No one can predict exactly how 2024 will unfold for the eVTOL sector, but we can all agree that the next 12 months will be very interesting. Much will be achieved, and no doubt, some unexpected twists are on their way.
Here’s a look at what’s very likely, less likely, what’s a coin toss and what some of the wild cards are that may show up in the eVTOL hand during the year ahead, from a select group of industry experts.
Strongly expected: The launch of ultralight eVTOLs
Part 103 eVTOLs, such as the Ryse Recon and the LIFT Hexa, are expected to enter service in the U.S., albeit in very limited numbers.
“There is public interest in owning one of these vehicles for recreational use,” observed Sergio Cecutta from Arizona-based SMG Consulting. “I think the public will love seeing them fly around but it will not be a common sight as they will mostly operate in remote and rural areas.”
Strongly expected: eVTOLs shine at the Paris Olympics
David Dunning, director of global innovation and policy at the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA), characterized showcasing eVTOLs at this event as “a potential milestone moment for the industry [that] should go a long way to enhance public awareness, and demonstrate their future role in the transportation ecosystem at large.”
Cecutta agreed. “eVTOL services in Paris will win over their detractors in the public and bring AAM [advanced air mobility] to worldwide attention outside of aerospace professionals,” he said. “However, the flights will be supply-limited as we forecast that Volocopter [under special permit] will be able to fly between 1,000 and 2,000 people total over the entire duration of the Olympics.”
Very likely: Joby will reach type certification in U.S. first, Volocopter in Europe
“Joby is definitely ahead of the pack in the U.S.,” Cecutta said. “We give them a 75% likelihood to certify before 2024 is over. The same odds apply to Volocopter, while again, we do not think they will be able to certify in time for the Summer Olympics.”
Dunning noted that each of the eVTOL frontrunners have unique technological advancements, and “the production of a conforming prototype will be a key enabler for any of these firms to meet the timelines they are targeting.”
Very likely: Interest grows in hydrogen fuel cells
The hydrogen industry, aided by the HYSKY Society, will continue to make progress addressing areas such as infrastructure, production and storage hurdles. Hydrogen is an excellent fixed-wing eVTOL option.
Dunning notes that fixed-wing aerospace companies Universal Hydrogen, H2Fly and ZeroAvia have already achieved test flights.
Strongly expected: Vertiport completion
Some experts believe a number of vertiports will be completed in the U.S. in locations, such as Miami, New York and Los Angeles, as well as other locations around the world. Dunning highlighted the fact that the U.S. already has significant airport and heliport infrastructure for powered-lift/eVTOL vertiport operations.
“For eVTOLs to scale up, industry is planning for a network of vertiports that leverage new and existing infrastructure,” Dunning said. “OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] are actively working with municipalities to identify the most ideal locations, how much investment is required, etc.”
Rex Alexander, president and executive director at Indiana-based Five-Alpha consultancy and the infrastructure adviser at the Vertical Flight Society (VFS), noted that with the expected release of the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) revision to its safety standards for heliports (NFPA-418) which will include vertiports in the first quarter of 2024, “I expect a significant effort by municipalities and states to begin the process of updating their codes to address vertiport requirements and standards.”
Alexander noted two other factors that will likely affect vertiport completion. He hopes that in 2024, “the realization by some in Congress that there is a missing key piece to the AAM infrastructure puzzle. While there has been a major focus on FAA criteria and airspace, few have paid much attention to the impact local land-use laws will have on AAM development. With over 99% of all heliports in the U.S. being identified as private-use, few realize that the majority of those are under a conditional use permit which does not allow for hangars, maintenance, refueling or commercial operations. As such, I expect to see Congress direct the FAA to stand up an Aviation Rulemaking Committee [ARC] to develop new use cases that include commercial operations at heliport and vertiports by eVTOL aircraft.”
Cecutta and his colleagues, however, do not expect any vertiport to be completed in 2024 in the U.S., but only the start and ongoing construction of a few by year’s end.
Likely: Consolidation, bowing out, and more
Cecutta didn’t foresee that any consolidation will occur among the top 10 OEMs in 2024, but he “would not be surprised to see a large legacy company scoop up one of the startups.” He added, “we still see firms joining the race. We already predicted failures and consolidation in 2023 and nothing happened.”
For his part, Angelo Collins, executive director at VFS, believes that while some smaller eVTOL firms will press forward, others may drop out of the running.
“A design can be very innovative and technologically advanced, but that doesn’t mean it will close, that it will get to flight testing and manufacture,” he said. “I have to give credit to Robinson for this. They’re really the helicopter industry outlier in that they’re one of the highest value products that exists, and their first R22 design wasn’t perfect, but they got it to market. In the end, you have to make money. Every eVTOL has a completely different design and some of them won’t be feasible for manufacturing or for other reasons. And I think other factors will come into play that are outside design.”
Alexander noted that “given the announcement by the International Civil Aviation Organization [ICAO] that they will be hosting their first-ever Advanced Air Mobility Symposium in September 2024 in Montreal, Canada, I expect to see more collaboration between countries in an attempt to harmonize AAM standards globally. Harmonization of AAM standards has the potential to greatly impact this burgeoning industry’s business case, either positively or negatively, depending on the actions taken.”
He added that “if we use 2022 and 2023 as a window into the future, I expect we will see some new lawsuits being filed by those in the investment community against certain manufacturers and organizations for overpromising and underdelivering. 2023 has been a year of hype; 2024 will be a year of reality.”
Likely: A focus on boosting grid capacity
Dunning said the more that the sector can highlight the importance of remaining proactive with respect to understanding the industry’s power requirements at increasing levels of activity, the better.
“With our current capacity, adding tens of eVTOL aircraft in various areas is understood to be manageable, but it is likely that industry may need significant investment in electricity production for the industry to scale up. It’s a really important discussion.”
Coin toss: Major technological breakthrough
In Dunning’s view, advancements in electric battery and hydrogen technology are projected to progress incrementally rather than in leaps, but “the focus of significant breakthroughs is anticipated to be on the development of supporting infrastructure, particularly in areas like hydrogen storage.”
Wild cards: The known and unknowns
Collins was quite certain there will likely be at least one major variable that will affect how the eVTOL sector will play out this year, but it is yet unknown. Glancing back at 2023, he pointed to Beta now working with Archer on a standardized charging approach as an example of an unexpected twist, and that synergistic developments like these can affect what comes to market “much more than aircraft design.”
Dunning noted that AAM has already fostered unexpected partnerships between traditional aerospace companies, eVTOL tech innovators and infrastructure developers. More may be on the way.
In Cecutta’s view, the biggest wildcard of 2024 is which OEMs meet their milestones.
“I think 2024 will definitely be the year of ‘put up or shut up,’ as it will decide who makes it into service in 2025 and 2026, and it might even decide what is the lifespan of some of these companies.”
Dunning added, “it’s a very exciting year ahead. This year, the groundwork we’ve been laying down will come together, and it speaks to the importance for the industry to keep focused in order to achieve our envisioned timelines.”