In the second of our articles looking at key players in the Urban Air Mobility (UAM) market we take a look at Vertical Aerospace from Bristol, the United Kingdom's leading eVTOL aircraft manufacturer.
The UK's front-running eVTOL manufacturer founded in 2016 by renewable energy entrepreneur Stephen Fitzpatrick (founder and CEO of Ovo Energy valued at £1bn+).
Two multicopter prototypes built, tested and flown. Unveil a final design at the Farnborough International Airshow in July 2020 for EASA certification 2023-24, featuring a fixed wing for the first time enabling efficient and fast cruise flight. Targeting commercial UK inter-city air taxi operations once certified. Expected to announce participation in Uber Air.
CORE TECHNOLOGY / PRODUCT
Making use of composite structures and electrical systems expertise from Formula One racing, the company are yet to unveil the final design of the aircraft they'll seek to certify with EASA for passenger-carrying, piloted operations. It's likely to differ significantly from the two prototypes flown to date such as the 6-arm, 12-rotor design of the 'Seraph' aircraft shown above and below.
Having poached aerospace engineers from Rolls-Royce, GE and Airbus the team is estimated to be around 100 strong, and was bolstered by the acquisition in Q4 '19 of Formula One engineering consultancy MGI, re-branded as Vertical Advanced Engineering Ltd.
Partnerships with Honeywell for fly-by-wire aircraft control systems and Atkins for infrastructure, UAM operations planning and certification support have been announced.
Stephen Fitzpatrick | Founder & CEO - 03/16 - present | Founder & CEO, Ovo Energy | CEO, Kaluza | VP, JP Morgan, Society Generale
Michael Cervenka | COO - 06/19 - present | Previously Head of Future Business Propositions & senior roles incl. Chief Development Engineer, Rolls-Royce
Mike Gascoyne | CTO Vertical Advanced Engineering - 03/03 - present | CEO, MGI - Advanced Technology Solutions | CTO, Caterham Group | CTO, Sahara Force India Formula One Team | Technical Director roles, Toyota Motorsport / Renault F1 / Jordan F1 / Tyrrell F1 | Head of Aerodynamics, Sauber F1 | Head of Aerodynamics, McLaren Racing
Steven Baxter | Head of Programmes - 03/19 - present | Project Planner, Mercedes GP |
James Sheppard | Head of Research and Technology - 01/18 - present | Director, Noble Engineering | Various roles at GE, Alstom, Rolls-Royce
Paul Harper | Chief Certification Engineer - 11/17 - present | Airworthiness / engineering roles at Airbus, Qinetiq
Brett Peterson | Aircraft Architecture IPT Lead - 03/19 - present | Co-founder, Head of Engineering, Bristol Aero | Engineering roles at GKN Aerospace, Airbus, Korean Air
Unknown. Companies House filings suggest at least £5m+ invested to date with burn rate of at least c. £3m/yr at close of 2018, with salary bill / staff costs alone approaching £2m/yr. Believed to be currently trying to raise a $100m+ round of funding.
INVESTORS Believed to be funded solely by Stephen Fitzpatrick's Imagination Industries Incubator Ltd to date.
TIMELINE / AIRCRAFT DEVELOPMENT
Small team developed a proof-of-concept 750kg prototype featuring four rotating ducted fans, each featuring a three-bladed propeller. Flew in June 2018 with CAA permission at Cotswolds Airport and gave insights into eg. magnetic interference and heating issues - eVTOL test flight and development programme begins in earnest focused on aerodynamics, weight and passenger comfort.
The 'Seraph' prototype loses the propeller ducts and shifts to a 12 x two-bladed propeller architecture, mounted on six arms. Aircraft now features a passive cooling system, is capable of 80kph speeds with loads of up to 250kg. Aircraft is not intended to be certified with EASA but as a testbed for systems integration.
The as yet to be unveiled third prototype is rumoured to have specifications that quite closely match those set out in Uber Air's eVTOL Requirements (though no announcement of any participation between the two companies has yet been made). The aircraft will:
Able to carry four passengers
Aim for a cruise speed of 120-150mph
Have a range of over 100 miles
Generate lift during cruise flight from a fixed-wing for increased speed and efficiency
Include more bespoke electrical inverters, potentially driving larger rotors for reduced noise
Feature a new battery architecture
Incorporate Honeywell's highly redundant triplex eVTOL flight computers
Aim to achieve certification under EASA's VTOL Special Condition in late 2023 / early 2024
The biggest risk for Vertical Aerospace, ironically, might be that they don't have enough runway, of the financial kind, to get to the point at which their final (as yet unseen) eVTOL air taxi design gets certified for passenger operations by EASA (or indeed the FAA). As such it's of little surprise that the company is rumoured to be in the process of seeking $100m+ of external funding this year.
As international competition in eVTOL manufacture matures we're getting some insight into how much money might be needed to compete in the Urban Air Mobility market - somewhere between $500m and $1bn seems about right to get to certification if the size of recent deals is a reliable guide (more on that here).
As big investments and partnerships abound a period of consolidation is underway and the leading players all seem to have a big commercial / industrial / technical partner on board, with deep pockets and/or complementary expertise.
We can't help but wonder if Vertical Aerospace are eyeing just such a deal themselves - candidate companies might include:
Rolls-Royce - though their public VTOL offerings have suggested a preference for gas turbine / electric hybrid powertrains to date
Jaguar Land Rover - whether owners Tata have the appetite for UAM remains to be seen, and they might want to see more of a return on the large investments in UK engineering infrastructure already made at JLR first, but they need to electrify their vehicle lineup fast, and the iPace has started that trend
Airbus - have gone unusually quiet on passenger-carrying eVTOL having shuttered their Vahan programme at the end of 2019
Or perhaps a private equity / Venture Capital consortium might have the appetite for a Series A sized deal in the sub $100m range? If that's to be the case they'll need someone with the appetite and vision shown by London-based Atomico who went in very early to fund the ambitious young Lilium team, and as a result have a 25% ownership stake in the business.
If a financing deal ison the cards we'll likely see a transformation of the relatively domestic ambitions Vertical have spoken about to date - piloted commercial flights in the UK by 2022-23 of 100-150km eg. Bristol to London or Glasgow to Aberdeen. After that they'll look at routes of double the distance (eg. Cambridge to Paris) which opens up some of the most trafficked air passenger routes in the world across Europe.
Given what we've heard of the upcoming revised aircraft featuring a fixed-wing / multicopter hybrid architecture, our money would be on the aircraft that's unveiled this Summer looking a lot like one of the Uber Air Common Reference Models (eCRMs) and with specifications that match the Uber Air Vehicle Requirements - shortly followed by an announcement that they're joining the programme as partners, perhaps?
Whatever happens, we'll be up at Canary Wharf tomorrow to have a look at the Seraph aircraft 'in-the-metal' and hopefully talk to the team about what comes next.
UPDATE: Having spoken to the team and seen the Seraph technology demonstrator aircraft 'in-the-metal' in London, you can find a few more details at the end of our article 'Do eVTOL air taxis need a $1bn runway?'