Volume 01 | Issue 02 | June 22, 2020
Upcoming X-Planes; Eurofighter Radar and the Second Wave of eVTOLs

Welcome back for another edition of the Future of Aerospace.

This week, we bring you insights on future NASA X-plane projects, the ‘second wave’ of eVTOL aircraft and German leadership on Eurofighter radar upgrades.

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- The Future of Aerospace Team
Aurora Wins First Award for X-Plane Without Moving Control Surfaces
Image: DARPA

Boeing subsidiary Aurora Flight Sciences
was selected by DARPA as the first awardee in a potential X-plane project designed to explore the use of active flow control technologies as a primary control method for aircraft, eliminating movable surfaces.

Existing aircraft including the F-16 Falcon and SR-71 Blackbird have used some active flow control (AFC) technologies, but as “patch fixes” in addition to traditional flight control methods.

This project, called Control of Revolutionary Aircraft with Novel Effectors (CRANE), intends to explore potential benefits of designing an airframe entirely around AFC. DARPA’s Tactical Technologies Office is joined by the Air Force Research Lab, NASA and the Office of Naval Research in this effort.

More info from DARPA program director Dr. Alexander Walan:
  • “The objective of the program is to develop an aircraft based around active flow control as this is an area that has not been fully explored as compared to traditional flight controls or more recent approaches like wing morphing or mechanical thrust vectoring."

  • AFC technologies to be explored include sweeping jets, co-flow jets, plasma actuation, pulse detonation, vortex generators and synthetic jets. These have been maturing for decades, but never incorporated early in the design process as a primary control method.

  • “With its AFC-focused design, CRANE seeks to demonstrate significant efficiency benefits, as well as substantial improvements in cost, weight, performance, and reliability over past applications and demonstrations,” opening up new design trade space for future aircraft.
A DARPA presentation on the CRANE project notes potential for an AFC-focused design to include greater structural efficiency, increased lift/reduced drag, enhanced maneuverability to include extreme STOL capability and low-speed flight, and greater high-altitude performance to enable surveillance missions up to 90,000 feet.

Current funding exists for three companies (Aurora + 2, expected in coming weeks, $~7m each) to engage in preliminary design until Q2 of 2021. A go/no-go decision on an X-plane is expected in fiscal 2023, with first flight targeted for Q2 of fiscal 2024.

Another future X-plane: Last week during AIAA’s virtual forum, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine hinted at potentially green-lighting a program to explore truss-braced wings and small-core turbofans, which could be incorporated into a future commercial narrowbody resulting in less drag and 5-10% less fuel burn.

Read more on DARPA’s CRANE program.
Hensoldt Takes Lead in German Eurofighter Fleet AESA Upgrade
Image: Hensoldt

Germany’s federal parliament released a new budget
on June 17 that includes funding dedicated to upgrading the nation’s Eurofighter Typhoon fleet with a new Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar.

Airbus Defense and Space will be responsible for equipment design and support of the installation, while subcontracting the radar system upgrade to Hensoldt.

This will shift the leadership of major technology upgrades for the Eurofighter, a role taken on by the British in the past, to Germany, Hensoldt CEO Thomas Muller said in a statement confirming their role in the AESA upgrade.

What the budget provides:
  • $1.7 billion reserved for Hensoldt’s AESA “Mk1” radar development.

  • Airbus Defense and Space to serve equipment design and support of the installation, while subcontracting the radar system upgrade to Hensoldt.

  • Hensoldt will equip the Luftwaffe’s 79 Tranche 2 and 31 Tranche 3A Eurofighters with the upgraded AESA technology.
Key elements of the upgrade:
  • Digital multi-band channel receiver
  • X-band antenna transmit/receive modules
  • Radar operation software modification
Hensoldt expects to add 400 new positions to its Eurofighter radar division to support the upgrade.

Read more on the AESA upgrade and Hensoldt’s role.
The ‘Second Generation’ of eVTOL Companies Already Taking Shape
Image: Archer Aviation

Before regulators are finished certifying a single electric VTOL aircraft, a group of companies are already forming the ‘second wave’ of entrants into the market.

Early-in, well-capitalized companies like Joby Aviation, Lilium and Volocopter are leading the charge toward early eVTOL operations, targeting 2023-25 for certification and commercialization of their aircraft.

