Aircraft

Helicopter CEO: eVTOLs have "precious little chance" and pose no threat

Helicopter CEO: eVTOLs have "p...
Joby Aviation's S4 eVTOL is one of the most advanced on the market
Joby Aviation's S4 eVTOL is one of the most advanced on the market
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Joby Aviation's S4 eVTOL is one of the most advanced on the market
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Joby Aviation's S4 eVTOL is one of the most advanced on the market
Running entirely on lithium batteries, eVTOLs can't travel nearly as far as a helicopter, and won't for a long time
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Running entirely on lithium batteries, eVTOLs can't travel nearly as far as a helicopter, and won't for a long time
These comments are not directed specifically at Joby - we chose to use these shots simply because Eric Adams has made some beautiful images
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These comments are not directed specifically at Joby - we chose to use these shots simply because Eric Adams has made some beautiful images of this aircraft
Electric air taxi services are targeting 2024 for an entry into service, claiming to be quieter and vastly cheaper than helicopters
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Electric air taxi services are targeting 2024 for an entry into service, claiming to be quieter and vastly cheaper than helicopters
Joby Aviation's remarkable tilt-prop S4 is among the front-running aircraft in the nascent eVTOL sector
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Joby Aviation's remarkable tilt-prop S4 is among the front-running aircraft in the nascent eVTOL sector
View gallery - 5 images

As lovers of future technology, we're fascinated by the promise and potential of electric VTOL aircraft – and we spend a lot of time covering the many and varied approaches that hundreds of companies are racing to bring to market. But that doesn't mean this sector has an easy path to world-changing success and a global shift to Jetsons-style commuting, and in the name of balance, it's worth examining the arguments against eVTOLs.

So when Futureflight caught Hill Helicopters CEO Jason Hill laying out his thinking on why eVTOLs are no threat to the helicopter industry, it struck us as a good opportunity to present somewhat of a rebuttal to our regular coverage. Hill made his comments as part of a "Global Meetup and Discovery Event" for the company's upcoming (and gorgeous) HX50 luxury helicopter, an "aerial grand tourer" targeted at private owners.

This machine is proving popular. With 342 sales already confirmed, it's got a 51 percent market share in its category, and is vastly outpacing its nearest rivals, selling 2.3 times more than the Robinson R44, 4 times more than the R66, and 4.6 times more than the Bell 505. Thus, Hill is far from a disinterested, objective observer, but his industry credentials are solid and his opinions should bear some weight.

Joby Aviation's remarkable tilt-prop S4 is among the front-running aircraft in the nascent eVTOL sector
Joby Aviation's remarkable tilt-prop S4 is among the front-running aircraft in the nascent eVTOL sector

When asked what he thought about eVTOLs and whether he views them as competition, here's a lightly edited transcript of what Hill had to say:

"eVTOL is important. We do need to decarbonize aviation. We do need to become more electric, but you've got to be realistic. The only way to get off the ground vertically more efficiently than a helicopter is in a balloon. So I think a lot of these fancy configurations that people are trying are all well and good, but I don't believe they offer any material advantages over that of a well designed modern helicopter.

"And the big elephant in the room, that everybody is ignoring, is the fact that it's going to be a very, very long time. It's going to be decades before we have batteries or a means of storing enough electrical energy for genuinely battery-electric aircraft to be practical.

"And I think when the real world factors of developing a machine and operating a machine start to take hold on an already limited capability, then those machines are going to find it very hard to make a living. And so I don't really see that being as being an immediate threat for us. I think that many of those companies will struggle when they try and hit commercial viability, when they try and operate real air services.

"I mean, many of you will have leased helicopters back and tried to operate helicopters commercially over the years, and, you know, trying to make money out of an existing general aviation aircraft is very difficult. To have the work and the machine available, and fly enough hours to offset your enormous fixed costs is difficult. And then if you try and do that with a machine that can only fly for five minutes, you have precious little chance.

"So I think in terms of eVTOL, it's not a threat. But I think in terms of the opportunity that it provides for us it's clearly showing how many people want to do point to point travel – and that is an opportunity for HC50. That's an opportunity for a good commercial helicopter.

