Friday, April 30, 2021

Show Me the Money

A studio shot of the work-in-progress and the question now being, whither eVTOL?

Setting aside conventional fixed-wing aircraft now being hybridised or else electrified, the money is on drones of increasing size destined for multifarious tasks, not the least of which is cargo ~ or else passenger types seen as three-dimensional substitute for ride-sharing means like taxis. Realistically the latter are still going to require a means of negotiating the 'final-mile' but the promise of autonomous and on-demand surface transport promises a relatively seamless means of moving from A to B.

Both of these commercial enterprises ~ whether hauling cargo or ferrying passengers ~ are prohibitively expensive and prolonged ventures, especially so as regards the latter. No surprise therefore that the bulk of investment has been directed toward enterprise set to spend billions of dollars over a period of many years, with tangible returns on investment a long way off. Or if Warren Buffet's opinion of the airline industry merits any attention, perhaps not at all. Some such enterprises may yet ~ given the pace of human evolution and existential threats to its environment ~ disappear like dinosaurs in the way that memes like MySpace did within the world of social media.

At the other end of the scale, and emerging largely from self-funded experiments in workshops around the world, is what Dragon in Florida call personal eVTOL. It is worth remembering that the automobile, aeroplane and helicopter emerged from tinkering of this kind, which despite science and engineering being increasingly collaborative may yet prove to be the origin of products at least as (if not more) successful in the longer term. It was Peter Thiel who pointed out that bits run free whilst atoms attract taxes, which is to say that hardware is always harder to proliferate than software, and when it comes to raising a payload there is no way around the physics.

Which is why I produce models for developments, genotypes if not phenotypes, that at least stand a chance in the longer term. There are no guarantees given the human factor, and it was the great automotive engineer Ricardo who pointed out that the prevalence of the internal combustion engine at the outset over steam or electrical power was effectively happenstance.

Looking at the picture above, I thing there is an argument for distributing propulsion vertically as well as horizontally and not least because it effectively employs a pair of the more critical elements of flight... and I say that as an ex-airline captain. Among such experiments into personal air vehicles (PAVs), the choice of where to put the propellers has devolved into types setting them under-foot, around the waist or else overhead. Few that I can see (and which is why there's a patent application attached) try to combine elements of each.

On the other hand and in the short-term, however, there might not be a need to. The birds themselves are thought to have evolved from said dinosaurs from the ground up (gliding interspersed with running) or else top down ('para' chuting from trees). There is therefore, and not least because of the fears of the regulatory environment in the more hidebound markets like the UK and Europe, an argument for the progressive development of flight-redundancy whilst the technology matures.

The overwhelming bulk of drones, for example, still offer zero redundancy and yet survive in the commercial eco-sphere by virtue of the fact that they are still more reliable than the average human being. Senior captains with whom I flew in the airline industry all had colleagues who'd died in training, and even flying recently in China I worked with co-pilots who'd lost equal numbers to weather, or simply walking into propellers.

It would seem to make sense, therefore, like the earliest birds to offer beta-products for use in ground-effect. In essence this is what is happening already, with the most visible single-seat eVTOLs operating close to the surface (and ideally over water, which is notionally more forgiving). The crowd-pleasing developers of jet-packs are also, as yet, altogether more comfortable flying over water for the same reason... while turbines like electrical motors are practically fail-safe in themselves, a unitary failure would spell disaster. (There are also multicopter developers out there on YouTube like 'HeroFlyer' who have literally disappeared, I fear, due to death or disability... if you're still out there hero, then do get in touch.)

The question at the end of the day for personal eVTOL developers is whether there is a market at all of any kind, and I speak as someone who recalls Hewlett Packard and IBM doubting there was a corollary in computing. After all, single-seat helicopters never took off, or at least figuratively. The reason things are different this time though is that eVTOL are EVENTUALLY a lot easier than helicopters, and don't attract nearly the same operating costs. As things stand, institutional investors (whom scientists generally dismiss as barely more sage than chimpanzees) are betting on larger eVTOLs for much the same reason, in that if you're spending billions it might as well be on the means to carry four or more people in view of the potential returns.

A sort of half-way house is the larger type of solo flyer that the likes of HEXA are now developing, although the FAA are bending over backwards in ways the UK CAA would conceivably never do (unfortunately for me) in order to accommodate. For example, they've acquiesced in a basic weight almost double that permitted by Part 103, nor do they appear to have objected to commercial joy-rides that have raised very substantial funding to boot. (This is especially ironic given the US shut down the VTOL pioneer Paul Moller for alleged 'illegal' share-trading). Nonetheless I personally feel that this is exactly the way to go, barnstorming having been a principal means of supporting aviation in the wake of the armistice following the First World War; plus the fact that with a half-million dollar price-tag they'll be needing every possible source of revenue.

But of you can't beat 'em, join 'em is what I say and as things stand I shall either put this half-scale prototype out there as-is in an effort to finance its programming and test-flying, or else put it on the back-burner and focus efforts on something simpler again that might pursue a sort of evolutionary use like those at which I've hinted. A weight-shift platform for example (which has proven the most enduring individual type) does at least make an ideal substitute for hovercraft or boats, with potential customers like search-and-rescue organisations.

In the past, whether as inventor or author, I have found the number of people who are happy to be associated with your work increases geometrically with its success. Among the very few with words of encouragement that I have known (beside Peter Hawkes at the British Technology Group) are Barbara Cassani and, bizarrely, Richard Branson. In fact I view it as no mistake that he is where he is today (on a Caribbean island) precisely because he takes the time at least to acknowledge peoples' efforts.

He also owns the adjacent island to Necker in the British Virgin Islands, and I'd guess he'd rather step onto a form of electrical 'sky-walker' to flit between the two than onto the jetty some way distant and into a boat. Reduce costs in the wake of exemplary users like this ~ as Benz's wife found with the motor-car ~ and you get to any number of circumstances where any number of us would like one in the garage.

It's a Jetson's thing, and you'll point out that the Jetsons needed a family flying car. And I'll point out that that sort of family barely exists any more at least statistically, and that the majority of people in the sort of urban centres like New York that the whole world now occupies are actually single.

It's a sad world, and so we might as well enjoy it.