The Future of Advanced Air Mobility

Supernal Adds Suppliers and Manufacturing Partners for SA-1 eVTOL Air Taxi

Supernal has added three key partners to support its efforts to develop and produce its SA-1 eVTOL aircraft. In addition to aerostructures and electronic components, new partnerships sealed by Hyundai's urban air mobility division during the recent Paris Air Show will focus on enabling high-rate manufacturing processes to help scale the production of the piloted, four-passenger aircraft, which is scheduled to enter service in 2028. 

GKN Aerospace has agreed to provide the electrical wiring interconnection system (EWIS) and lightweight aerostructures for Supernal’s aircraft. Meanwhile, Qarbon Aerospace will use advanced welding techniques to assemble the aircraft’s thermoplastic carbon-composite components, and Umbra Group is supplying motor control electronics and actuators. 

Supernal SA-1 eVTOL side profile
While Supernal has not yet revealed the design of its four-passenger eVTOL air taxi, plans call for the aircraft to use a distributed electric propulsion system with multiple rotors and propellers. (Image: Supernal)

Umbra Group Adds Innovative Actuators

Umbra Group, an Italian aerospace manufacturer, will supply the motor control electronics and actuators for the SA-1’s flight control system. Actuators, which control the various moving parts of an aircraft, typically have a gearbox connected to the power source. To make these components lighter and more efficient, Umbra has developed a new type of actuator that does not have a gearbox. Umbra’s actuator technology is based on ball screws, which the company has been manufacturing for various aerospace applications for decades, and they’re built to safely last for more than 20 years in commercial aircraft.

One unique feature of Umbra’s electro-mechanical actuators is that they are jam-tolerant, and they have a built-in mechanism that can resolve a failure within an actuator. According to Supernal, this is a new solution that has not yet been implemented in any other type of eVTOL aircraft.  

“Umbra Group’s actuation solutions will help us optimize our eVTOL vehicle design for maximum reliability in daily operations and enable advanced air mobility to reach the same levels of safety as the commercial aviation industry,” said Supernal chief commercial officer Adam Slepian.

GKN Provides Lightweight Composites and Electronics

Based in the UK, GKN is a major global aerostructures group with decades of experience in designing and manufacturing a range of aircraft systems, and the company has recently begun dipping its toes in the nascent advanced air mobility (AAM) industry. In addition to the EWIS for Supernal’s air taxi, GKN is also supplying the EWIS for the Lilium Jet eVTOL aircraft, Vertical Aerospace’s VX4 eVTOL aircraft, and Eviation’s Alice all-electric commuter airplane. It is also building the wings for the VX4 and Alice aircraft. 

As part of its agreement with Supernal, GKN will “apply its broad portfolio of design capabilities and manufacturing technologies to the development of the company’s eVTOL vehicle,” Supernal officials said in a company statement. That includes both the high-voltage, high-power electrical wiring systems and some as-yet-specified lightweight composite structures. Design and manufacturing activities for these components are already underway at GKN Aerospace’s Global Technology Centre in Bristol and across sites in Europe, according to Supernal. 

Supernal Taps Qarbon’s Thermoplastic Welding Expertise  

Composite material specialist Qarbon Aerospace, which is headquartered in Red Oak, Texas, will work with Supernal to mature welding technologies for the future large-scale production of Supernal’s SA-1 eVTOL aircraft. According to Supernal, Qarbon will apply its induction welding expertise to the assembly of the thermoplastic, carbon-composite components of the vehicle, while Supernal will help Qarbon scale its established welding processes to enable large-scale manufacturing. 

With the help of Qarbon and GKN, Supernal aims to scale manufacturing technology for the production of its eVTOL aircraft using new high-rate, lower-cost manufacturing processes. “Instead of focusing on ‘time to market,’ Supernal is prioritizing ‘time to scale,’” Shin said, adding that Hyundai’s automotive manufacturing expertise will help to further bolster manufacturing rates and reduce the cost and time of aircraft production. 

