Estimated reading time 8 minutes, 33 seconds.
AutoFlight’s progress has been steady this year, and big milestones are coming in 2023.
While the company was founded in China in 2017 and its manufacturing will be done in that country, as well as its research and development for the cargo version of the firm’s Prosperity I eVTOL, AutoFlight has gone global.
In November 2021, AutoFlight received US$100 million in funding for expansion, and in January, its new main engineering hub opened in Augsburg, Germany, headed by Mark Henning, former project manager for the H145 Airbus helicopter.
As of Oct. 5, AutoFlight welcomed a new chief commercial officer, Chad Cashin, who is the former business development head at Joby Aviation. The new AutoFlight president is Omer Bar-Yohay, who founded and was CEO of Eviation Aircraft. Cashin and Bar-Yohay will be based at AutoFlight’s new U.S. office in Napa, California.
Bar-Yohay said he was keen to join AutoFlight because of its excellent team, unique design and solid progress so far.
The company holds more than 200 patents for various technologies, including electric motors, electronic control systems, and lightweight carbon-fiber composite materials.
It’s also one of only two winged eVTOL companies worldwide that has publicly demonstrated successful transition from vertical hover to horizontal forward flight with a full-scale aircraft — in AutoFlight’s case, hundreds of times with its Prosperity I eVTOL.
“Our top priority in the coming months is to establish a U.S. test flight regiment and achieve regular transition flights of Prosperity I over U.S. soil,” Bar-Yohay said. “This is a key milestone in our ongoing progress toward type certification with the European Union Aviation Safety Agency [EASA] ahead of planned passenger flights in 2026.”
In June, AutoFlight released its latest video of Prosperity I, showing off the new design with upgraded lift and cruise capability. The eight lifting propellers for vertical take-off remain, but in the new design, the previous two pushing propellers located on either side of the aircraft have been replaced with one center propeller with twin motors.
Bar-Yohay said those remaining refinements happening now, before the final Prosperity I design is released in early 2023, are small. They are focused on optimizing payload and minimizing operating sound, among a few other areas.
The Prosperity I is designed for urban air mobility (UAM) and regional flights, with a cruising speed of 200 kilometers per hour (125 miles per hour), and range of 250 kilometers (155 miles). It is just over three meters (10 feet) tall, with a length of 10.3 m (around 34 ft), and a wingspan of 12.8 m (42 ft).
It is powered by lithium-ion batteries, but Bar-Yohay said other batteries, such as lithium metal, could be easily used in the future. He expects that battery technology will advance and while the AutoFlight team will monitor all developments with battery and hydrogen, the battery-powered system of the Prosperity I is not considered to be an interim measure that will be replaced by a hydrogen system anytime soon, if ever. That’s similar to what other eVTOL developers are doing, in terms of power, he said.
What sets AutoFlight apart from all others, Bar-Yohay said, is Prosperity I itself.
“The simplicity of the design means that we will offer the market the best safety at an affordable price,” he explained. “A simple design, without a tilting rotor or anything else like that, keeps costs down. We have also designed for cost-effective manufacturing, and we’ll have component manufacturing in China where we can leverage the supply chain infrastructure for batteries and everything else. Then, final assembly and testing will be completed locally at every major market, catering to different regulatory requirements and locally-made systems.”
Simplicity also drives safety, Bar-Yohay said. As mentioned, he said there is no complex tilting rotor mechanism, for example, “which can be prone to fail and also adds weight.”
Prosperity I weighs only 1,800 kilograms (about 4,000 pounds) and will carry three passengers and a pilot.
Autonomy to come
Passengers riding in Prosperity I will see the pilot and be able to interact with him or her.
“Visually blocking off the pilot to have passengers comfortable with no pilot as we move to automated flight, in my thinking, is irrelevant at this stage,” Bay-Yohay said. “I also think the interaction with a pilot is very important to have passengers feel confident in their safety, to have that willingness to climb aboard. That confidence is what will be needed, day-in, day-out, to grow the industry.”
At the same time, Bay-Yohay believes it would be naive to think UAM will scale up to expected future volumes with the current regulations requiring a pilot. But while it will be piloted for the foreseeable future, the Prosperity I is designed for fully autonomous flight.
“The regulatory framework and social acceptance has to progress first,” Bar-Yohay said. “Also, the management of the airspace needs to advance. Our eVTOL is autonomous out of the box — it can fly itself based on a flight plan and can handle emergencies, but the software cannot yet navigate the airspace right now.”
As mentioned, AutoFlight is working toward type certification with EASA. Once that is achieved, aircraft validation agreements between jurisdictions will be used to achieve subsequent certification in the U.S. and China.
As with all eVTOLs, test flights are an integral part of the pathway to certification.
“When we unveil the final design in early 2023, we will start with test flights in the California desert,” Bar-Yohay said. “We will then move to the Napa County airport in early 2023, flying under the conditions needed to go to market. We’ll then do flight tests in Germany and eventually in China. There is an infinite amount of learning from every flight. There are aspects of the aircraft that will mature toward conformity with regulatory requirements. This obviously requires some lab work but of course, flight testing is critical.”
AutoFlight’s V1500M — similar in design and automation to Prosperity I — completed its first test flight in fall 2021 in China.
Certification of eVTOLs in China is beginning with automated aircraft, and AutoFlight will seek to certify the cargo version of V1500M first — called the “CarryAll” — hopefully achieving this by the end of 2023. Its application for type certification was accepted in September, the company said.
AutoFlight is the developer of various eVTOL cargo drones, including the V400 unveiled last year.
“There are already a large number of drone flights in China, and drone development is a great opportunity to gather information for development of our eVTOLs,” Bar-Yohay said. “We have a very exciting few years ahead of us as we establish AutoFlight in Europe and the U.S., and conduct test flights on both continents as we move toward certification.”