Embraer X’s new eVTOL urban mobility concept employs clean, quiet electric propulsion distributed across multiple propellers and rotors. The concept was unveiled at Uber Elevate 2018 in May (Image source: Embraer).

Embraer X eVTOL debuts design at Uber Elevate 2018

Embraer’s new offshoot aims to “lean in” as the disruptive urban air mobility market begins to take shape
Autonomous flying cars and air-taxis have been the subject of science fiction movies for decades, but Brazilian aerospace manufacturer Embraer has now announced plans to develop a practical – if futuristic – small commercial air vehicle. However, Embraer is far from alone as a new generation of disruptive aerial projects emerge from new and established companies, all claiming they will change how we use air transport in the coming years.

There has been a huge leap in aircraft design and manufacturing capability in Brazil as Embraer gradually evolved families of regional turboprop transports and then expanded into small jet feeder- liners and business jets; until finally entering into the 140-seat twin jet market, with over 8,000 global sales in total. 

These product lines have been highly successful and confirmed Embraer as a global aerospace player, but to date they have all been conventional in concept, taking the best new features from world-class suppliers, incorporating fuel-efficient engines, integrated avionics systems with fly-by-wire controls and glass cockpits, and increasing use of composite components. 

But now the company’s new offshoot, Embraer X, based in Melbourne, Florida, has moved into the front-line of disruptive innovation with its announcement of a new electric-powered Vertical Take-Off and Landing (eVTOL) aircraft concept. This company has been created to develop highly innovative, potentially game-changing, aerospace projects taking technologies to the limit, and leading to new products in the not-too-distant future. 

There are Embraer innovation teams in Silicon Valley, California, as well as in Boston, who are integrating and collaborating with other innovation communities. At this stage the company priority is to join with other enterprises to examine the realistic prospects for introducing a radically different air vehicle that takes today’s rapidly expanding VTOL drone and electric technology and up-scales it to provide a revolutionary, yet practical, solution for meeting the needs of growing, more sophisticated, communities who will need direct, and more personal, transport – especially in city environments.

Embraer X used the occasion of the Uber Elevate 2018 event in Los Angeles, in May, to unveil its outline aircraft design.

“We are relentless in our quest for constant growth and through Embraer X we will drive disruptive innovation and accelerate the creation of new businesses with the potential for exponential growth. Urban mobility is ripe for transformation and we are committed to having a major role in this key market,” said company president and CEO, Paulo Cesar de Souza e Silva.

The eVTOL initial design is built around what are described as key-drivers – safety, passenger experience, affordability and very low noise and emissions footprint for the community. 

“We are developing solutions to bring on-demand air transportation to urban areas to improve quality of life for millions of people. Our collaboration with key stakeholders will accelerate the arrival of this new eco-system,” added de Souza e Silva.

Seen in the context of Uber’s Elevate ecosystem, the new Embraer X initiative demonstrates that the Brazilian-owned company intends to keeping ahead of the current immature demand curve, to maintain a competitive position when all the many associated challenges have been identified and overcome. Those challenges do represent some steep technological mountains yet to climb as they extend well beyond the development of air vehicles, which already pose difficult design issues. 

To start, the choice of electric propulsion is an obvious decision, as it is clean and quiet. Power distribution and new materials make it the most predictable course for the industry and electric propulsion technologies will firm up in the coming years. Multiple tilt propellers or rotors have made the aircraft architecture seen in today’s drones an acceptable standard for further development, as they allow for good control and stability. 

However, even though they are easily adapted to larger air platforms with the relatively light, urban use payloads, there are still shortcomings when it comes to point-to-point flight time endurance. 

Almost all the projected VTOL designs that have been announced to date suffer from very short range compared to an equivalent conventional light helicopter, even if they are much more acceptable in terms of noise and emissions pollution. Down-time for battery charging is an important issue for electric aircraft, as revenues aren’t earned during charging. That said, the idea of detachable passenger, or payload, pods that can be plugged into ready-charged propulsion units is one direction that is being investigated by would-be manufacturers of new air-taxi aircraft. Battery weight is steadily reducing as technology progresses, but it can represent a disproportionate payload penalty on a very light air vehicle. 

When development aircraft designs have been refined on the computer screens and test rigs, and take to the air for evaluation, it will then be possible to see for the first time how realistic day-to-day electric VTOL air-taxi operations might be.  Continue reading »