Could it be we are at the one-in-one-out phase of the budding eVTOL market? This week, the outtie is KittyHawk, an early and well-funded entrant into what is imagined as the Urban Air Mobility market. The closure is significant because the company was well along with a couple of designs and seemed to have investment staying power from Google mega-billionaire Larry Page. But the field is crowded and ripe for a shakeout, and UAM is still little more than a concept.
Entering through the revolving door is AERWINS with the Xturismo hoverbike it debuted in the U.S. this week at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. They actually flew the thing—briefly—and the website is accepting orders at $777,000 each. Here, take my money!
Xturismo, you take a number in the dingbat parade behind Hoversurf and the New Zealand-based Malloy Hoverbike. The former has a website, the latter an actual flying example. As KittyHawk circles the drain is it cruel to point out that it too made a splash with public demonstrations of a hoverbike at Oshkosh in 2017? Maybe, but not enough to keep me from doing it anyway. Let’s see, there’s also JetPack that showed a sky scooter a few years ago and more recently, the Jetson, which actually makes a certain fever dream sense. The hoverbike idea is as evergreen as the flying car but perhaps a little more realistic, given the power-to-weight requirements and that motorcycle crazies are pre-qualified for purchases of machines of dubious usefulness and even lesser survivability.
Let’s mention what makes these things technically feasible. It’s the same technology that allows a first grader to fly a drone through your dining room window and land it in the living room: highly automated fly-by-wire control made cheap and feasible by buck-a-piece MEMS gyros, microprocessors and high-output brushless electric motors powered by lithium-ion batteries. Once you’ve got all that, it’s just a matter of scaling it up. But it doesn’t scale that easily, as the famous Dubai hoverbike test crash showed. It’s tricky to the get the rates and damping just right so that when homo the sap is in the loop, he doesn’t input variables the code writers never thought of. But it can be done.
The Xturismo appears to be another hack at the problem. The company offers few details on its power and control architecture, but it’s not all-electric. It might be thought of as a hybrid or an electric-assisted ducted fan. I just made that last one up, but what the hell, I’m traipsing through fantasyland here so who’s going to tell me not to do it? Get your own fantasy.
As is obvious, the Xturismo has two big fans and four smaller ones arrayed around the perimeter of the machine. Some of the reporting says the powerplant is a 228-HP Kawasaki motorcycle engine, which sounds like the motor from an H2 track-only Supersport. The photos don’t reveal enough detail to suggest whether the two main fans are electrically or mechanically driven from the engine, with some kind of direct drive. If that’s so, then the Xturismo would be a serial hybrid, like a diesel-electric locomotive. If it’s mechanical drive—my bet—then it must have a belt, chain or driveshaft arrangement of some kind.
I think I’d opt for the third choice because if one of those fans providing the primary thrust fails, you’d have a serious asymmetrical thrust problem. I would guess that the outer fans provide fly-by-wire pitch and roll and would have to be electrically powered, which you’d need to rapidly vary thrust for stabilized flight control, like a multi-rotor drone.
Quoted specs for this thing are a little, ummm, fuzzy. One gave an altitude limit of 20 inches. There’s wisdom in that number. Personally, that’s about as high as I’d be willing to fall, although the demo pilot climbed to at least five or six feet. Well, he was actually spam in the can, since the demo was flown by a remote operator. (Is it just me, or does the rider look as nervous as a 62-hour student on first solo?)
The website gives the cruising range as 40 km or 25 miles. Conceding I’m analyzing this from moon beams, this strikes me as odd. If it’s hydrocarbon powered by an H2 engine, it surely ought to run more than 30 minutes. The specs further say it has a battery, so maybe the electric control fans are battery powered only and have no ability to operate from an onboard generator. Not the best idea, but maybe unavoidable given the power requirements.
All of this is but amusingly academic for the U.S. market. At 300 kg (660 lbs.), the Xturismo is far too heavy to qualify as an ultralight so it will fall into the emerging but murky world of certified eVTOL aircraft. Or an aircraft of some kind, thus requiring a pilot certificate, too. (AERIWINS plans another less expensive version.) Perhaps it’s a new category: multi-rotor sport aircraft. Evidently, in Japan, it’s not considered an aircraft, which may be why AERWINS imagines it to be suitable for first responders and law enforcers.
Sure, why not? That’s as good a placeholder as any to draw in more investors until this project goes the way of Kittyhawk, which had more financial backing, I’m sure. These projects will keep coming (and going) because the technological underpinnings I described above exist and will continue to improve and become more accessible. And there’s enough venture capital on the sidelines to fund them, fueled by enough people who think their project will be the one that breaks through. Or who are just amused by wacky ideas and can afford to watch them crater.
And you know what, good for them, because one or some of these projects will eventually break through. As electric and distributed propulsion advances, the curves—performance, cost, market appeal, applications—will eventually merge into something that works. The world needs visionary ideas and if some of them inhabit the lunatic fringe, it has ever been so. Distributed electric power is not going to suddenly vanish as we veer enthusiastically back toward fossil fuels. The evolution has started, there’s just going to be a lot of wrecked hoverbikes on the way.
