Volocopter made the first FAA-approved flight of a manned, eVTOL aircraft in a public environment in the U.S. during the EAA AirVenture show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, on July 27. The appearance by the German company marked a declaration of its intent to enter the U.S. market with planned air taxi and freight operations using its two-seat VoloCity, and later, the larger, longer-range VoloConnect model.
The crewed Volocopter 2X prototype took off at 2.45 p.m. local time for a four-minute sortie at around 164 feet and logging speeds of 18 mph as it cruised in front of vast crowds at the Wittman Regional Airport, where AirVenture is staged each year. On the ground, visitors were also able to take a close look at the VoloCity model and get a first glance at the cabin design.
During a post-flight press briefing, Volocopter CEO Florian Reuter described the significant technical tasks remaining to gain type certification under both EASA and FAA rules, including designing the two-seat aircraft to deal with the potential hazards of battery fires. “That is one of the holy grails in certifying fully electric vehicles,” Reuter said. “Everybody has it in the back of their mind. We have a number of protective systems on our vehicles and we are now in the final stages of aligning what is needed to get ultimate regulatory clearance."
The Volocopter engineering team is looking into the possibility of having to encapsulate the eVTOL aircraft's electric batteries. "We would like to not have to do it—but you need to show that you can actually monitor individual cells and can contain (a thermal) runaway, " Reuter explained to reporters. We are about to close discussions with regulatory authorities in the coming weeks. That is when we can publicize how we gain the confidence of the authorities. But today this is still a little bit of a moving target and we are a couple of weeks away from coming to a final decision.”
While many of Volocopter’s competitors are proposing larger vehicles with longer range and faster speeds, Reuter defended Volocopter’s decision to start with a two-seat design with a range of 22 miles and a cruising speed of 60 mph. The company pointed to showing the range profile satisfied the distance between 93 major urban centers and the commercial airports that served them and that there was a “natural” speed limit in these areas of around 60 mph due to operating in an “inner-city environment.”
Reuter termed concerns about the vehicle’s range as unwarranted “range anxiety,” noting that the flight time from Paris Charles DeGaulle Airport to the center of the French capital is just 15 minutes. As to passenger capacity, he pointed out that data from ground taxis and Uber showed that more than 90 percent of all for-hire ground transportation was a single passenger.
Nonetheless, earlier this year, Volocopter confirmed that it is also working on the four-seat VoloConnect aircraft, which is expected to fly up to around 60 miles and at speeds of 155 mph. This is expected to enter service during 2026, while the VoloCity could start commercial operations by 2024.
“There’s a lot of noise out there right now about eVTOLs in the capital markets and that’s great, but people have to differentiate a little bit better about what is real and what is not,” Reuter said. “Volocopter is all about bringing urban air mobility to market step-by-step. We are making great progress every day, with technology and certification, not only with EASA but with FAA that gave us the permit for the flight today.”
According to Reuter, vehicle range will improve with inevitable advances in battery technology and that the company was prepared to be before regulators seeking fresh certification approvals roughly “every two years.” For now, he said that the company expected EASA certification approval in time for trial operations during the 2024 Paris Olympic Games.
That vehicle will be operated with a single pilot, but Reuter said the end game was to field fully autonomous vehicles, perhaps as early as 2026. Reuter explained that in addition to the passenger-carrying VoloCity model, Volocopter is also developing a VoloDrone version for autonomous freight distribution services, and has started a trial program with German logistics group DB Schenker, which is one of its investors.
The company is also working with stakeholders to develop the required air traffic and ground infrastructure for large-scale operations. For now, Volocopter will use existing helicopter infrastructure, but that is not a long-term solution, Reuter stated.
“To scale operations we need to invest into new generation air traffic management systems” as well as actively partnering with airport operators and real estate developers,” Reuter said. Volocopter has already developed a list of technical requirements for these facilities that will enable larger-scale service and ensure “a fantastic customer experience.”
“We need to address all of those elements to make sure we are not hindered with our development going forward,” he said.