“By incorporating advanced materials and processes in our manufacturing strategy from the start, Supernal will be prepared to expand eVTOL vehicle production capacity to meet demand surges when the industry takes off,” said Jaiwon Shin, Supernal CEO and president of Hyundai Motor Group. 

Pete Wick, CEO of Qarbon Aerospace, added that “Supernal’s deliberate approach of carefully selecting and integrating rate-enabling technology from the start differentiates their eVTOL vehicle in the AAM field.”

Supernal Progresses Toward First Flight

Supernal chief commercial officer Adam Slepian told FutureFlight that the company intends to begin flying its first full-scale technology demonstrator aircraft toward the end of 2024, and the production aircraft will be ready to enter service in 2028. The company is planning to apply for FAA type certification by the end of this year. Having already flown one sub-scale technology demonstrator, Supernal expects to produce several additional iterations of technology demonstrators and prototypes before settling on a “locked form” that will be used for certification testing, he said. 

While Supernal has yet to reveal a full-scale mockup of its eVTOL air taxi, the company has showcased a cabin concept recently at events such as the Farnborough air show and NBAA-BACE. In May, Supernal’s cabin mockup was recognized in the International Forum Design Award competition, with judges lauding its combination of safety, human-centered design, and sustainably-sourced materials. Now the company is focused on developing the rest of the airframe, the design of which it expects to reveal in early 2024, Supernal spokeswoman Jennifer Darland told FutureFlight.

“Last year we were really demonstrating the passenger experience—a much more consumer-oriented look at the vehicle—but this year our team is really focused on the guts of the vehicle with a lot of systems integration work, and that’s why we've announced partnerships with Honeywell and BAE systems, and then these other manufacturers here at Paris,” Darland said. “The weight of [those systems] will impact the consumer and passenger experience, so both pieces continue to evolve until we hit that sweet spot of the right weight, right cost, and the battery power behind both of those elements.”

Supernal's eVTOL aircraft cabin concept
Supernal revealed a cabin concept for its SA-1 eVTOL aircraft at the 2022 Farnborough International Airshow. (Credit: Supernal)

While several other eVTOL air taxi developers aim to have their aircraft certified and in service by 2025, Supernal doesn’t plan to have its aircraft in operation until 2028. Slepian explained that part of the reason for Supernal’s later entry into service is that battery technology has not quite evolved enough to meet the aircraft’s power needs. The company has partnered with Utah-based EP Systems to develop a lightweight energy storage system. According to Slepian, Supernal has not committed to using lithium-ion batteries, which most electric vehicles use, but the company is keeping all options on the table as battery technologies advance in the coming years. 

“We don't want to go to market today or with today’s aerospace technologies and manufacturing processes, so the current phase we're in with GKN and Qarbon is advancing the joining and the techniques of more advanced aerospace materials that don't necessarily have the business case today,” Darland said. “So we're taking the time as part of our longer timeline to get those to a better place, and then down the road, we will couple these much more advanced materials with the automation from Hyundai Motor Group’s manufacturing facilities to really be able to automate our process and produce these expensive components at a much more affordable price—and be able to scale much more quickly when the market does take off in two to three decades.”

Targeting 2028 for entry into service also buys Supernal more time to secure the ground infrastructure that will be needed to support its eVTOL air taxi operations. Not only will eVTOL aircraft need dedicated space to take off and land, but they will also require charging equipment and a significant amount of energy supplied to those charging stations. Supernal and EP Systems are also looking at energy storage solutions outside of the aircraft, including vertiport integration and second-life applications for batteries that exceed their lifecycle in an aircraft. 

Although the specifications could change during the aircraft’s development, Supernal says it is targeting a range of about 60 miles (100 kilometers) on a single charge, and it will take no more than five to seven minutes to fully recharge the battery between flights. Initially, the aircraft will be piloted with four passenger seats, but Supernal is also exploring the possibility of introducing a fully autonomous, six-passenger version of the aircraft that would operate without a pilot on board.