Aircraft

GKN Aerospace proposes eVTOL Skybus transports for 30 to 50 passengers

GKN Aerospace proposes eVTOL S...
The Skybus concept is a large electric VTOL air transport capable of ferrying 30 to 50 passengers across town at a time
The Skybus concept is a large electric VTOL air transport capable of ferrying 30 to 50 passengers across town at a time
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The Skybus concept is a large electric VTOL air transport capable of ferrying 30 to 50 passengers across town at a time
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The Skybus concept is a large electric VTOL air transport capable of ferrying 30 to 50 passengers across town at a time

While a multitude of companies are jostling to compete in the emerging electric VTOL air taxi market, it's very rare to find aircraft designs carrying more than five people. But British multinational giant GKN Aerospace is looking into something much bigger: "park 'n' ride" Skybus transports capable of carrying 30 to 50 passengers across congested parts of town, moving affordable public transport into the third dimension.

This initiative is part of the UK's Future Flight Challenge, which is using some £125 million (US$171 million) of government cash and a further £175 million (US$239 million) from the industrial sector to fund a wide range of projects related to electric aviation, including drone swarm and delivery technologies, air traffic control that can handle a huge influx of autonomous drones and aircraft, eVTOL air taxis, sensor technologies, industrial inspection UAVs and other projects like the pop-up eVTOL airport in Coventry we wrote about yesterday.

Where most passenger-carrying eVTOL projects are envisaged as on-demand Uber-style services connecting individual passengers or small groups with ride-share services at either end, the Skybus project takes a public transport approach, with large birds ferrying significant numbers of people over city routes on fixed schedules.

According to GKN, this offers a chance to reduce cross-town commute times in an efficient and affordable way, while reducing strain on ground-based public transport to boot and freeing up space on the road for everyone else to get to work quicker too.

Of course, no such aircraft exists yet; this is likely at the feasibility study stage. And it's certainly interesting to think about some of the challenges that might be involved. There's no way these giant skybuses would be able to operate on regular vertiports or helipads; they'd need some pretty serious infrastructure on the ground.

And whether or not there are energy efficiency gains to be had as you scale up cabin sizes and start carting dozens of people around instead of a handful, the energy requirements are going to be pretty epic. That doesn't just mean huge battery packs (assuming a battery-electric powertrain), it means truly monstrous charging capabilities at those ground stations. The kinds of charging stations that put multi-megawatt loads on the power grid.

Move to a hydrogen powertrain and you're still faced with the problem of serious bulk H2 production on site, or else the logistics of getting it there for fill-ups – not to mention colossal fuel cell stacks in the aircraft themselves, capable of converting that H2 to electricity at a very impressive rate to handle the extreme power demands of electric VTOL operations.

The airframes themselves shouldn't pose too many deal-breaking issues, and likewise it's relatively simple to scale up electric motor technology. The render supplied with this press release shows what appears to be a tilt-rotor quadcopter with dual wings for efficient horizontal flight, although we don't imagine this bears any resemblance to what might eventually be built, if indeed anything does get built. Four rotors offers very little in the way of redundant safety and we'd be very surprised to see things go that way.

GKN will be leading the Skybus project out of its new Global Technology center in Bristol, with partners Swanson Aviation Consultancy, Pascall+Watson and Connected Places Catapult joining the charge. Pascall+Watson specializes in transport-focused architecture and design, so we imagine they'll be tackling the infrastructure side of things.

GKN Aerospace, for its part, is a monster airframe, engine structure, landing gear and component supplier to the aerospace industry, with 48 factories and 17,000 employees across 14 countries and some £3.85 billion (US$5.27 billion) of sales in 2019. So it's definitely got the expertise, the facilities and the wherewithal to get something like this designed, prototyped and built should the numbers stack up and the project be green-lit.

Definitely an interesting project to keep an eye on.

Source: GKN Aerospace via FutureFlight

14 comments
EJ222
Hot swappable batteries, maybe?

But yeah, where to land the thing is a a huge elephant in the room. Hot destinations tend to not have room for anything bigger than a helicopter.
VincentWolf
Love the idea of sky buses. If you have a 40 person sky bus hauling people around a city were not far off from visions of cities like in the 5th Element.
Towerman
@EJ
The solution is simple, build basic elevated landing pods between routes and destinations.
sidmehta
If this works, airlines could run from city centers instead of huge airports 1-2 hours away from downtown.
Jean Fongang
The ducted fans seem to float in Air. How real is their design?
paul314
Your city has to be really congested with no dedicated bus routes for something like this to make sense as a crosstown mover, even if you're talking 100km crosstown. Capital and operating costs are going to put it in the double or triple digits per ride.

Where it might be useful is in transport to offshore or rugged locations, where today you need to choose between helicopters (low capacity) or buses/ferries (slow and not always sufficient for access).
BlueOak
Couldn’t imagine why any sane existing company would tread into “30-50” person VTOL electric vehicles when there aren’t even any 1-2 person examples in production!?!

“part of the UK's Future Flight Challenge, which is using some £125 million (US$171 million) of government cash”

Answer, Government money. Funding where spending doesn’t have to stand the test of hard metrics, to say nothing of commonsense.
Nelson Hyde Chick
Even being electric these things will be loud, and they will only benefit the wealthy while making the urban environment unbearably noisy for everyone else.
Arcticshade
@Nelson Hyde Chick
Motorbikes are loud, trucks are loud, supercars, superbikes, helicopters are crazy loud, YET they have been on the road (and heli's in the air) since forever, wake up and face the reality that will soon stare you right in the face as the skies will be filled with EVTOL's sooner rather than later !
Arcticshade
@Paul
Not at all whatsoever, once the infrastructure is in place it will cost no more than a bus ticket per person with government subsidies. Commute times will decrease and roads will be more quiet a win win !