Blood, sweat and tiers: What is the role of the supplier in scaling AAM?

Deep Dive

There are many claims, some realistic others less so, about which AAM use cases will come first. Add to that regulatory, capital and infrastructure challenges yet to be addressed, and it is difficult to bet on the outcome. But if you had to back an OEM, looking at the pedigree of its tier 1 suppliers could be a good basis for judgement.

The majority of eVTOL OEMs, and advanced aircraft manufacturers in general,  are relying on certified, off-the-shelf components from established aviation suppliers wherever they can. Some have also struck up partnerships with tier 1 suppliers and/or aerospace OEMs to utilise their expertise and capital when building new components, developing manufacturing facilities and then scaling production. Partnerships include: Joby and Toyota and Archer Stellantis. Supernal, the AAM business of Hyundai, has announced at least six – including Viasat, BAE Systems and Honeywell – on a range of things from ground control stations to flight controls.

Honeywell is a vast global supplier – the total business valued at $130bn is the world’s fourth largest conglomerate. In 2020, recognising the importance of the sector and the changing needs of the customer, the leadership at Honeywell’s aviation division took the decision to separate out its AAM business. This freed the unit from the capital constraints of the wider company and last November it passed the $10bn mark in contracts secured.

“So the thesis was that a new disruptive set of customers will need a different method of engagement,” David Shilliday, vice president and general manager of Honeywell’s AAM division, tells us.

“In terms of the agility of how you contract with, how you iterate the technology with, how you run programmes with, it requires completely different models and our traditional aviation business units weren’t well suited for that task. So our CEO at that time said, ‘I believe in the disruptive nature of what this new market is going to bring us’. And therefore, Honeywell dedicated a unit that has business leadership, new-offering development, engineering and programme management all underneath it.”

Electric aircraft and propulsion OEMs are often littered with industry veterans and experts, but these are still companies building a clean-sheet design – the most difficult thing someone can do in aviation. This reality is why Shilliday believes the role of a tier 1 supplier has become more important than usual with respect to AAM.

“Whether that’s experience with certification, whether it’s experience in transitioning from demo hardware to low-rate production to full-rate production, having a trusted partner who can help you work through that is critical,” he says.

BAE’s Justin McClellan, BD & strategy lead, Aircraft Electrification sees the AAM market similarly. He notes the complexity at every level. “Tier 1 suppliers, such as BAE Systems, have years of experience fielding similar technologies in aerospace and other markets. Many of our lessons learned around energy storage, power distribution, power conversion, and the reliable control of those systems, have been gained through decades of supporting transit vehicle electrification. We marry this with decades of experience certifying flight-critical systems for aircraft. 

“Building up a staff with comparable experience would be extremely time-consuming and expensive.”

BAE is building components such as flight controls, energy storage and power conversion solutions for OEMs developing both vertical-flight and conventional take-off aircraft. The firm has partnerships with leading eVTOL OEMs Supernal and Eve and regional hybrid aircraft developer Heart Aerospace.

“Enabling a new type of air travel requires a deep understanding of design, quality, and best-in-class manufacturing processes to tie it all together, along with integration expertise and certification knowledge,” says McClellan. “For the components we build, this means a blend of cutting-edge automation and supporting a talented workforce with the proper resources to maximise efficiency and quality.”

Honeywell’s Shilliday explains the firm is also adopting a new role as a vocal advocate for the AAM industry at large. “There’s a lot of voices in this ecosystem. And part of what we try to do is be a trusted partner and a neutral arbiter who can say here’s what we think the whole industry might need in order to be successful.”

One example is the Honeywell AAM Summit which has run each July since 2022 in Washington DC, US. Last year’s edition welcomed well more than 200 industry stakeholders and featured perspectives from the US Department of Transportation, Department of Defense, FAA and National Business Aviation Association among others.

“We try to bring together the OEMs, rule-makers, lawmakers and interested constituents like AFWERX or NASA to have important discussions about what the major roadblocks are. That is not something we do in our traditional air transport business because we don’t have to. Those are mature environments. But it’s something we think is necessary for us to do to help ensure that the industry at large is successful.”

Alex Holt, marketing business partner, Flight Safety & Advanced Air Mobility at Viasat agrees.“Whats especially exciting about AAM is that it represents a convergence of two markets. First, theres the smaller drone market, which isnt born from the traditional aviation OEM market and is taking a very agile approach to technology development. Secondly, you have more traditional, established players who come with experience, but might be used to doing things a certain way which may add cost, time or complexity to solutions.

“For any supplier looking to scale up for this market, theyre going to want to aim for the sweet spot in the middle: being experienced with regulation and certification, whilst taking a more agile, iterative approach to product development – scaling that complexity and certification level as the OEMs iterate.” 

Viasat has more than 30 years’ experience working in a regulated safety communications market. But at the same time, Holt says the firm started with a blank sheet when it came to product development for AAM terminals. “We knew the market demanded smaller, lighter, and more capable terminals – and thats exactly what we built.”

Viasat has also launched a new service for AAM which it calls Velaris which is a dedicated satellite communications service for UAVs and AAM aircraft. The system enables them to operate beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) of the operator.

Compared with a traditional tier 1 relationship, there is a lot more collaboration involved when working with AAM customers, according to Shilliday. Work scopes are always open to iteration no matter how much they are defined. “You need to be open to this, open to pivoting to what your customer needs,” he explains. “Beyond that you need have an open mind to the space in between your traditional solutions. It could be that the AAM market requires you to merge things together, or break things apart, or come up with something completely new that those legacy customers didn’t need. 

“If you’re not excited about that mission, you’re in the wrong space.”

Looking at the pace, agility and innovations that are coming out of this market, Shilliday says it will be interesting to see how much evolves up into the next air transport aircraft, business aviation aircraft or defence solution. “There’s a lot of very rapid innovation going on, and some of those who operate in this market today could be more traditional OEMs in the future or get acquired by traditional OEMs.”

Viasat’s Holt says the early AAM markets are already upon us. “Medical support in remote locations – such as the delivery of medication and lifesaving equipment (such as a defibrillator). Other markets that are rapidly growing including the inspection and surveillance market, such as powerline or oil/gas pipeline inspections. Any market where you can take people out of harms way and reduce cost is likely to be successful.”

Looking out towards the next 10 years, BAE’s McClellan says, depending on entry into service timelines, ramp rates, work force maturation and infrastructure completion, AAM will have a significant impact on society by the early 2030s. “By that point, you will have an industry producing a couple thousand aircraft a year, significantly more than the about 1000 helicopters produced annually today. I estimate AAM aircraft will be fairly common sights at urban heliports and airports, and many will weigh the option of an eVTOL over a car ride to the airport to save time.”

But that reality is partly dependent on the continued collaboration and harmony between OEMs and their Tier 1 suppliers.

“Aircraft designers by definition need to be generalists to tie all the various systems together,” says McClellan. “Collaboration with subject-matter experts in each aspect of the design is critical to the success of a platform and a programme. Each voice must sing in harmony to balance weight, safety, efficiency, noise, reliability and cost. OEMs must lead a choir, but they cannot sing for all – this is where collaboration comes into play. Choosing the right suppliers, the right operators, the right municipalities, and possibly even the right early-adopter passengers will be key as the industry takes flight.”

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