Behind the scenes: Electric aircraft

Deep Dive

Do you read all the credits at the end of a film? I know I don’t.

But in not doing that you miss the people working in the background – potentially the camera grip who improvised to get the killer shot. Without them the finished product would never be the same.

The same goes for the firms working in the background to help electric aircraft OEMs – especially eVTOL manufacturers – develop and build various components like airframes, motor components and avionics. They almost always sign NDAs (non-disclosure agreements) before conducting work and therefore don’t get the recognition they perhaps deserve. So we thought we’d ask three firms, who’ve put their heads together to collectively focus on advanced aircraft, how they see the sector developing.

CO-LEKTIV was the aptly named group that formed – made up of Aria Group, KTM Technologies and Pankl (both KTM and Pankl are subsidiaries of Pierer Industrie).

Aria Group is an advanced manufacturing specialist that works across aerospace, transportation and entertainment. Austria-based KTM is probably the most famous of the trio, renowned for its off-road motorbikes. Then there is Pankl (F1 fans might be familiar), the Austrian firm makes high-tech components for every team. (The joke at Pankl is that they win every week). It also makes helicopter safety parts.

The functions and mission types being looked at for use with electric aircraft are almost all untried, with the exception of some regional routes to existing airports, for example. Take eVTOLs, they are here to ease congestion, something an aircraft has never really done at any scale. Typically, who flies 60 miles or less? Apart from Kylie Jenner.

Aria Group founder and CEO Clive Hawkins was quick to recognise this. Models his team built to test air taxi services showed that large volumes would be required to make it both affordable for the customer and feasible for the operator. “So in a chicken and egg situation of trying to do something unique in air mobility, particularly with passenger travel, Uber was really interesting because they had enough data to say ‘if there was a solution that could fill the niche we believe there is enough customers who would pay this money to make this a viable business,’” says Hawkins.

Automotive giants like Toyota, Hyundai, Stellantis, Suzuki and VW have all made strides of varying lengths into eVTOL development. Hawkins sees value somewhere in between. KTM, especially its motorcycles, fits the bill from a production perspective — way more than aerospace but considerably less than automotive and all high performance, he says. There is also a big focus on weight savings and structural integrity. “KTM also has a skunkworks team of about 1,000 people who focus on trying to industrialise solutions that manufacture things at volume, price and performance level near where what we think is required,” explains Hawkins. “Primarily it is for the motorcycle side of the business, but it has grown quite big.”

With its high-performance motorsport and rotorcraft background Pankl is equally well suited to assist in production of components. The team there will tell you they win every week because Pankl components have been used in every car for decades. “They’re doing things at very high performance, with a very quick turnaround and are really quite creative in their engineering. Also, lesser known about Pankl is that they have an aerospace division and make parts for firms like Sikorsky.

“Again it is about having a foot in both camps and I liked the idea of grouping companies together so we could create a broader knowledge base,” says Hawkins.

There is a lot of discussion about what will come first. The FAA has answered some of that question with a recent authorisation granted to SwissDrones and Phoenix Air Unmanned for nationwide BVLOS operations using a drone with a max take-off weight of 191lbs. Military aside, our summation is large drones will come first, then larger aircraft (probably eVTOLs) for non-people carrying missions, lastly people and likely aimed at higher paying customers until volume increases. It is worth noting within those stages there are also subsections determined by factors like range, payload and cost.

The CO-LEKTIV team has changed their mind about what will come first a few times, says Hawkins. “I think the air taxi model is the most challenging of all of them. It is the longest lead time, it is challenging from a regulatory standpoint and from getting enough customers to earn enough revenue. So realistically we are looking at cargo and other missions, maybe medical, as the first use cases. It also remains to be seen if HNWIs start to buy aircraft for themselves or a service provider model proves most profitable.

“I predict the market is going to move around and there will be a huge shakeout of who can really be successful. But the core tenants of why it should are valid – distributed electric propulsion, noise reduction the list goes on,” adds Hawkins. CO-LEKTIV sees regional air mobility as a more viable business case in the short to medium term, particularly on the public acceptance side. Compared to air taxis Hawkins says there is more customer demand.

But low volumes will inhibit profitability and scale. Almost every model requires more aircraft than anyone is building today, says Hawkins. The composite aircraft manufactured most per year is Cirrus with 548 built in 2021 and 420 in 2020. For comparison, Archer’s site under construction in Georgia is aiming for a max output of 650 aircraft per year with the potential to expand to 2,300, Joby has plans for up to 500 per year and BETA Technologies at 300 per year initially. “Volume is our specific area of focus. Some of the business plans we have seen are promising aircraft in the thousands per year. This is step change in manufacturing, which means a step change in design and certification,” he says.

The best and worst part about this space is the lack of recipe book for success, explains Hawkins. “The devil will be in the details. Elon and the Tesla model made the world think that potentially being vertically integrated was a good approach to take. The EV manufacturer is an exception, even though they did face challenges and rely on suppliers to a certain degree,” he says. “Most of the rest of the world tends to have a network of suppliers.

“The challenge for the AAM market is there aren’t a lot of suppliers because there is no business yet. Back to that chicken and egg problem. You can’t go up the road and find a composite manufacturer to make you 10,000 wings per year. If you go to a big supplier, their cost structure is on a totally different level. Plus, they’ve got so much backlog I don’t know how interesting that would be to them anyway,” says Hawkins. “So we are left with a gap, and a question of who fills it?”

That gap is being filled by a growing number of companies – from tier one suppliers to small and medium enterprises vying to become the former. From which industry the expertise most-suited to helping OEMs hit the volumes required for profit comes from is yet to become fully apparent.

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