At Farnborough Airshow, Rolls-Royce surprised some when it unveiled a new concept for an electric vertical take-off and landing (EVTOL) vehicle. The system could take to the skies as soon as the early 2020s. We take a closer look at the thinking behind the concept.
Rolls-Royce’s Carl Bourne told FINN: “We know that the future of aviation will be influenced by electrification. We expect to see that happen in two forms – evolution and revolution. This is one of the examples of revolution – the use of electrical technology to allow people to fly around the skies in a totally different way.”
The vehicle shown at Farnborough Airshow was a five-seater capable of taking off from a conventional helipad. It could carry 500 kilogrammes, fly at 250 miles an hour – faster than a helicopter – and fly for a distance of about 500 miles.
The initial concept vehicle uses gas turbine technology to generate electricity to power six electric propulsors specially designed to minimise noise emissions. It also has a battery for energy storage.
“Its primary role is to offer people a lot of flexibility,” Bourne said. “We’re showing it here in the form that a private user would buy it, so somebody who would buy a business jet could utilise some of these things to fly much closer to where they want go.
“It could also be used in a commercial application…a taxi concept then also potentially for cargo, and then potentially also military applications.”
Bourne added: “We’ve pioneered every major introduction of different types of propulsion system in the aircraft industry. It’s natural that we want to take part in this one. As you can see, what we’re showing here is a relatively conventional design. We’ve done that deliberately. It looks like an aircraft because it is an aircraft, and aircraft look as they do for a reason.”
Blurring the boundaries
During the FINN Sessions panel debate on urban air mobility, FINN Editor-in-Chief, Alan Peaford, asked Michael Cervenka, Head of Future Technologies Group, Rolls-Royce, about whether his company is looking at only the propulsion aspect of the system, or a more holistic approach.
Cervenka said: “Ultimately, we’re a power and propulsion system provider. Our vision is around power and pioneering the power that matters. To do that on these kind of aircraft, you really have to understand the aircraft and the propulsion system together. The traditional lines of boundaries between the propulsion system and the aircraft become a lot more blurred.”
“Rolls-Royce is not planning on suddenly making aerostructures or doing autonomous fly-by-wire systems,” he said.
“Actually, we’d love to have some partners and some investors – both from an airframe perspective and a supply perspective – to take this concept forward. But we’re doing it, really, as [way of] building out that propulsion capability and as a technology stepping stone.”
He further explained: “I think that’s a kind of interesting way of getting into the market, because it enables us to have a concept that can fly from existing fixed-wing airports and helipads. The aircraft can take off and land vertically and conventionally. It recharges the battery from the gas turbine, so you don’t need any new charging infrastructure. And because it’s got that capability, it can justify – initially – the expense of taking a pilot onboard. And actually, our view is it provides an ideal platform to prove some of the autonomous capabilities.
He added: “Part of the reason we’re getting into this is it gives us a chance to create some excitement and buzz, recruit some really brilliant people; but also to act as a stepping stone for some bigger concepts that can become a more mass-transport system. These are inherently scalable. We can have disruptive approaches, particularly in regional aviation, that I think offer something much more compelling than … today.”
Replay the panel debate here:
And, always the big question: when can we get on board?
“We’re looking at something which we could prototype in two or three years, and then potentially look at entering service within about five to ten [years],” Bourne said.