the EU & US have started to wake up and seek to copy Chinese and European startups, but there seem to be more PR luck than real engineering success going on there. They have understood that the fate of their old technologies is doomed, but are they really ready or able to change sufficiently?
The status quo is on borowed time
The incumbents are a de-facto oligopoly living on thermal turbines and turbo-fan fossil fuel technologies. They have enjoyed nearly 70 years of high CAPEX sales and lucrative maintenance contracts. But this game is over.
Attempts to un-man their airplanes or helicopters are futile because they do not fundamentally change the revenue model. Operators would still need to pay high prices for MRO and have pilot(s) remotely anyway. In any case, pilot costs for helicopters or airplanes are usually less than 5% of OPEX, compared to 60% for six-figure maintenance costs, so why bother to un-man such old and expensive technology at all? Already we see several major helicopter operators are getting rid of their smallest helicopters and focussing their fleet on the heavier craft. They can see that electric multi-copters are likely to scale up to 2 tonnes MTOW soon. This MTOW will rise, but even 2 tonnes MTOW is lot of transportation!
As I said earlier, transport is the lifeblood of an economy. Faster, cheaper, more flexible transport is an all-around win, reducing infrastructure costs (road, rail, etc…) as planners grapple with a growing and increasingly dense urban populations. We know well that change can happen fast as soon as it becomes is economically viable – that time is coming for electric aviation.
In the defense sector the shift to electric distributed propulsion is going to be shock and awe for the incumbents. A Boeing AH-64 Apache costs around $14M, an Ehang-184 could probably go now probably for less than $1M. That’s 14 Ehang-184s for the price of 1 AH-64, without the expensive maintenance.
As prices of electric heavy-multi-copters will go down, a military force could have 50 to 100 times more helicopters flying for the same budget as one old thermal helicopter!
You don’t need to be a military strategist to see the threat posed by tens of thousands of cheap, small, electrical armed helicopters. Unmanned and cheap, they will be almost as disposable as a missile. Conventional craft will be easy prey on the battlefield for masses of heavy-multi-copters. The main factor that is stopping this scenario from becoming true tomorrow is battery technology and that, too, is fast moving.
Meanwhile, it seems that the short-term focus for NATO remains on atomic submarines and other ultra-expensive armaments from another age. Whatever the future for NATO, for the Eurocorps and national armies, the electric aviation revolution, manned and unmanned, is a threat that needs to be addressed.
Equally worrying is the balance of knowledge power. Boeing and Airbus are far behind the Chinese on DP, as their recent prototypes of heavy multi-copters shows. As of February 2018, the Airbus Vahana maiden flight was just 53sec, not a fact Boeing was keen to share. Astonishingly, they had missed the fact that distributed propulsion has different laws than the usual aero-design they are used to.
What must we do?
To recap: the “flying cars” trend is just the tip of an emerging iceberg of a much more strategic field: Distributed Propulsion (DP). DP is a new technology of transportation for defence and civilian uses. It will have massive impact on our civilisation and has the potential to change the balance of power between count ries (right now China has a clear lead) and to empower illicit non-governmental organisations, organised crime and terrorism. I have been advocating these views for long time already and today I hope NATO strategists will open their eyes to the fact that electric DP is not just about pretty flying cars. It is of massive strategic importance – too important to be left to the consumer PR hype cycle.
Right now, I meet a lot of entrepreneurs, usually with modern Palo-Alto-T-shirt-look, who nevertheless still think of aero-design and markets the old way. For them it is just a gold rush and they seem to have very poor real understanding of what they deal with technically, economically and politically. Their outlook is Thiel’s “0 to n.”
I advise them to read NASA’s work on distributed propulsion first, then Neva Aerospace’s work on 3D distributed propulsion. Then make sure they re-read the history of VTOL starting with the Moller flying car back in 1980. Finally, they should ask themselves why Volocopter and Ehang are the only one to really fly properly today.
The big issue is the DP driving down the cost of aerial transportation, and the revolution is imminent in our globalised economy. Europe and North America risk being left behind with nothing but a few CGI concepts and PR stunts, while the spoils go to the countries with governments, militaries and entrepreneurs that dared to go from “0 to 1”.
Robert Vergnes is co-founder and chairman of the Neva Aerospace European consortium. Neva focusses its R&D on 3D distributed propulsion and electric turbines – which components of any DP-powered vehicle.
You can find out more info about this DP technology by visiting my Neva Aerospace page at http://uavpropulsiontech.com/neva. If you have any questions regarding these solutions, please call or email me at: email@example.com. PH: +1 (810) 441-1457
Key UAV News for the Week:
Industry Events for April/May:
- SPIE Defense + Commercial Sensing, APR 15-19, Orlando, FL-USA, www.spie.org
- Global Robot Expo, APR 18-20, Madrid, Spain, http://www.globalrobotexpo.com
- Military Robotics and Autonomous Systems, APR 25/26, London, England, www.smi-online.co.uk
- AUVSI’s Xponential, APR 30-May 3, Denver, CO-USA, https://www.xponential.org/
- Uber Elevate, MAY 8/9, Los Angeles, CA-USA, https://www.uber.com/info/elevate/
- SOFIC, MAY 21-24, Tampa, FL-USA, http://www.sofic.org/
- Unmanned Marine Systems, May 16/27, London, England, http://www.smi-online.co.uk/
Quote for the week:
“Dreams have always expanded our understanding of reality by challenging our boundaries of the real, of the possible.” – Henry Reed
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