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Will Electric Aircraft Fly People or Cargo First?

Apr 29, 2021

Guidehouse Insights\

In the last few years, the trend for aircraft has moved toward electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft. Powered by electric motors, these aircraft have been visualized in every imaginable configuration—with two, four, six, or more rotors; swiveling engines; and ducted fans built into the wings with panels to cover them in forward flight. The designs are diverse; the purpose of the aircraft—not so much. Living in the airspace between military aircraft and small personal use photography drones, these new eVTOL designs are being built to carry one of two things: humans or cargo.

Comparing two companies’ entries into this market, Joby Aviation and BETA Technologies, reveals how each company’s business model shapes the aircraft it produces. Both companies are very close in the certification stage and plan on having their aircraft in commercial operation around the same timeframe. 

Joby Aviation, based in California, is currently flying a 5-seat all-electric aircraft designed for the air taxi market. Joby plans to complete vertical integration—designing and building the aircraft, training pilots, and operating the flying taxi business in large cities. The Joby aircraft is in the certification stages with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) with full certification expected in 2023 and commercial operations expected in 2024. 

Meanwhile, in Vermont, BETA Technologies is flying a 6-seat all-electric aircraft built for the cargo, military, and air taxi markets. BETA has designed, built, and flown its aircraft and is in the certification phase with the FAA, but unlike Joby, BETA is selling its aircraft. BETA has orders from UPS for its cargo version, and BLADE Urban Air Mobility has placed an order for up to 20 passenger variants. BETA is also working with the US Air Force Materiel Command to test the aircraft for military operations. BETA expects full certification in 2023 and commercial operations in 2024. 

Both aircraft include a seat for a pilot, with plans on eventually removing that pilot and operating autonomously. Joby states that it has been working on its aircraft for over 10 years and has thousands of flights completed. The aircraft will go into operations with a pilot in control, ferrying passengers in cities on day one. Beta has been flying for just over a year with planned commercial operations to be completed by UPS carrying cargo, with passengers to follow.

New Aircraft Must Prove Their Safety

With everything seeming to be even, who will make it to market first, and does it make sense to start operations with human cargo, or should the niche market prove itself by carrying cargo first? These questions need to be answered before commercial operations begin. The easiest answer is to prove the safety by flying missions with cargo first. Perfect the technology, prove safety in all weather conditions, and ensure pilot proficiency—then and only then will the technology be accepted by the masses.

So, we find ourselves at the dawn of a new era of aviation, asking the same questions that were asked of the original pioneers. Is the new technology safe? Is the new flying contraption safe to carry a person? How do we prove it is safe to the masses? The Wright brothers flew in 1903, the first package was delivered via airmail in 1911, and the first commercial passenger flight was completed in 1914. The old technology was proven with pencils, paper, and rudimentary wind tunnels, but times have changed. Over 120 years later, technology has advanced exponentially, and companies rely on computers before wind tunnels and rather than pencils and slide rules to run millions of simulations. In essence, both aircraft have flown countless hours in the virtual world before flying in ours. 

In the end, whichever of these aircraft makes it to market first, whether they carry people or packages, will have a very high probability of success. These aircraft are expected to be tested, proven, and ready to begin a new era of electric aviation.