Taking the advanced air mobility (AAM) hype at face value, eVTOL aircraft developers continue to promise investors they will be producing vehicles at rates never previously achieved in the aviation industry. The forecast economies of scale for this new sector of air transportation are predicated on achieving new levels of manufacturing efficiency that have prompted some companies to look outside the mainstream aerospace sector for expertise and bandwidth.
This is what motivated a trio of specialist design, development, and production companies with feet in both the automotive and aviation camps to join forces back in November 2021. That was when Aria Group, Pankl, and KTM E-technologies formed Co-Lektiv as an alliance to offer the benefit of their experience to AAM start-ups.
“As it became clear the kinds of business plans and models they had in mind and the volume of aircraft to be produced, there was recognition that the traditional aerospace industry is not set up to support these new companies,” Clive Hawkins, founder and CEO of the Aria Group, told AIN. “There isn’t a high rate of manufacturing for composite aircraft anywhere in the world; Cirrus has reached about 400 fixed-wing units per year. If this industry wants to be revolutionary, the companies supplying them will have to think differently.”
In fact, several of the eVTOL pioneers have hitched their wagons to car makers with the intention of capitalizing on their mass production expertise. U.S. front runners Joby and Archer are backed, respectively, by Toyota and Stellantis. Supernal is the AAM arm of Korean automotive giant Hyundai, and China’s Geely group is a backer for both local eVTOL start-up Aerofugia and Germany’s Volocopter.
California-based Aria has been involved in the aerospace and defense sectors for some 15 years but has also applied its expertise to composite products in the automotive sector. Pankl has a similar pedigree as a leading supplier of drive-train components for Formula 1 race cars that also has experience producing parts for Sikorsky’s Black Hawk helicopters. Its sister company, KTM, is a specialist in making high-performance lightweight components for motorcycles. Austria-based Pankl and KTM are part of the Pierer Mobility group and have experience in areas such as additive manufacturing of metal components.
From Uber Elevate to Whisper Aero
Aria showed an interest in AAM before the term was even coined through its involvement with Uber’s Elevate project, which at the start of this decade seemed to be the fulcrum for the commercial deployment of eVTOL aircraft. After the rideshare group was compelled to face up to a financial reality check, Uber Elevate was acquired and quietly absorbed into Joby.
More recently, Aria and its partners helped Supernal to produce an early ground-based technology demonstrator for what was to become the SA-1 eVTOL aircraft. Earlier this year, it helped Whisper Aero build a concept aircraft as the basis for its plans for a radically different, and notably quieter, approach to propulsion technology. “They want to be the Pratt & Whitney of electric propulsion,” said Hawkins.
The company is also engaged in a joint pilot program with composite specialists Solvay and Toray on composite manufacturing and resin infusion processes. This program is based at Mississippi State University.
According to Hawkins, the answers to the manufacturing challenges faced by the AAM sector won’t all necessarily be found in the automotive industry. “There are different thought processes around higher rates of manufacturing for airframes, and also for developing prototype aircraft,” he said.
For now, the Co-Lektiv partners are having to keep their AAM interventions largely under wraps, working with a number of companies under strict non-disclosure agreements. Between them, Aria, Pankl, and KTM have some 10,000 employees and generate revenues of around $3 billion. They aim to provide production support in multiple areas but are unlikely to be directly involved in the final assembly stage.
Hawkins said they see great potential not only with eVTOL aircraft but also with longer-range eSTOL models intended for cargo and passenger flights, as well as initiatives to reinvent coastal transportation networks such as Regent’s wing-in-ground effect vessel. “I wonder how long it will be before we see second iterations of these aircraft developed, driven by the need to certify aircraft for higher volumes [payloads] and range,” Hawkins concluded. “We are trying to get involved as early as possible in that process because for now, the new aircraft are relatively limited.”