June 6, 2023
Aviation is changing. Small electric aircraft promise a future filled with accessible, affordable, and environmentally sustainable short-distance flights. But the future of flight won’t arrive on its own. Aviation companies, investors, and the U.S. Department of Defense are pouring resources into the development of these electric takeoff and landing (eVTOL) vehicles, and they will need leading-edge engineering technology to help them realize their visions.
eVTOL vehicles, as their name indicates, are small aircraft that take off vertically and are powered by sustainable electric propulsion systems.
When we think of what it means to “take a flight,” we may first imagine boarding a large commercial aircraft or even a private jet. But eVTOL vehicles are poised to change that by offering a revolutionary mode of aerial mobility that can alleviate traffic congestion, enhance urban connectivity, and provide quick access to difficult-to-reach locations.
eVTOLs represent a significant portion of the growing advanced air mobility (AAM) sector, which focuses on transporting people and goods over short distances (roughly 150 nautical miles). According to McKinsey, they are expected to become relatively common by the end of the decade, especially in large population centers where traffic congestion is a major concern.1
Let's explore eVTOL vehicles’ use cases, their development timelines, and their impact on aviation manufacturing.
In addition to the sustainability of their electric motors, eVTOLs offer several interesting use cases and advantages for passengers, which makes them appealing to both investors and aviation companies large and small. One forecast from financial firm Morgan Stanley indicates that advancements in electric propulsion technologies and continued investment could create a $1.5-trillion market for eVTOLs by 2040.2 According to the Vertical Flight Society, the world eVTOL Aircraft Directory exceeded 700 vehicle designs from 347 companies in 2022; just four years prior, only 100 aircraft designs were cataloged.3
Perhaps the most cited use case for eVTOLs is as an “air taxi,” capable of quickly transporting individuals or small groups of passengers over short distances. Passengers worldwide spend more than $500 billion on taxi and ride-hailing services each year.4 eVTOL vehicles stand to claim a significant portion of that market share as they become more widespread over the next decade.
The transformative promise of eVTOL vehicles has not gone unnoticed by major players in the aviation industry. Original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), such as Boeing and Airbus, have already made substantial investments in eVTOL development.5 The connection for these companies is natural. As they pursue more sustainable propulsion methods for commercial airliners, they will make advancements in battery and electric motor technology that will benefit eVTOL development as well.
eVTOL vehicles also represent a big opportunity for small companies, such as Joby Aviation, whose model aircraft can carry four passengers at speeds of up to 200 miles per hour and has a 150-mile range. These companies are making strides in eVTOL development and present a meaningful threat to traditional aviation manufacturers. For example, Joby extended its contract with the U.S. Department of Defense under their Agility Prime program.6 Joby will continue to research applications for its eVTOL vehicles, which could potentially include resupply missions, personnel relocations, and medical evacuations.
The U.S. Navy, Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps have all marked eVTOLs as “an area of critical interest.” Defense-related interest in eVTOL-related technologies is rising around the world, as evidenced by BAE Systems’ plans to preorder 150 aircraft from Eve Air Mobility, a subsidiary of Embraer.7 BAE Systems also plans explore the development of a variant of this same eVTOL platform with Embraer.
Though eVTOL development is well underway and confidence about utility of these systems abounds, there is still much to be determined regarding the aircrafts’ design and manufacturing — including rotor concepts, propulsion technologies, avionics, connectivity, and overall safe vehicle design.
One challenge these companies will face is navigating a regulatory landscape that remains uncertain. Certification is a critical step in the development of any aircraft system, and that holds true for eVTOLs.
With many eVTOL companies performing the duties of the designer, manufacturer, and operator, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has established a series of milestones aimed at certifying at each of these levels. The FAA’s efforts to align certification processes and standards has resulted in the pursuit of international collaboration through the National Aviation Authorities Network and other regulatory bodies like the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). As the FAA and other governing bodies provide more regulatory guidance to eVTOL makers, flexibility will be vital in enabling them to maintain their development timelines.
To succeed, these companies will need to achieve transformative breakthroughs in autonomy and propulsion while contending with regulations that may change at any time during their development life cycle. Digital engineering is the key.
To overcome the engineering challenges associated with eVTOL systems and their as-yet volatile regulatory environment, companies must adopt digital engineering to virtually validate vehicles based on their operational environments. This starts with building a design reference mission to derive and evaluate requirements in the concept development phase. Next, leverage model-based systems engineering (MBSE) for requirements verification, followed by multidisciplinary analysis and optimization (MDAO) to conduct high-level trade studies to optimize the system.
High-fidelity simulation provides detailed physics-based insights to understand behavior and performance, as well as generating synthetic data to train autonomous systems. All of this is captured in an authoritative source of truth (ASoT) that can be connected with other ecosystem ASoTs for a more collaborative and connected approach that reflects the true digital engineering vision. With virtual validation, you can build it right the first time, resulting in faster time to market, lower costs, and mitigating potential risks.
Whether you’re designing concept aircraft or developing a radar site to monitor high orbits in space, virtual validation enabled by digital engineering is the answer. Ansys provides open and connected solutions, amplified through its partner ecosystem, to help customers successfully field innovative concepts with speed, agility, and confidence.
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