This IS evolution, and it’s more Darwinian than technological.
Very true, and hey, you never know. After all, what’s emerged here on Earth that way is kinda impressive. Of course, if we knew the full number of dead ends, we might wonder if it was worth the wait.
After 70 years of the the “flying cars” push, one no need longer wonder if it’s a dead end.
Don’t tell Paul Moller and Clive Cussler!
I think that Cussler already met his dead end.
Moller at 86 while not dead, the company is “dormant”.
Adding a battery does not solve the problems.
There is a thin line between “revolutionary” and “crazy”……
“The difference between insanity (crazy) and genius (revolutionary) is measured only by success and failure.“ – Masashi Kishimoto.
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”.
Whoever comes up with a battery/motor/vehicle combo that makes eVTOL practical will be richer than the 10 richest people in the world put together. I’m betting it’ll never happen.
You’re right. Elon Musk is busy with rockets and we only get one of them a century.
“And you know what, good for them, because one or some of these projects will eventually break through.“ actually disagree here (depending on your definition of breaking through). If you’re referring to a unicorn in VC terms. But in aviation there is no such thing. In tech sure. There are plenty of examples of billion dollar ideas. Anytime you have to have people and or pilots in a position to plummet to the earth you will not have a unicorn. If the liability won’t kill you, the very shrunken market that actually materializes will be proof that it was about the same size as the paraglider market size. No mass market here and no Uber-like growth chart. Hope I’m wrong, but I just don’t see the market here.
My definition of breaking through is getting past the steep barriers to entry and achieving a successful, sustainable business. And of course it has happened in aviation. What do you think Cirrus is? And Diamond. I covered both from the outset and both were given little chance of success. But both achieved the right combination of timing, product features, performance and marketing expertise to make it over the hump.
I think it’s inevitable that this will happen in the distributed electric power space, eventually. Not with hoverbikes, but with some kind of useful aircraft.
All ya gotta do is look at Icon which I’d closely view as this hoverbike. For just over $100K, buyers were going to be able to zip around in a little high tech auto-like seaplane. Look where that went. Cirrus — on the other hand … and as you say — started as two driven brothers in Baraboo, WI with a vision, the good luck to time their entry, a market ready for the picking and a modicum of good luck. The product they produced isn’t a toy but, rather, a useful transportation machine. THAT’s the key. A usable product at a price the market is willing to bear.
I guess what I was trying to say was that any company that wants to mainstream an aviation product for the masses including non~pilots is in for a ride. Cirrus or any other ga doesn’t count b/c they were never targeting the masses. They were after the existing and new ga pilots. Folks like icon that think showing at the auto show in Detroit to entice people who would never ever have flown ga, but somehow will buy their airplane are deluded. They will entice some but those folks were toying around with the idea of getting their ppl or sport pilot certificate anyways. Mainstream people are scared to death of anything capable of falling out of the sky.
No one wanting to make money is targeting this bunch of old, angry codgers.
Cirrus clearly believed they could expand the market greatly, and one of the key reasons they succeeded was they not only attacked the existing market, they went hard after the people who were interested, capable, and not joining our little club.
Talk to some folks in the piston plane business and find out how often they lost a sale to Cirrus when they could get the prospect into a competing demonstration flight. It wasn’t that often. A LOT of Cirrus airplanes showed up at fields with pilots no one had met who often did not have a certificate yet.
Dries had money, and was brilliant, and made better planes. He wasn’t a marketer, or a revolutionary, and he didn’t understand the cesspool that is piston GA.
IMO, the secret to success is navigating Washington, DC. The tech will come. The winner will be the one who gets the game fixed in their favor. Smart investors would be virtually ignoring the fancy demonstration models and asking to shake hands with politicians and bureaucrats who are committed to making the company successful. This ain’t no free market capitalism contest.
Thanks for that perspective. Makes sense
Is Cirrus viable without the financial power that comes from ownership by the Chinese Government?
The vast majority of the entire US GA industry likely doesn’t exist without the massive resources of a foreign power, who owns the various entities for a different reason than simple capital returns.
It sure is now. In 2008, apparently not.
All significant advances in aircraft were a result of revolutionary advances in power plants. The Wright brothers engine made powered flight possible for the first time. Rotary engines made airplanes militarily useful, radial engines made practical airliners, and jet engines enabled revolutionary increases in performance.
The question is what is the next revolutionary power plant ? Personally think it is going to be electric but what will be the energy source, battery, hybrid battery, hydrogen, something else? That is where there is much uncertainty with likely many failed attempts before someone comes up with the secret sauce.
The journey is going to be interesting….
Paul mentions it only in passing … pilot certificate. But there’s a lot more here than just rider (?) qualification that those companies and their investors seem to conveniently ignore.
There’s no way in this reality that vehicles of this kind will simply be allowed to buzz around whichever way they like. There’s a whole slew of regulations that needs to be created. Are those things meant to follow roads? If yes, how far above ground? There are obstacles like power lines, traffic lights, underpasses… If you need to follow the line of cars in front of you, what’s the point?
