Zero-emissions flying has never been closer to becoming a reality
Working to make electric air mobility a sustainable and profitable business
The founder and CEO of Vertical Aerospace, a startup developing electrical air taxis, Stephen Fitzpatrick is at the center of some of the most exciting developments in the electrification of flight. He is also the founder of OVO Energy and Kaluza, two companies playing a key role in ramping up renewable energy use and electrification – it’s no surprise he’s been called Britain’s Elon Musk. We asked him about making electric air mobility a sustainable business: what it takes, when it will happen, and how he’s going to achieve it.
The dream of decarbonized air transport
Like many people, Stephen was affected by the ‘shame of flying’ movement, so he’s been working hard trying to find solutions: allowing humanity to continue traveling by air while reducing emissions. “I thought it’s just impossible that after waiting thousands of years to realize the dream of flying, we’re going to voluntarily stop flying,” he says. “And if you think about all the ingenuity and technology that went into creating the first aircraft only 70 years ago, if we apply the same determination, we can make the dream of decarbonizing flight possible. It’s something I feel very passionate about.”
Realizing that dream of course requires new ways of flying. Vertical Aerospace has opted for vertical takeoff and landing, a technology enabled by remarkable advances in electrical motors, batteries and materials. Concretely speaking, the same propellers lift the aircraft off the ground and then propel it forward. Vertical Aerospace’s eVTOL machines (for electrical Vertical TakeOff and Landing) are therefore a mix between an airplane and a helicopter, only they use eight rotors instead of one. They have a range of about 170 kilometers, a top speed of 320 km/h and can carry up to four passengers, making them so-called air taxis fit for urban transport rather than a replacement for long-distance flights.
But the benefits are huge: zero emissions in flight of course, but also quietness, safety and affordability: using an eVTOL costs 80% less than flying in a helicopter. “This is going to make vertical flight possible for just about everybody that lives in a city, anywhere around the world”, says Stephen. “We’re going to get that vehicle certified between 2024 and 2025, so in the next three or four years you will see these aircraft flying around in major cities.” He adds that his company already has pre-orders for nearly 1500 aircraft, for airlines all over the world.
How can flying in an air taxi be so affordable? At about one dollar per passenger mile, the price is comparable to taking a taxi for one. The reasons for this are the price of the energy source (electricity remains far cheaper than kerosene), but also much lower maintenance and operating costs – just like for electric cars, thanks to the fact that an electric drivetrain uses few moving parts. All in all, using an electric air taxi to get across a large city will save users considerable amounts of both time and money.
From science fiction to sustainable business
Until very recently, all this could have sounded like science fiction. Drawing lessons from the EV space and even Formula 1, eVTOL technology has taken a leap forward in a very short time, which is something Stephen sums up in a quote: “I can't remember exactly who I should attribute this to, but I think it’s: we overestimate what we can achieve in two years and underestimate what we can achieve in ten,” he says. “For us, we look at aerospace and see the electrification of propulsion, massive advances in energy storage, in advanced materials, supercomputing, all of these technologies are converging and going to completely transform aerospace in a way that electrification has transformed the automotive sector.”
To him, experts often miss the fact that technologies tend to develop at an almost exponential rate, resulting in evolutions that everyone thought would take decades to happen in just a few years. And if this is true for electric urban mobility, it will surely also be true for long-distance flying. “With the science, chemistry and technology we already have today, you can create a zero-carbon aerospace economy very easily,” continues Stephen. “And whether it’s going to be based on hydrogen, ammonia or some kind of synthetic kerosene, we’re going to see combinations of electric propulsion and chemical energy storage over the next 10 to 20 years.
The key is of course turning avant-garde technological advancements into profitable business. Though there are tremendous opportunities in a zero-carbon world, patience and scientific rigorousness are primary requirements, along with thinking big, says Stephen.
“Having a vision is what’s going to keep you motivated. But also starting small and finding some niche or opportunity where you can develop skills, capability, credibility, raise capital and find a valuable application of what you’re doing. If technology makes it possible and it's better for the consumer, then that’s the future. Sooner or later, that’s what’s going to happen.”
If you think about all the ingenuity and technology that went into creating the first aircraft only 70 years ago, if we apply the same determination, we can make the dream of decarbonizing flight possible.
Success through partnerships
Of course, none of this is possible to achieve alone. Vertical Aerospace works in close collaboration with airlines, engineering firms and materials providers such as Solvay who has developed the composite structure of their air taxis. “In business, we often convince ourselves we are the best company, the best team to do it all ourselves, design every part,” says Stephen. “The idea that we are the best company to develop every single part of something as complex as an electric airplane is of course possible theoretically. But the question is, wouldn’t it be better to be the world's best in a couple of areas and then work with the world’s best on everything else?”
That’s exactly what Vertical Aerospace has been doing, and the success of its partnerships is probably the best harbinger of its future business success. “If you have some of the world's leading engineering firms and largest airlines all invested in the success of your project, then you’re so much more likely to succeed than if you’re trying to compete with everybody,” concludes Stephen. “I don't want to compete with anybody. We all work together on the project.”