Airbus prepares to begin assembly of CityAirbus NextGen demonstrator
By Oliver Johnson | February 23, 2023
Estimated reading time 12 minutes, 24 seconds.
Airbus Urban Air Mobility is planning a year of “build, build, build” as it prepares its CityAirbus NextGen demonstrator for a first flight in 2024, while creating an ecosystem testbed for the aircraft in Germany.
“This year is all about assembly,” Balkiz Sarihan, head of urban air mobility (UAM) at Airbus, told reporters during recent briefing at Airbus Helicopters in Marignane, France. “The pieces [for CityAirbus NextGen] are coming in. This year our mantra is build, build, build.”
CityAirbus NextGen was launched in 2021, and is the third eVTOL vehicle developed by the manufacturer, following its CityAirbus and Vahana demonstrators. It incorporates lessons learned from each of its predecessor’s designs.
The aircraft is powered by eight propellers and 16 electrical power units, with dual systems for redundancy, and will carry one pilot with three passengers in a banked seat at the rear of the cabin.
Airbus UAM announced the last of its suppliers for the demonstrator at the end of January: Eaton and Crouzet will supply the aircraft’s electrical power distribution system (EPDS) and the human-machine interface, respectively. Other suppliers include Magicall (electrical power units), KLK (the aircraft’s tail), Spirit Aerosystems (wings), and Thales (primary computing system).
Airbus UAM broke ground on a dedicated test center for the aircraft in Donauworth, Germany, last year, with the demonstrator due to begin test flights in 2024. The first flights will have a pilot on board, Sarihan confirmed.
Sarihan confirmed the design of the controls included “a stick” (rather than two).
“The operation should be simpler, the interface should be simpler,” she said. “Therefore, when we’re imagining and designing what the cockpit will look like, all of this will be simpler as well.”
The company will also bring the aircraft to market as a piloted machine, with potential autonomous operation further down the road.
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“We really believe that the entry point is with a pilot first,” said Sarihan. “There is a lot of automation from a technology perspective that has already been built into the aircraft systems, but [it’s] pilot first, for us.”
The aircraft will likely evolve as the technology in it evolves, she added, noting that it is scalable.
“We are now having a product vision based on what we project to be the evolution of technology,” she said. “We’re not designing for huge leaps and bounds in battery technology [for example]. But it will come — which will also mean a lot more flexibility.”
This could mean a larger cabin or different configuration.
Hydrogen fuel cells could also be intergrated into future generations of eVTOLs, said Sarihan.
Building an ecosystem
At the same time as building the demonstrator, Airbus UAM is working on the ecosystem in which the aircraft will operate.
“It’s not enough just to build the vehicle,” said Sarihan. “We have to think about the regulations, we have to think about how these vehicles and this technology will be incorporated into our cities and our communities.”
This includes topics ranging from public acceptance to community engagement and first-use cases, she said.
The UAM industry will develop at a different pace and in a different way in different places, she added. With this in mind, the manufacturer has agreed a range of partnerships with operators in various locations, including ITA Airways in Italy, Ecocopter in Chile, The Helicopter and Jet Company in Saudi Arabia, and Hiratagakuen in Japan.
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The partnership with Hiratagakuen is already involving flights with helicopters to test the airspace.
“We really want to plant the seeds beyond [Airbus’s] home countries [France, Germany and Spain],” said Sarihan. These operator partners are also adding their input on their requirements for UAM technology, how it could be incorporated into their operations, and maintenance considerations.
In terms of the latter, she said the maintenance burden should be lower than with helicopters due to NextGen’s simplified design, with distributed electric propulsion.
“Also, we’re thinking about the uptime and operability of this aircraft,” she said. “What then becomes a line maintenance activity, versus what becomes a service center activity, versus what needs to be repaired? What can we repair? What are we replacing? All of this goes into the thinking as well.”
The company’s Air Mobility Initiative is perhaps the most dramatic example of its desire to test the UAM ecosystem. Along with 28 partners — including the local government, infrastructure companies, use space designers and transport companies — it plans to build fully functioning vertiports to fly the first UAM missions in Bavaria, Germany.
“Let’s see how [a UAM aircraft] actually interacts when we’re dealing with the public,” said Sarihan. “What’s going to be their first reaction? What’s going to be their expectation? How are we managing the passenger and user experience?”
Together with its partners, Airbus is in the process of selecting the sites for the vertiports. It will begin with two sites, with further expansion possible after operations begin.
Considerations include the possible routes and distances between the sites, the missions the aircraft will fly, the overall system design — and the public consultation process.
“[We want] to make sure that we are choosing locations that are meaningful and representative, but also something that will be acceptable,” said Sarihan. This consideration of public acceptability will also be applied to the routes chosen — they will be predefined, over water, railways, or on the periphery of a city.
The hope is that lessons learned from the ecosystem will provide a blueprint that can be replicated elsewhere.
A ‘step-by-step’ approach
Sarihan said the urban air mobility (UAM) industry is now entering a stage of “execution,” with much of the exploratory work completed and concepts matured. “Now we’re seeing a level of maturation, and this is when it starts to get quite serious as well.”
Airbus UAM’s development pace is behind that of some of its competitors in the eVTOL field — such as Joby Aviation and Beta Technologies (with both performing flight tests last year) — but Sarihan said the company wouldn’t be rushed.
“We are not the first, we are not the fastest — nor do we try to be,” she said. The company’s very deliberate “step by step” approach is reflective of its belief that the UAM industry will develop slowly — at least to begin with.
“We’re not going to go from zero to tens of thousands of vehicles flying in the skies in our communities,” said Sarihan. She said such scale of growth “is just not feasible” from airspace management, infrastructure, and public acceptance perspectives. “We need to have [the public] with us to excite them, to entice them — but also to have them have access to a service that is 100 percent trustable.”
Airbus believes the first feeder cases for CityAirbus NextGen will be in medical applications, connecting remote communities, and eco-tourism.
As the industry develops, Sarihan believes we’ll see greater cooperation. Currently, regulation and charging infrastructure are the two main areas where the sector has worked closely together. Looking ahead, she said batteries could be another area where there is cooperation.
Sarihan said she doesn’t see the UAM industry competing directly with the helicopter industry, with the latter’s performance capabilities starkly different to those of eVTOLs.
“Helicopters, where the performance is needed from payload, to difficult environments, to all weather conditions . . . this is not replicable by eVTOLs. It simply is not,” she said. “It’s not what they’re designed for — but they can do something else.”