Or will they be allowed to criss-cross the landscape freely? What about private property or installations with restricted access? How can they protect themselves from unauthorised overflight? How do you enforce those rules? Are cops going to go on patrol in the air and force offenders to land, like a pair of F-18s?
The only solution here would be to require these vehicles to adhere to MSAs and make them part of the rules of the air rather than the ground. So now you’re sitting out in the open, on a vehicle with no glide or autorotation capability (as far as we know), with spinning bone shredders all around you, 1000 ft above a city. Or your sharing the narrow airspace between the skyscrapers and airplane territory with sightseeing helicopters and that other miracle-in-waiting – unmanned drone taxis.
I don’t think so.
Economically, aviation industries are not in a thriving market, and it will not improve for the foreseeable future. These innovations are fantastic, and we should applaud the efforts of such firms, but the timing is wrong for marketing such expensive, non-essential hardware.
“If it’s hydrocarbon powered by an H2 engine, it surely ought to run more than 30 minutes. The specs further say it has a battery…” Surely from that you would have to conclude its a hydrogen fuel-cell-powered machine…?
“How do you make a small fortune in aviation?… start with a large one”.
Like a few others, my bet is the tech challenge is a…challenge, but it pales in comparison to getting any significant fraction of the population interested in actually sitting in one, much less repeating the experience after a windy, stormy hop to a “lily pad”…and if that doesn’t end well for the wealthy early adopters on board and/or innocent bystanders below, the lawyers, insurance industry, media, legislators, regulators and your Aunt Mabel will all weigh in to change whatever assumptions facilitated the initial “success”. Perhaps we’ll get a preview if (when?) one of the space tourist rides goes off the rails…
For routine proof of market size…what look do you get from the majority of your friends/family when you offer a flight?
I hear ya! I owned a Grumman TR2, and I got a version of tennis elbow after constantly pulling my wallet out.
Always a good point.
Good morning. Don’t forget that the launch (piloted by a chimp) that proceeded John Glenn’s first flight….blew up. America’s greatness has always been as a result of its brave pioneers. We owe everything to the imaginations, creativity, and guts of those that were not afraid to take a chance.
As long as those trusting their money and their lives with these concepts are aware of the risks, no issue.
Unfortunately, everything I’ve seen so far is worthy of a bad late night infomercial…though they’re apparently catching enough venture capitalists drunk-dialing after last call.
…while the rest of us not so well funded participants in the national airspace system and residential property owners hang on for the loopy regulatory mess that’s going to accommodate these visions of utopia.
“Visions of utopia”….interesting. People probably said the same thing about the Wright Bros. or cartoonists like Jules Verne. How about Kennedy’s speech in 1962 regarding a moon landing in the same decade?
There will always be scam artists in every industry and there will be sincere dreamers that fail. The road to success is almost always paved with failures.
Thank God for the dreamers and visionaries.
“… it surely ought to run more than 30 minutes.” – Think of it as a courtesy extended to the operator. You can see how bad the “rider/pilot” was trying to manage the willies. After 30 minutes, the risk of the operator peeing ones’ self would seem inevitable.
The Jetson model videos are pretty compelling. Unfortunately, it has already been ripped off by what I assume is a Chinese company displaying a copy at Osh this year. The back drop in their booth was a riot… “Now everyone can be owned aircraft”, for real.
The foundation is the most important part of a house. The weakest part of an electric vehicle is the battery. Why would anyone use the battery as a foundation to build upon?
Colin Furze built one of these in his shed a few years ago. It was barely controllable, but it flew. Find it on YouTube.
The contraption, as is, sucks.
I’m probably a little late to the party and I though I’m not intending to be a bandwagon naysayer, I will be a naysayer. My logbook pales in comparison to many around here but I do have, by my estimation and thanks to the sheer cheapness of it, hundreds of hours behind the sticks of FPV and line of sight multirotors. Not DJI or toy grade ones, the home built, racing and freestyle kind. I’d never accept the risk involved in flying a manned multirotor, let alone a quadcopter. An airplane is highly unlikely to just drop out of the sky unless you make it, a helicopter can autorotate, a fixed pitch quadcopter? Its mode of failure is to drop or, more accurately; tumble, to the ground. A hexacopter will probably allow you to make a safe forced landing, an octocopter may allow you to find an airport, a quadcopter you’d better hope you can bail out as it spins end over end from asymmetric thrust. None of them stay in the air if there’s a complete power failure. There are collective pitch equipped multirotors, I have only flown one since they’re pretty rare and fairly expensive, they may be able to autorotate if there’s a power loss, but any asymmetric condition is still instant and irrecoverable LOC.
Does a BRS work when you’re tumbling end over end at an uncomfortable but unspecified number of RPM? Multirotors don’t just ignore the laws of physics when there’s a thrust imbalance, hence my comment about tumbling to the ground.
Meanwhile La Moto du Ciel (Sky motobike in English) made by Humbert Aviation has been flying and giving great pleasure since the 1980s…
They’ll all sell in Dubai!