Understanding the eVTOL passenger experience

Avatar for Mark BroadbentBy Mark Broadbent | December 23, 2020

Estimated reading time 8 minutes, 3 seconds.

A recent panel discussion by the NASA AAM Ecosystem Aircraft Working Group highlighted several issues passenger eVTOL vehicle developers must consider for flyers to feel safe and comfortable.

Bell passenger air taxi Uber Elevate
Attendees at an annual Uber Elevate conference experience through virtual reality an air taxi cabin designed by Bell. Bell Photo

As Tom Edwards, CTO of Crown Consulting, observed: “Passengers are going to be making a value judgement about the flight experience. Manufacturers want to avoid surprises that might inhibit people wanting to climb on board and fly.”

Onboard comfort

Key concerns about eVTOL flying identified by viewers of the NASA discussion included ride quality, pitch/roll angles, acceleration, turbulence/gusts, g-forces, noise, climb and descent trajectories, and the impact of turns, avoidance maneuvers and wind.

“If you control a vehicle in multiple axes as opposed to just one, you will find completely different effects of motion,” said Peter Zaal, principal systems architect at NASA Ames’ SimLabs, whose simulation and modelling facilities are researching these and other issues. “It’s really important to simulate the cues, looking at acceleration, vibration and noise all at the same time.”

Different simulators are required to accurately simulate these cues in a way relevant to eVTOL vehicles, Zaal said. “If we want to look at vibrations in cruise we could just [use] a small motion system, but if we are looking at dynamic phases of flight, or the take-off and landing, then we need a simulator with a larger motion capability such as a vertical motion simulator.”

Complexity is added to this research because stimuli characteristics change depending on the vehicle. “We see different jerk criteria for different modes of transportation. Those can be based off of how a person is seated or standing within a vehicle,” Zaal said.

And different simulators “each give different understanding [and] data points in terms of that person’s experience,” noted Shawn Kimmel, director of engineering at QS-2 consultancy. “Numbers don’t fully encapsulate the person’s experience. You need to think about something that might not be measured by the motion sickness dose value; things like dizziness, cold sweats, eye strain.”

Individual eVTOL vehicles’ varying performance and dynamics create corresponding differences in trajectories and airframe behavior. Kimmel said there is “a lot of work to do” to understand more, and Zaal believes building a complete profile of all the motions and vibrations during a flight is “very important to investigate.”

What are manufacturers doing?

Developers in the urban air mobility segment are working on comfort aboard eVTOLs in their own projects.

During the Working Group discussion, Embraer Eve CEO André Stein said his organization would use knowledge of anti-turbulence logics accrued by its parent company during the development of commercial airliner fly-by-wire flight control systems. A static flight simulator will be developed to assess logics for an eVTOL platform, Stein added.

For this article, eVTOL.com asked several companies to outline their plans for onboard comfort in the systems they are developing.

A Joby Aviation spokesperson responded: “Achieving the rigorous safety standards set by certifying bodies guarantees many of the most important elements of the passenger experience, such as accessibility, visibility, and aircraft stability by default. We do have a dedicated team working on the interior experience of the aircraft and look forward to sharing more detail around that in the coming years.”

Wisk said it has “conducted qualitative and quantitative research to find out what exactly passengers potentially expect from an air taxi experience. The key areas that customers are concerned about are safety, added value, and a higher-end experience.” The company added it plans to share more of its research results “in the coming months.”

The UK company Vertical Aerospace told eVTOL.com it has designed gust rejection properties into “highly augmented” flight control laws on its VA-1X aircraft, scheduled to fly in 2021, to minimize vibration. Vertical Aerospace has also created what it calls “asymmetric door execution,” with one door opening for the front row of passengers and another for the rear row, meaning those aboard do not have to step over one another to enter and exit the vehicle.

A barrier between the pilot and passenger space provides “cocooned, campfire-style seating,” and there will be an integrated skylight and large windows. Passenger displays and visual/audio lines of communication to the pilot will keep flyers informed of location, speed, ETA, and points of interest.

‘Critical to get right’

Participants in the NASA Working Group agreed maximizing onboard comfort matters. “We’ve got to give peace of mind to people and communicate [that] it is a very safe way to go from A to B,” said Eve’s Stein.

“A big piece [in developing the sector] is building trust and confidence in the system, because people will have a mental model of that form of transportation before they ever get into it,” added Kimmel of QS-2.

“Customers need to trust the aircraft is safe and certified before getting onboard. They also want to understand the safety features and how to communicate with a live person in flight, whenever desired,” Wisk told eVTOL.com of their approach.

“People want to try this new form of transportation [but] we want to ensure their first ride is as comfortable as possible to keep them coming back,” summarized Igor Dolgov, lead human factors engineer at Uber Elevate, during the Working Group discussion. “It’s one of the critical things to get right.”

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