Vertical Aerospace has appointed Tim Williams as their chief engineer swapping his role at a blue chip company for an electric aviation startup. Williams joined the company from Rolls Royce, where he was also chief engineer.
He explained that it was not necessarily a move he anticipated making. “The more I found out about the opportunities, the more I found out about the technology and the future, the more I became drawn into this desire to get involved in something really ambitious, and an opportunity to shape the future of transport in this country, but around the world, it’s going to be a massive challenge.”
Hurdles are huge before electric aviation take flight
There’s still a long way to go before electric aviation takes flight. Williams said: “The technology, hurdles are absolutely huge, but I think just the excitement of doing something really big, really scary. And very new. As I keep saying to people, you know, design a product that’s never been designed; to fly in an airspace that’s not regulated; against a set of requirements that don’t really exist. What’s not to like about it?”
Vertical began flying two proof of concept prototypes two or three years ago and a heavy lift drone all aimed at developing flight control systems. Williams added: “Our next step is to develop yet another prototype, to try and understand where we sit relative to what is ultimately going to be a certification requirements.”
Two of the biggest hurdles for the urban air mobility market to overcome before it take off is battery life and regulation of the new market. The company has been building relationships with regulators including EASA and CAA on how they might address some of the certification needs.”
Coronavirus could place renewed emphasis on personal air travel
With the skies empty due to the restrictions and limitations of COVID-19, Williams believes there may now be a renewed focus on the market for personal air travel.
“I think there will be social distancing is going to be here for a long time,” he said. “So putting aside the environmental considerations, I think, you know, we will see the development of a market for these more personal more on-demand air vehicles.”
Vertical Aerospace is now launching its third prototype and, with it, refining its design. When the industry takes flight will very much be in the hands of the regulators, but Williams believes it will be just a few years before electric flights take to the skies.
He said: “I would think within the next couple of years, we’ll have that technology demonstrated and our ambition. And I think the ambition of the industry, is to be looking to have that viable certified product by the 2024-2025 timeframe.”
While Williams said he thought traditional operators may have chosen to get involved with projects a couple of years ago, he said that the post COVID-19 landscape was now very different.
He explained: “I think the reason I would have said that if you look, for example, at airlines like Virgin Atlantic, they’ll come to your house and pick you up. If you’re flying business class, this would naturally be a lead into that sort of experience rather than pick you up in a limo, they will pick you up in a flying taxi.”
But with less passengers due to the pandemic and less money, the timing is less than optimal for potential airline customers. “I don’t know how long it’s going to take for the conventional airline industry to take off. I can certainly see the attractions of these sort of vehicles for that industry. Once it recovers, I can see them being used as initially, probably on some already established routes, maybe some small intra-city hops. I think it might be a while before we start seeing these vehicles used within the urban airspace.”