Running entirely on lithium batteries, eVTOLs can't travel nearly as far as a helicopter, and won't for a long time
Running entirely on lithium batteries, eVTOLs can't travel nearly as far as a helicopter, and won't for a long time

"I think the other big important point about eVTOLs is the huge swathes of money that have been thrown at it. They've been spending money like it's going out of fashion, and in order to manage their risk, they're trying to partner with all of the same people that we're trying to cut out to deliver a cost-effective helicopter. So they're replacing their expensive turbine engines with motors that are now owned by the same people that used to make turbine engines.

"So from my point of view, I think those aircraft are going to wind up being every bit, or more expensive than a conventional turbine aircraft – but far less mission-flexible, far less capable. And so yeah, I don't think that's an immediate threat for us. I think the helicopter has a very bright future, the GT 50 engine has been designed to run on sustainable aviation fuel biofuels, and I think that's our route to short term carbon neutrality."

eVTOL advocates would surely point out that Hill hasn't addressed some of the sector's most important advantages. These aircraft are designed to make much, much less noise than helicopters, and eVTOL operators are banking on them being approved for rooftop-to-rooftop inner-city flights at high frequency and over heavily populated areas.

Their all-electric powertrains, say eVTOL companies, mean that they require vastly less expensive attention from maintenance technicians, and the energy costs too will be vanishingly low. Flight cost projections are a tiny fraction of what it currently costs to hire a heli from A to B – indeed, the whole point of electric VTOL aircraft, as the dream is being sold, is to radically reduce flight costs to the point where vertical commuting is completely democratized and a genuine daily option for a wide variety of people.

These comments are not directed specifically at Joby - we chose to use these shots simply because Eric Adams has made some beautiful images
These comments are not directed specifically at Joby - we chose to use these shots simply because Eric Adams has made some beautiful images of this aircraft

But this sector is currently hyped beyond belief – thanks in large part to the voracious funding appetites of these new aviation startups, and a corresponding avalanche of press releases and CG renders. We bear some responsibility for that; we love the wild early days of new tech development, and the idea of commuting in flying cars has been bouncing around kids' heads for decades. We want it to happen.

But the well-worn Gartner Hype Cycle may be instructive here; after an "innovation trigger" gets the ball rolling, excitement tends to build until the "peak of inflated expectations," which frankly feels like about where we're at right now with 2021 coming to a close.

What tends to sadly follow is a "trough of disillusionment," in which a lot of people lose their investment money, and many if not most companies fail to deliver. Only those that survive and innovate wisely make it to the "slope of enlightenment" such that people begin to understand where the technology can be genuinely useful, and only after this phase do things reach the "plateau of productivity" where mainstream adoption begins.

So the next few years are likely to be pretty gruesome for some of our favorite electric VTOL startups; that's a fact. There are mountainous hurdles at every step. Capital raising. Development. Prototyping. Testing. Certification. Production. Manufacturing. Logistics. Scaling up to serious volume. Safety. Building out useful vertiport networks. Getting aviation authorities and city councils to agree on high-volume flight paths over populated areas. Blowback from residents. Developing appropriate inspection schedules to identify faults and issues. Building up enough regular users to keep utilization rates where they need to be. Battery replacement schedules. Emergency procedures. Working out where to park these things when they're not in service. Convincing aviation authorities to allow autonomous passenger flights. There are many more, and none of them look trivial in the slightest.

The dawn of the eVTOL age will be brutal for many of the companies trying to get a foot in the door
The dawn of the eVTOL age will be brutal for many of the companies trying to get a foot in the door

Still, enough diverse companies have drawn in enough capital at this point, and made enough key partnerships, that it seems like a range of different eVTOL designs will at least get the chance to prove themselves. The pandemic and work from home revolution have encouraged a lot of people to move further out of cities, in many cases to the kinds of distances that eVTOLs would be perfectly adequate for, and it's not like anyone's expecting ground-based traffic to get better in the next 5-10 years.

Electric VTOL aircraft will eventually prevail, whether by hook, by crook or by hydrogen. Fossil-fueled aircraft are part of one of the key existential problems of our time, and they will be legislated into insignificance as the rubber hits the road on decarbonization over the coming decades. But Hill may yet be right when he says these things could prove too limited, and too similar to the helicopter, to spark a transport revolution in their early days. We shall see.

You can see Hill's comments in the video below, if you're interested. Skip to 1:19:07 or so for the eVTOL talk, or stick around to learn about the helicopter!

