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eVTOL companies are, ahem, taking off at the moment.
The promise of emission- and congestion-free urban transport is proving seductive to venture capitalists, city planners, and the general public alike.
However, despite many companies promising that, in a not too distant future, electric aircraft will be whizzing around above our heads, there are precious testing their vehicles out.
One of the esteemed group actually building and trialling their aircraft is AutoFlight. Founded and based in Shanghai, the company has recently set up shop in southern Germany, near Augsburg Airport.
Mark Henning recently jumped ship from Airbus to become AutoFlight’s European Managing Director and has been telling Auto Futures everything about the company’s ambitious plans.
Building the Revolution
“I wanted to be part of the revolution,” says Henning, speaking over a video call from Augsburg. “Somebody said I’m a veteran of 26 years in the aviation industry, which I think is a funny English designation for us.”
“AutoFlight has this product which is super interesting and eVTOL is a new segment. Honestly, I was honoured that they asked me to join. We have the possibility of a greenfield approach to build up a company and to take from Tian Yu, my boss [the founder and CEO of AutoFlight] who is a pioneer in electric flight, this is really interesting.”
The super interesting product in question is Prosperity 1, AutoFlight’s aircraft. It’s designed to carry four people – including the pilot – across megacities around the world.
“We don’t have them in Germany,” says Henning, who studied at the Technical University of Munich before spending almost three decades at Airbus. “Though London is already a huge city compared to what we have on the continent and maybe Paris, a little bit.”
“But, when you think about the metropolitan areas of New York, Washington DC, Philadelphia, or the cities in Asia, they’re beautiful but there’s no transportation possibility. You can’t grow on the roads or on the rail, with the subway as a public transit station. So there, organisations are going to be created who are going to buy our aircraft, they’re going to serve the public and solve these transportation problems for those societies.”
Obviously, with just three passengers in the Prosperity 1, AutoFlight won’t be solving any mass transit issues. However, Henning believes that Prosperity 1 will be incredibly useful for companies in the near future.
“There’s a tendency,” Henning explains, “and I don’t know how to say it nicely in English, to always want more modes and more fuel. If you look at the [VW] Golf from today and the Golf from 1978, there’s a huge difference in size. People always want more performance, more payload, more range, the most uses, or whatever.
“So that means there’s a certain size of aircraft which is going to be in the middle of the demands and we think, with the Prosperity 1, we will find the sweet spot for transportation of humans but also for transportation of cargo.
“We think that it is a sweet spot because the bigger you get it, it’s going to get tough as it is electrically driven and the smaller you get, you don’t have the sufficient payload capacity and the flexibility and variety for the transportation business.”
The Prosperity 1 isn’t the only aircraft AutoFlight has in the works, however. They also have the cargo-only V 50 and V 400 drones.
Developing for the Skies of Tomorrow
“We’ll have the V 50, which is 50 kg maximum take-off mass, and the V 400, which is maximum 400 kg take-off mass,” Henning explains.
“They’re all based on the same design concept, we have a real wing to fly the aircraft. In our case, it’s a wing with a canard.”
Canards, if you’re unfamiliar, are small wings on an aircraft that are placed in front of a larger main wing. While they’re typically not found on passenger jets, you might be more familiar with the canards on fighter jets such as the Eurofighter Typhoon. These little wings help to reduce the loads on the main rear wing.
“The lift system,” continues Henning, “has eight propellers with no mechanical parts, no gears – nothing. Straight simple propellers to the vertical flight element.”
“So, you have vertical flight and then you accelerate, in our case now with a pusher propeller, to get into horizontal flight which is very high efficiency. We have dedicated propellers doing the vertical flying and dedicated propellers doing the forward flying.”
At regular intervals throughout our conversation, Henning apologises for becoming too technical. However, it’s once you look into the details that AutoFlight begins to stand apart from its competitors.
“If you look at the product, and the simplicity of this lift and thrust logic, with eight propellers and the real wing, we’re aiming to have proper efficiency in the cruise flight.
“But it’s also the combination between what we’re doing here [in Augsburg] and with Tian’s team in Shanghai. We know what EASA [the European Union’s Aviation Safety Agency] is asking for.
“When you develop aircraft,” says Henning, “how much wind tunnel testing are you going to do? We have this interesting flight mechanic challenge with lift and thrust and the transition from vertical to cruise flight, the controllability, stability, the loads on the aircraft. We can build full-scale proof-of-concept aircraft in Shanghai at a fraction of the time and cost.
“It’s remote-controlled and unmanned but we can flight test with our team in Shanghai. This is a clear competitive advantage. Others, most probably, are not doing it that way.”
Commercialising Electric Flight
Standing in the way of AutoFlight’s commercial rollout, however, is EASA, the European body that certifies aircraft as safe to fly.
“It’s not rocket science,” says Henning, “to develop and certify the Prosperity 1.”
But he says, the process can be quite involved.
“The product needs to be developed in accordance with the latest and greatest certification requirements from EASA. We need to get Design Organisation Approval (DOA) from EASA. And out of that design organisation, we’re going to develop and certify Prosperity 1 with EASA.
“You have to do these two elements in parallel. It’s a prerequisite to have the DOA and the type approval for the product itself. But, it’s a new category with EASA, so that’s the fun part of it.”
Once those hurdles have been vaulted, AutoFlight is expecting to start delivering the Prosperity 1 in just a few years time.
“The first ambitious goal is to have certification in 2025. Of course, when you have the type certificate, the idea is that you have already started low-rate initial production. That means that you have the first of your products that could be delivered to customers or operated by ourselves.”
The company, however, is taking a slightly more holistic when it comes to producing the aircraft.
“Different markets have different demands,” explains Henning. “So, for sure, we’re going to produce in China this year because the Chinese market could represent half of the series production and half of the demand.”
“The US market is also highly interesting and we will proudly produce that aircraft in the US. Look at what the others are doing – Airbus has its manufacturing plant in Alabama for the US market. You want to do that locally.”
However, before we finish talking, Henning wants to reaffirm one thing.
“What is most important, and this is true not only for Prosperity 1 and AutoFlight, it’s true for all the other guys trying to field a product, safety is huge – it’s non-negotiable.”
“But also, it’s clean and it has to be quiet,” Henning continues. “People have to understand that eVTOL aircraft in our weight and size class are going to be by factors quieter than we know from helicopters, Cessnas, or Pipers. That’s what most of us are working on and you will see that they are not only safe and comfortable when flying but also quiet.”
AutoFlight’s goals and ambitions for eVTOL flight aren’t exactly unique but, with its base at Augsburg Airport and its clear vision for its aircraft, it might be one of the most compelling companies in the space.