A group of young French aerospace engineers who were part of Airbus’s plans for the E-Fan electric light aircraft are pursuing their dream of bringing an eVTOL to market through a start-up called Ascendance Flight Technologies. Airbus stopped the E-Fan project in April 2017 and the following year Jean-Christophe Lambert, Thibault Baldivia, and Clement Dinel were joined by Benoit Ferran to form the Toulouse-based company, which is working to get the four-passenger, hybrid-electric Atea model into commercial service by 2025.
The fixed-wing design, which features a pair of ducted fans for vertical lift in the inner-wing section and a single three-bladed propeller in the nose, is expected to deliver a range of up to 280 miles and speeds of 124 mph. Lambert, who is CEO, told FutureFlight last month that the team expects to have a full-scale prototype ready to begin test flights in 2023.
Ascendance, which is looking to add to its 10 employees, received a boost in January when it was selected as a partner in the Re.Invent Air Mobility project, which aims to introduce air taxi services to the Paris area, starting with public demonstrations in 2024 when the French capital hosts the Olympic Games. Along with 29 other partners—which include aircraft developers Volocopter, EHang, Vertical Aerospace, and Pipistrel—the company will start development work in June in a test area being established at Pontoise-Cormeilles-en-Vexin Airport.
Under an agreement signed with airports group ADP in 2019, Ascendance is already working to develop plans for eVTOL operations, dealing with issues such as aircraft noise and ground infrastructure. According to Lambert, the Atea is not only being designed with urban operations in mind, and he sees the aircraft connecting more remote communities with larger cities, and also being used in public-service roles, such as for medical support.
The Ascendance team is close to freezing the design for the Atea and has had discussions with EASA about its plans to seek type certification under the agency’s new Special Conditions-VTOL rules. Lambert said that they have been able to use simulations to assess requirements for key elements of the design, including the critical transition from vertical to horizontal flight, aerodynamics, and flight-control laws.
The Atea will use electrical power for takeoff and landing, with the turbine engine powering the cruise phase of flight when less power is needed. Lambert explained that this approach is mainly motivated by the desire to reduce noise and emissions, adding that the planned propulsion system could be switched to run on sustainable aviation fuel or hydrogen at a later date. The company has not ruled out developing an all-electric version of the aircraft as battery technology improves.
This year, Ascendance will be selecting partners to supply some components and systems, such as avionics. Later, it intends to appoint a sub-contractor for the manufacturing phase of the program.
Unlike several other eVTOL start-ups, Ascendance is not looking to operate the aircraft itself in some sort of on-demand air taxi business model. Instead, it will market the Atea directly to existing aircraft operators, some of which are likely operating helicopters today, offering a service-based business model rather than a straightforward purchase transaction.
The Atea is named after a god worshipped in the islands of French Polynesia that represents space. Ascendance says that there is potential to develop a family of larger aircraft after the initial model makes it to market.
Lambert told FutureFlight that, initially at least, there is likely only room in the market for five to 10 eVTOL aircraft. “Only the smartest and leanest companies will get to the certification stage,” he predicted.
The company says that it has sufficient early-stage financial support for the current phase of the project. Lambert indicated that it may initiate another funding round at some point in 2022.
In his view, the lessons he and his colleagues learned about the nascent electric aircraft sector with Airbus was a critical foundation for its plans with Ascendance. “We had a great adventure with E-Fan and learned a lot about electric propulsion and batteries,” he reflected. “We saw that it is not just a case of [designing] the electric drives and wiring, and that [instead] the whole aircraft has to be designed around the propulsion [system] and the ground infrastructure to support it.”