1st HX50 Global Meetup & Discover Event

Source: Hill Helicopters via FutureFlight

View gallery - 5 images
32 comments
32 comments
minivini
It’s a familiar pattern that is certainly related to our ravenous “instant gratification” culture. We see an interesting, even exciting new technology, and part of our brain wants it NOW. EVs (automotive, aircraft, boats, submarines) are coming. In the meantime, the persistent well engineered vehicles will slot into niche uses. As they become more and more prevalent and energy density issues are improved, those slots will get larger and less niche.

We’ve missed the window for preventing global scale climate change. The cycle appears to be becoming a more self sustaining cycle (permafrost releasing massive amounts of methane, further increasing greenhouse gas effect; glaciers releasing billions of gallons of fresh water into the ocean, impacting vital ocean currents; etc). We still have to wean ourselves from burning carbon en masse.

I don’t think climate catastrophe will end us. I think microplastics infiltrating our bodies in the coming years will do that.
Daveb
Tell me this: where else can I find this kind of straight up, real-world, intelligent and yet still accessible writing on a daily basis!? Seriously I would like to know who the runners-up are, because I would consume more each day if I only knew where to find it. Thanks Loz and New Atlas, and happy 2022!
Tiat
Incumbents about to be disrupted always sing the same tune. Exactly the same opinions were voiced when Tesla launched it's 1st Roadster. Like the Roadster, the early adopters will be the 1%. Only after economies of scale kick-in will it trickle down to the masses. Battery energy density is increasing at an exponential rate. Almost as if it had it's own Moore's Law. The Roadster was launched in 2008 - so it took over a decade to disrupt the automotive industry. eVTOL will likely only need half that time. Electrification for climate change is ineluctable and is only accelerating.
Numbone
Very astute comments from this fellow.
Best article of the year I think Loz - hope it gets added to the competition in time!
Malatrope
All very well and good, but carbon dioxide is not a pollutant, and whether or not we beggar ourselves trying to eliminate our contribution to it makes no difference whatsoever to a planet that operates a large closed-loop control system with plant life using the carbon dioxide produce by rotting vegetation and volcanos.

It is good that the planet doesn't care what we do here. If we sincerely were able to reduce carbon dioxide levels to the point the popular public believes we should, we would die within a decade because most of the plant life, including our food sources, would die.

I am a supporter of electrification of vehicles for the simple reason that they are significantly better than gasoline/diesel powered alternatives.
Nobody
Finally, a realistic view on the future of eVTOLs. It will take one heck of a battery to replace fossil fuels and those inefficient multiple small diameter propellers are no match for the larger diameter helicopter blades. I'm glad this article was printed to take some of the inflated hype out of the expectations. If you look at the old flying car designs, many were just crude quad copters and we are still waiting 60 years later.
guzmanchinky
Seriously? What is he going to say? He's the CEO of a startup conventional helicopter company! Would he say that electric aviation is the future and that batteries are getting denser and faster by the week? That an electric has many orders of magnitude less maintenance and points of failure? That electric vertical aviation has room for ballistic parachutes? I've been a pilot for 20 years now and I can tell you there is no chance that electric won't take over the aircraft industry within the next decade or two...
PrometheusGoneWild.com
He is right and wrong.
I don’t care about decarbonization. I care about safety, range and reliability.
Having an electric VTOL system cuts down on the complexity of the aircraft and makes it much cheaper and safer. And most of them have wings for much more efficient flight.
Where are the EVTOLS going wrong? They all looked at Tesla and decided they too would go all electric.
This is a mistake.
Having a hybrid system where vertical flight is created with multiple redundant electric systems and horizontal flight is created with a turbine would be much better way to go.
Why some of the existing airplane manufacturers haven’t added EVTOL systems to existing fixed wing aircraft is beyond me.
If the Cessna Skycourier could land with EVTOL systems is would run circles around every helicopter in existence.
Rusty Harris
Oh, they might take off (no pun intended), but he's correct. Until battery efficiency improves, recharging time cuts to that of "filling with gas" and
the electrical grid can handle it, fossil fuels are better.
Steven Clarkson
The 2 last paragraphs are very true.. but so is the rest...once the energy source is perfected Evtols will outrun helicopters... simply because of utmost reliability, mechanical simplicity and virtually no moving parts. And will be much less expensive. Having said that helicopters is part of our genes,(so is multicopters) So helicopters will always be there, they will just have to learn to share because like mentioned in the write up, nothing can stop this from happening, and nothing will, exciting times !
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