Whether or not their type certifications, manufacturing and customers materialize by that timeframe, these venture-funded companies must continue working quickly to keep their investors happy. Their valuations — both Joby and Lilium are now considered unicorns, worth over $1 billion — are partially fed by a perception they are first-movers in this new market.

A few other well-funded players have emerged as less intent on racing to the starting line, instead planning to produce eVTOLs in the second half of the decade. Hyundai Motor, Bell and Archer Aviation are three likely members of this group.
  • Bell was an early entrant into the eVTOL space, first unveiling its hybrid six-rotor Nexus in January 2019 and discussing air taxi designs as early as 2017. That design has now evolved to the all-electric Nexus 4EX and the company’s targeted timeline for certification pushed back as well.

  • Hyundai unveiled its S-A1 concept at the Consumer Electronics Show this year and has put together a formidable team to build it. Like Bell, the company is in no rush to compete for ‘firsts’ and will benefit from more established regulatory requirements throughout its design process.

  • Archer Aviation, unlike the other two companies mentioned, is a venture-funded startup, though its largest backer — Mark Lore, founder of Jet.com, acquired by Walmart for $3.3 billion, where he is now CEO of ecommerce — has a large war chest and a patient outlook, I’m told. Archer’s focus has been snapping up top engineering talent from Kitty Hawk, Joby and other key players to head every one of their vehicle sub-system teams.
What will the main differences be between first- and second-generation eVTOLs?
  • Chad Sparks, director of business development & strategic campaigns, Bell: “Bell believes significant maturation will occur in five key aspects of the UAM market benefitting the second wave of eVTOLs: vehicle and manufacturing technology, infrastructure development, public acceptance, regulatory standardization, and business models. The first wave will serve as a learning experience for these areas, which will ultimately accelerate the growth and expansion of UAM.”

  • Pamela Cohn, chief operating officer, Hyundai UAM, told me she believes the ‘second wave’ of vehicles may be pilot-optional and autonomous-capable, with significant improvements in software, avionics, flight controls and use of data.

    “We have the luxury of taking that time and designing backward, going to communities, better understanding their needs. Products and operating models may also be slightly different between markets and regions (e.g., differences in range or ambient noise considerations); a later timeline gives us the chance to better assess and tailor our offerings to these factors.”

  • Archer’s founders, Brett Adcock and Adam Goldstein, repeatedly stressed to me the ‘generational’ approach they are taking to building an air taxi business. They also released a more realistic analysis of their aircraft’s capabilities than most other eVTOL companies, and have no public timeline for certification.

    “We’re in the early days here at Archer, and we’re hoping to build an important business for the next 20 years.”
It’s clear that any venture-backed companies with impatient funders will be under great pressure in the next few years. Uber, as well, has been hard-hit by the pandemic and decided to spin off its bike and scooter business, Jump.

Uber has been leading the charge toward urban air mobility since 2015 and plans to control as much of the ecosystem as possible, but with financial pressure mounting and only one vehicle partner (Joby) committed to Elevate’s aggressive 2023 timeline, will the unit survive to see its plans reach fruition?

Another big ‘question mark’ is what role Boeing and Airbus will play in this market. Both giants have made it clear they view UAM and eVTOLs as an important part of aerospace’s future, sparing many of their related projects from wide-ranging cuts, such as the CityAirbus demonstrator and Wisk, Boeing’s partnership with Kitty Hawk on autonomous two-seater Cora. But any aircraft produced by either company won’t be part of the first generation of eVTOLs.
Future of Aerospace Digest
Image: Air taxi design released by Geely, which purchased Terrafugia and has invested at least $55 million in Volocopter.

A few more developments
from the past week you should be aware of:
  • Sikorsky-Boeing’s SB>1 Defiant Reaches 205 Knots: The two companies’ coaxial helicopter offering for FLRAA has reached 205 knots true airspeed, with plans to demonstrate maximum capability exceeding 250 knots in the next few months. Bell’s V-280 Valor tiltrotor design, the other program offering selected to proceed in March, has reached 280 knots in flight tests. More from Matthew Beinart

  • More Contactless Tech Coming to Airlines: During a Global Connected Aircraft Cabin Chats discussion earlier today, Alexis Hickox, Collins Aerospace’s head of marketing for aviation & network services, said the company is working with airlines to accelerate the incorporation of contactless technology into the cabin, enabling crew and passengers to do things like ordering food and beverage service from their handheld devices.
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