Podcast: Hailing the Air Taxi

Secretive startup Joby Aviation let Aviation Week’s Guy Norris witness a flight test of its new electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing aircraft. He and Graham Warwick discuss what he saw – and why the air taxi market is for real.

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Below is a rush transcript of Aviation Week’s October 1, 2020, Check 6 podcast.

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Joe Anselmo:              Welcome to this week's Check 6 Podcast. I'm Joe Anselmo, editorial director of the Aviation Week Network and editor-in-chief of Aviation Week magazine. If you listen to this podcast regularly, you have heard us talking many times about proposals to create an Uber-like air taxi market. Well, Aviation Week's Guy Norris just saw an air taxi fly. Perhaps just as important, he heard how much noise it gave off. Joby Aviation, a secret of California startup has been working for six years to develop an electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing (eVTOL) air taxi. Two weeks ago, Joby gave Guy a peek behind the curtain, allowing him to witness a flight test of its prototype.

                                    He also had a look inside the aircraft and sampled its flight characteristics in a simulator. Guy joins us today to talk about what he saw, and to update us on Joby's efforts to certify what it believes will be a game-changing capability for urban air mobility. Of course Joby is one of more than 100 proposed urban air mobility vehicles. So joining us to put that market in perspective is Aviation Week's UAM guru, Executive Editor Graham Warwick. Guy let's start off with you. Tell us about your trip -- over the wildfires, I understand -- to get to this secret Joby test range and what you saw.

Guy Norris:                 Thanks, Joe. Well, I've got to say it was quite the story in terms of getting the story. You briefly mentioned the fire situation. It all happened in the middle of the first big wave, really of wildfires out in California and my initial flights to the San Francisco Bay area, which is really where Joby is based overall. It was through dense clouds of smoke in both directions. We had to wear face masks of course, part of the COVID protocol, but we ended up wearing three face masks each on the flight back because otherwise we couldn't have breathed in the smoke.

                                    It was the second flight that they took me on to their sort of undisclosed test area, which was even more interesting because that day, having got to this location, we then drove for many miles into this secure facility, came around the corner and they're hiding away in this valley was this small, very unusual looking... Not a helicopter, not a fixed-wing aircraft either.

                                   It's a sort of like a strange hybrid between the two. And that's the whole point about this new generation. It's something which we're still trying to really figure out, as well as the FAA, I think, what it is we're dealing with here. But it was fascinating experience. I showed up. It was a really hot afternoon. They basically were all poised waiting for me to get there.

                                    As soon as I did, they had the vehicle on this little test area, out in the Valley, right in front of me, 100 yards away. They... And that's the thing... The other thing about electric vehicles is you just turn them on, there's no sort of like slow wind up of a turbine or a piston firing up.

                                    It's just, you flick the switch and the lights come on, you flick another switch and it lifts up into the air on... That was what it was like. The sound, which I couldn't wait to hear. I was so interested to know what it was going to be like. Eventually, when the sound came to me, I was hoping, that it would be different and it was, because I'd expected something like one of those quad copters where you hear that sound of the electric motors. And then it really sort of drums that sort of sound in, but it didn't, it was much lower frequency sound, lower intensity than expected. The vehicle took off and perform some maneuvers at a sort of relatively low altitude.

                                    And at the whole time I was standing beside the chief test pilot [and others and] we were just chatting in a normal voice. It went off down the valley, did some maneuvering and didn't fully transition to wing borne fly because the valley area isn't that large. But it did become that fairly fast, as it maneuvered across in front of us and landed. And I said it was a remarkably quiet experience.

                                   And when the vehicle was down at the other end of the valley, not too far away, I mean, just a few 100 yards, you could hardly hear it above the background noise of the air around the valley. So I think it would be effectively silent in an urban environment. They do say also that in forward... In wing borne flight, it will also be effectively silent, because the big thing about this design it is essentially described as a powered glider. It's like a motor glider really that can take off and land vertically. So it's just a very different way of looking at it.

Joe Anselmo:              It certainly looks very different. You think of a helicopter, but this has more of the wingspan of a small aircraft.

