- Electric vertical takeoff and land aircraft, or eVTOLs, will likely be flying around cities in less than five years.
- Flying them may not be traditional pilots but trained operators using simplified cockpit systems.
- Engineers are working to make the aircraft as simple as possible to avoid a pilot shortage.
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Startups are nearing the finish line for the helicopter-like aircraft that aim to transform how commuters get around congested cities and how cargo is transported to remote communities.
But while the tech is set to revolutionize the skies, the question remains: who will fly them? Airlines know better than anyone that there’s a global pilot shortage and the urban air mobility market is set to face a similar fate.
That’s why eVTOL developers are building their aircraft to fly without pilots altogether by using autonomous, self-flying technology.
Until that goal is achieved, however, there will have to be human beings flying the aircraft. And to ward against a pilot shortage grounding the UAM industry, developers are simplifying systems so that “operators” can fly them instead of the certified pilots that are in short supply.
Honeywell Aerospace, which is responsible for around 20-35 percent of the systems that will power eVTOLs, is working to design cockpits for what it calls “simplified vehicle operations.” They’re designed to make flying eVTOLs easier for operators that might not have traditional flying experience.
The cockpits won’t be as complex as those found on airliners or even today’s helicopters. Rather, they’ll be “simple, intuitive, aesthetic, [and] cool,” says Stéphane Fymat, vice president and general manager of urban air mobility and unmanned aerial systems at Honeywell, in an interview with Insider.
I put my novice flying skills to the test to see if these so-called operators could replace certified pilots. Here’s what I found.
The simulator was incredibly basic but featured some of the tech that operators will be using. Honeywell eventually wants to makes eVTOLs seem familiar to first-time users by using automobile-style speedometers and smartphone-style battery indicators, for example.
In front of me was a primary flight display showing speed, pitch, altitude, and vertical speed, along with a map and heading indicator. For this flight, though, I’d primarily be flying visually and simulated a clear day in Los Angeles.
On my right was a side stick that controlled the aircraft’s direction as well as its altitude. Pushing forward put the aircraft in a descent while pulling back caused the aircraft to ascend, while pitch stayed relatively constant.
On my left was the throttle. Pushing it forward increased the speed while pulling it back decreased it.
Fly-by-wire systems embedded in the aircraft’s systems also offer an extra level of protection. I could turn the side stick all the way to one side and the system would stop me from flipping the aircraft.
If at any point I lost control, all I’d need to do is throw my hands up and the aircraft would level itself. These systems are commonly found in airliners but have been translated for use in eVTOLs to increase safety through automation.
With all that in mind, it was time to take flight.
I flew the aircraft over to our starting point in Los Angeles at Dodger Stadium.
United Airlines announced a $1 billion order for eVTOLs from Archer Aviation with plans to offer air taxi service to Los Angeles International Airport from vertiports throughout the city. So that was what I decided to simulate.
Only 13 miles separate Dodger Stadium and Los Angeles International but the drive can be torturous, especially when navigating rush-hour traffic.
We started a timer as I lifted off from the Dodger Stadium parking lot and off we went for the non-stop flight to LAX.
The eVTOL handled beautifully as we overflew the stadium.
I followed the Harbor Freeway through downtown Los Angeles, the only obstacle between the stadium and the airport. But it was nothing the eVTOL couldn’t handle.
The top speed for this aircraft is around 144 knots but some eVTOLs can travel at speeds of 200 miles per hour or greater. And those on the ground below might not even know an eVTOL is flying above them.
“These things, when they take off, the design target is as quiet as your dishwasher at home,” Frymat said. “And then when they’re flying overhead, you don’t hear them.”
It was a straight shot to the airport after clearing the skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles.
As this was just a simulation, we didn’t have to worry about other aircraft in the area or talking to air traffic control, both of which might add to the flight time. The skies above Los Angeles see no shortage of airliners and general aviation aircraft.
Los Angeles International soon came into view and I started slowing down to prepare for landing.
The one thing the simulator didn’t have was a way to look beneath the aircraft, so I’d have to use my best judgment.
I touched down in the airport’s ride-share parking lot. Total flight time: just under four minutes.
Of course, there is a lot that simulations don’t take into account such as adverse weather, air traffic control, and other aircraft. But, I was impressed at easy it was to control the eVTOL.
And while this was only a simulation, this level of simplicity will be required if eVTOL firms want to move away from traditional pilots and hire operators, instead.
One thing that was clear is that eVTOLs truly have the ability to change the typical notion of place. The next flight was simulated was from downtown Los Angeles to San Diego, which took less than 30 minutes.
If an eVTOL firm can offer that service for a reasonable price, then what’s to stop a person from working in Los Angeles and living in San Diego.
And if the promises of a 2024 introduction for the aircraft hold true, the world is set to become a drastically smaller place in just three years.