Autonomous Flight is stepping up plans to start flight testing a full-scale prototype of a six-seat eVTOL aircraft by the end of 2023, having reworked its initial two-seat Y6S design to allow for a larger cabin. The UK-based startup has launched a funding round aimed at raising a further $25 million that it estimates will be needed to get the Y6S Plus into production.
The all-electric aircraft is intended for applications such as scheduled point-to-point shuttle services of up to around 30 or 40 minutes at speeds of up to 125 mph. Autonomous Flight founder Martin Warner anticipates networks of at least eight to 10 scheduled routes across major cities like London.
“That’s what it will take to support the business case [for eVTOL aircraft] and you’ve got to have at least six or seven seats,” he told FutureFlight. In Warner’s view, smaller two-seat aircraft making short hops for on-demand air taxi services will not deliver sufficient commercial return on the required investment. “We’re never going to see [viable] pure air taxi operations in the next 15 years,” he predicted.
The Y6S Plus features a main fixed-wing and a forward canard. Two sets of twin motors/rotors are positioned on the canard and third set is on the tail, with triple redundancy for the propulsion system. Over the past 12 months, Autonomous Flight’s engineering team have changed the wing loading limits to allow for a stretched fuselage. They also reduced the size of the canard and changed the pitch of the main wing.
“Sometimes, in product development you reach a gold standard that elongates the [commercial] life of that [product’s] chapter, as has happened, for example with the iPhone,” said Warner. “As a concept, I’m sure that eVTOL aircraft will evolve but for now there is an argument for not going for maximum speed but instead focusing on maximum agility and mobility.”
Autonomous Flight appears to be working toward full-scale commercial operations over the next eight to 10 years. In addition to passenger shuttle services, the company envisages applications such as emergency medical support and says that the cabin of the Y6S Plus will be able to be configured for multiple uses.
While advances in battery technology are expected to expand eVTOL performance, for now, Autonomous Flight’s business case is based on getting the most from current lithium-ion batteries, which Warner said currently account for as much as one-third of an aircraft’s takeoff weight. The need to swap out batteries to maximize the number of revenue flights in a given day is part of the reason for having a network of established bases, which he believes could be developed on existing buildings, such as downtown train stations.
Despite the company’s name, initially, it intends to have a pilot on board the Y6S Plus, along with up to five passengers. Warner maintained that, technically, eVTOL aircraft could be operated autonomously from day one, but he acknowledged that the certification path for this is not yet established and there are also questions about consumer acceptance.
Still to be resolved is who exactly would operate the Y6S Plus in commercial service; whether it might be Autonomous Flight itself (as per some other eVTOL pioneers like Joby, Volocopter, and Lilium) or existing operators who might buy or lease the aircraft. Warner said that question can be resolved in good time while his team completes type certification, but he has not ruled out partnering with service providers, consumer platforms (like Uber), or existing aerospace groups.
Autonomous Flight also expects to forge partnerships with as-yet-unnamed aircraft systems providers. These will likely cover equipment such as avionics, the flight management system, batteries, and potentially a recovery parachute.
To date, the company has been backed entirely by Warner and a small group of private investors. He said that this has avoided the distraction of having to chase new investors, but now he is looking for fresh capital.
In 2015, Warner sold his 3-D printing company, Bot Objects, for $50 million. He also runs an air logistics software company called Parcel Fly and is involved in the movie distribution business through the Flix Premiere streaming service.