Guy Norris:                 Yes, exactly. In terms of size, it's just a little bit shorter wingspan than Embraer Phenom 100, the small business jet. And in length, it's only just over 21 feet body length of the fuselage with a little bit of overhang with the props at the back. But essentially it's a very small package footprint that's really designed to go where a helicopter, like an R44 would fit. So that's the sort of the principle is that you're packaging this around six electric power units. So EPUs, they call them.

                                    And in a sort of an oval shape, which gives you a nice sort of equal area of left on each side and essentially redundancy in case one of those systems fails. You've always got five others, one would power down the other four would power up to keep you balanced. It's just that so many layers of redundancy that are built into this design. That sort of goes to the fact that Joby has really put safety as the absolutely leading design principle for this, having actually figured out how to make it a vehicle fly, 150 nautical miles -- that's at about 175 knots -- and do it in such a way that you can recharge between missions, even at that length in a short time. So there's so many areas to look at here.

Joe Anselmo:              So Guy, let's start with the basics, it seats four passengers and one pilot, is that correct?

Guy Norris:                 Yes. They did initially design a two-passenger vehicle, the S2, and the S4 really is the realization of the basic sort of business concept behind this. The more people you can get in the quicker you can earn money, the more money you can earn the quicker you can pay off this as a going concern. So it's absolutely essential that they get four passengers and a pilot in there. Its design is a [sized] to be able to operate from all of the VTOL ports that are already in existence.

                                    Plus of course it opens up the aperture to allow you to develop reasonably sized landing facilities in places where they don't exist today. Like the tops of multi-story parking lots and that sort of thing. So they really have got that design down. They've also said that, by and large, they had to be able to make it pay on missions as short as 25 miles. As I said, it's built for up to 150 miles on this battery packs that it's been equipped with, but it can just as easily do the 25 mile hop, which, so this is a variety of ranges.

                                    They've basically said, look, Uber's mission is to really sort of prioritize stuff that's left, routes that are under 50 miles and that kind of area, and that's where they expect the market to really develop. But just as easily, they say, this could go into intra-urban, or even into city and really densely populated parts of the world. So they like to have that flexibility of different range options – it’s just part of the business model.

                                   And as I say, the key sort of real design aspect of the fact is this is not a helicopter. It's a fixed wing aircraft that can use these tilting prop systems to basically fly vertically in and out of ports. And then immediately transition as quickly as possible to the much more efficient wing borne lift that it can do. And in fact, they sort of said that they've done these tests.

                                     They won't at least say how long, it was, but essentially quite long hovering flights, they said, but you would say that on average, only eight to 10 seconds of each flight, each takeoff is going to be in vertical lift for the rest of that flight will be winged bond. And then it's another 10 seconds at the other end. So it's a very quick transition. And I think that's really part of their game plan. Like one they get on wing as soon as possible because that's how this thing is going to work.

Joe Anselmo:              Graham Warwick, we were talking before we started recording and you were pointing out that the batteries on this vehicle, while state of the art, are nothing revolutionary. It's the aerodynamics that are the big advantage.

Graham Warwick:       Yes. Joby is one of the leaders in this initial wave of  eVTOL air taxes. And if you look at all of the companies that are making that initial progress, they're all making a vehicle that is viable on available essentially automotive batteries. So they're not like many companies in assuming better batteries in two years, better batteries in four years. They set out to make a viable aircraft on battery technology that they knew would be commercially available at the time that they wanted to certify the aircraft.

                                   They've already demonstrated their performance goals with the batteries that are in the vehicle now. Guy has explained it all. They had an incredible optimization exercise early on where they said they played with every possible parameter, and they came up with a highly efficient fixed-wing airplane, therefore low power consumption in the cruise.

                                    They made that highly efficient, fixed-wing aircraft able to take off and land vertically by tilting the props. And then they minimize the amount of time it spends in the high power draw of vertical takeoff and landing. So if you combine those things, short period of time in your high power mode when you're draining the battery, quick transition to wing borne cruise mode, when you are not draining the battery, that not only increases the amount of time you can fly between recharging, it also maximizes the cycle life of the battery, because you are not draining that battery from a 100% to 0% every time you fly the aircraft.

                                    And that is crucial to getting this initial business model going. Now, the batteries will improve. We will have fuel cells in long-term, et cetera, et cetera, but what sets Joby and some of those other early leaders apart is they've made a viable vehicle with available technology.

