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Electric air-taxi revolution gains pace with Japan, China deals

Electric air taxis are emerging as a new aviation sector.
Image: Bloomberg

Moves to deploy fleets of electric air taxis in some of the world’s biggest cities are gathering steam with two of the sector’s pacesetters unveiling a raft of orders.

Britain’s Vertical Aerospace Group announced an outline deal to provide Japanese conglomerate Marubeni Corp. with 200 electric vertical takeoff and landing craft on Wednesday, a day after revealing accords with Brazil’s biggest airline and the world’s No. 1 helicopter operator.

German rival Volocopter GmbH said separately it would establish a venture with investor Geely Automobile Holdings Ltd. that will see its eVTOL model built in China, starting with an order for 150 to be deployed around the country.

Electric air taxis are emerging as a new aviation sector, with the first designs nearing maturity and their developers raising hundreds of millions of dollars through deals with special purpose acquisition companies. A spate of orders has seen locations such as Singapore and Bavaria plan tourist and medical roles for the craft, while carriers such as American Airlines Group Inc. and Virgin Atlantic Airways see eVTOLs serving premium customers.

“While helicopter operators will be the big users, airlines are looking at eVTOLs to connect airports with city centers for business- and first-class passengers,” Vertical Aerospace Chief Executive Officer Stephen Fitzpatrick said in an interview. “We also see new opportunities as higher safety, lower noise-and-cost models open up air mobility to almost anyone who lives in a city.”

Vertical Aerospace’s Marubeni deal takes the backlog for its VA-X4 to 1 350 aircraft, the Bristol, England-based firm said in a statement. It follows Tuesday’s deals to provide 250 to Gol Linhas Aéreas Inteligentes via lessor Avolon Holdings and 25 to Houston-based chopper firm Bristow Group.

Marubeni could use the craft for public-sector and medical-evacuation flights, as well as connecting downtown Tokyo with Narita airport, avoiding a car journey of up to two hours. The city has more helipads than any other but most are rarely used due to noise restrictions and government rules.

“Japan is going to be a very large market for eVTOLs, with its high population density and large helipad infrastructure,” Fitzpatrick said.

China hub

Volocopter’s joint venture will seek to deploy eVTOLs in China within three to five years following consultation with authorities. It will be based in Chengdu in Sichuan province, a city that’s both a transport hub and a manufacturing base for the automaker, which will produce Volocopter aircraft and parts.

Geely has been a Volocopter investor since 2019, with other backers include Daimler AG, DB Schenker and Intel Corp.’s venture-capital arm. Volocopter plans what may be the world’s first commercial eVTOL flights carrying tourists around Singapore and providing an air-ambulance service in Germany by 2023, and has sought regulatory approval in the US and European Union.

Travel by eVTOL costs about $1 per passenger per mile over a typical 25-mile journey, according to Fitzpatrick. That’s about one-fifth the expense of a similar helicopter trip, he said.

Vertical Aerospace says the four-passenger VA-X4 will fly at 200 miles per hour for more than 100 miles, putting it firmly in helicopter territory.

Volocopter’s baseline model, the VoloCity, had its first manned test in 2011 and is strictly an intra-urban transport able to carry two people, reach 68 mph and fly for 22 miles. The company said in May it will be followed by the VoloConnect, carrying four people for more than 60 miles at 112 mph.

Vertical Aerospace plans to conduct a first test flight later this year, with certification as early as 2024, and said in June it would list via a reverse merger with Broadstone Acquisition in a deal valuing their combined equity at about $2.2 billion.

© 2021 Bloomberg

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