Guy Norris:                 And, I think the other follow-up to that really is the fact that if you imagine, you're going to introduce a new class of vehicle into the system, and it's a taxi. So where are you going to get the pilots for that, because there's so many going to be needed, it's doesn't even compare with anything that we've seen in the history of aviation really, unless you think of wartime numbers of pilots that they had to bring in for that.

                                    The other key design aspect of it is the fact they've introduced this form of a control system, which is a unified flight control law, which really takes the stress really out of flying a vertical takeoff and landing aircraft. It's really leveraging know-how that was developed for the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program.

                                    And it just transitions you so that as opposed to a helicopter pilot, who would be using the collective and cyclic controls and having to put in a lot of issues about being a rotary wing, it's a very high workload environment. And it also takes the flight concerns about stalling and other issues about controlling your airspeed away from being a fixed-wing pilot too.

                                    So you get rid of the worst of both of those worries and bring together the best of those two capabilities. The system works by basically transitioning. You have two inceptors these... Or controls, the right hand one is basically to control your ascent and descent. So you can... But the basic law is if you push forward, the houses get bigger. If you pull back the houses, get smaller.

                                    If you use the left-hand interceptor, it's an accelerator. So if you want to go faster, you push it forward. And if you want to slow down, you pull it back. And if you just leave them alone, you'll come to a stop, a hovering stop, or if you're in forward flight, your flight position will be maintained as you've left it. So it's a very simple, intuitive type of control for really the sort of computer game generation.

                                    It's all with the two joysticks or these inceptors. And I think it's absolutely pivotal to this hub. The whole business proposition is that it takes the concerns away from flying the vehicle and allows people to come in and just be looking around situational awareness, focusing on delivering the passengers safely to wherever they're going.

Joe Anselmo:              Guy, we should point out that nobody has been able to certify an electric VTOL airplane, so far. Is Joby aiming to be the first to do that? And when are they aiming to be certified?

Guy Norris:                 That's a huge part of the story. They're the first probably to be able to take advantage of this incredible rewrites of the Part 23 worthiness certificate standards, which will really enable this whole new generation to be certified in a meaningfully executable fashion.

                                   It's really strange because it does incorporate so many aspects of other parts of the airworthiness certification process ranging from passenger vehicles, flight control systems that have never been seen before. Fly-by-wire that's never been seen on [this] size category of aircraft and rotary wing, plus of course, electrical propulsion.

                                    So there are so many firsts involved in this. If they're not the first they're going to be right there on the crest of the wave. And Graham you've been following that whole transition avenue of this certification, it's just been incredible to watch isn't it?

Graham Warwick:       Yes. I mean the key is this rewrite of Part 23 that allows you to use industry- developed standards to demonstrate compliance with the rules. The rules are fundamentally, performance-based, what the FAA specified is a very high level of safety requirements. And then you come in and you demonstrate how you meet those high level safety requirements. I think the thing that, if you look at... There are about five companies at the moment that are leading eVTOL.

                                    Joby is one, China's EHang is one. Wisk, which is Boeing and Kitty Hawk, is another, Volocopter in Germany. And you can include Lilium in Germany also in that sort of first group. And then really you drill in, and we did this a couple of issues ago when we took a look at the UAM market (in the August 17-30 edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology).

                                    When you drill in at the progress those companies have made, you can actually see the steps that a company goes through. And really Joby is the furthest forward. They're flying a prototype that is representative of the production aircraft that they will certify. And I missed one, which is Beta technologies, but if you go to anybody else, if you go to Beta, which is in the U.S., you go to Volocopter, you go to Lilium, they're all flying earliest stages. They've still got to fly that conforming prototype. So, Joby is out in front.

                                    Now there are folks that will get approval to operate outside the U.S. before Joby. So EHang is already approved to operate in China, unmanned logistics at the moment, but they're doing trials with passengers and they will get approval to do it.

                                    They haven't certified the vehicle. They've just got a different approach in China to be allowing them to do it, but that will start commercial operations. Wisk is working in New Zealand. And sometime this year, maybe before the end of the year, they will get some form of approval from the New Zealand Civil Aviation Authority that will allow them to begin passenger trials. Now, Wisk's vehicle is unpiloted, it's self-flying.

                                    So, I mean, there's two passengers and a remote pilot. Whereas, Joby is testing its aircraft largely on man, but it will be certified as a piloted aircraft. So, and then you look at Beta is flight testing their vehicle up in Plattsburgh, but they are actually aiming for this organ transplant mission as being their initial market, which is a piloted with a medical technician. They're not looking at urban air mobility right up to the box, but it will come very soon after.

                                    So when you start to really look at where these companies are, these five or six companies are well ahead of everybody else, but Joby is ahead of them at the moment. And it's ahead in another key way: it has raised about $750 million, which is close to what most people think it's going to take to get one of these things certified and in production. Mark Moore [Uber’s director of elevate strategy] has said somewhere between $700 million-$1 billion, he thinks to get any of these vehicles certified and in production. Joby's raised $750 million. Toyota is a very big investor [and is] helping them set up their production factory using automotive high volume automotive technology, at least in the long term to get the sort of costs and things down.

                                    So in almost every aspect Joby is ahead, but there are these other four or five that are nipping at its heels. And the really fascinating thing is that whether Joby certifies in 2023 or ‘24, we're going to see in that timeframe four or five vehicles of this class be certified for commercial operations. This is a type of vehicle that five years ago we've been told it was impossible. And by 2024 we will have four or five Part 23 or equivalent certified passenger carrying electric VTOL vehicles. It's quite extraordinary.

Guy Norris:                  Graham, you mentioned the operations, that's such an important thing here. Joby really wants to be the operator of their vehicles, too. It's not just going to be building them and churning them out of these factories, with the help of knowledge gained working with Toyota, but they want to be operators too. And they sort of basically saying this is going back to the United-Boeing model of the 1920s and 30s, where they were just not only making them, they were flying too.

                                    It's another aspect of their safety culture. They want to be the people in charge of running them because they know how to operate them and they want [it] to be done safely. So I think that's a kind of an interesting angle. They haven't really said much really about how they're going to do this, but that's the plan anyway, and as Graham mentioned, the plan is also to certified by the end of 2023. So we'll see how that goes.

Graham Warwick:       And also, I mean, a bit more of an analogy to that original United aircraft thing was that because also the motor manufacturer, a lot of these leading early eVTOL companies, there is no supply chain, there is no supply base of certified products they can go to. So almost all of these companies have developed their own motors, their own flight control systems. It's highly vertically integrated along the SpaceX model over time that will evolve, but they had no choice, but to do it because there was no industry they could draw.

Guy Norris:                  Absolutely. And thanks for reminding me of that Graham you're right. I got a chance to look at some of the production lines and the battery and motor technology. There's tons of innovation in there, which again, unfortunately, well, we're going to have to get to that at some stage to describe it.

                                    But the last thing is the electric motor is so small that I was told by the British test pilot, that it's the size of a biscuit. But when I conferred with my American wife, she said, it should be at least a cookie tin, because they understand if you say that, but that's how small it is.

Graham Warwick:       And I've seen the story, Guy says a party-sized cookie tin.

Guy Norris:                 Sort of gives you a little of it of an idea.

Joe Anselmo:              Well guys, thanks for a great conversation. It sounds like the debate over the size of the eVTOL market will rage on, but air taxis are coming. That's the verdict, right?

Guy Norris:                  Absolutely.

Graham Warwick:        Absolutely.

Joe Anselmo:              Subscribers you can read Guy Norris' full six-page report on his visit to Joby Aviation in the September 28th edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology. That's a wrap for this week's Check 6 Podcast. Special thanks to our producer in Washington, DC, Donna Thomas.

                                   Join us again next week for another edition of Check 6, which is available for download on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, and Spotify. And if you'd like what you heard, please give us a positive review. We appreciate your feedback. Have a great day and stay safe. 

Joe Anselmo

Joe Anselmo has been Editorial Director of the Aviation Week Network and Editor-in-Chief of Aviation Week & Space Technology since 2013. Based in Washington, D.C., he directs a team of more than two dozen aerospace journalists across the U.S., Europe and Asia-Pacific.

Guy Norris

Guy is a Senior Editor for Aviation Week, covering technology and propulsion. He is based in Colorado Springs.

Graham Warwick

Graham leads Aviation Week's coverage of technology, focusing on engineering and technology across the aerospace industry, with a special focus on identifying technologies of strategic importance to aviation, aerospace and defense.