In 2019, the word ‘revolution’ placed before anything can have several, obvious socio-political connotations. So, when Revolution.Aero Europe launched in London this week, the delegates were in for a treat.
It wasn’t a revolution in the traditional or political sense of the word – more of a societal and technological revolution. But there was fervour and electrifying energy all the same. More than 200 delegates — spanning tech startups, veteran aviation companies and investors — put their heads together to discuss the future of urban air mobility.
Paul Touw, co-founder of Stellar Labs Inc, XOJET and the first to take the stage, summed up the state of the industry quite succinctly, when he said we are embarking on the fourth technological revolution. He drew attention specifically to the rise of electric propulsion, which will fuel the future.
Many others over the course of two days of discussions echoed this shift. Moreover, they reiterated the need for electrification of flight. The argument for the rise of electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) travel is multipronged, including the benefits of speed, efficiency and environmental-friendliness. But the costs of such intra-city travel will run up quite a bill — something to the tune of “$28.7 billion to research, develop and implement,” according to Touw.
And cost is only the tip of the iceberg that stands in the way of the revolution. We may well be able to fly around it, but if the 150-plus companies worldwide which are developing concepts for eVTOLs have their way, this kind of travel will be autonomous. And will require the appropriate infrastructure too, for the aircraft to land and take-off. A number of companies suggest the utilisation of existing helipads, open spaces and even water bodies. However, these come with their own set of regulatory challenges.
There is one step before infrastructure and regulation are considered. Global Blockchain Business Council’s Sandra Ro outlined the significance of blockchain, which are blocks of data that can be linked using cryptography. If there’s one thing to remember about data, it’s that it is the bedrock of any future endeavours for the aviation industry.
Ro argued for more openness, in the form of public blockchains. Gogo’s Lisa Peterson said, “Of the 40,000 flights that take-off and land in the USA daily, we receive nearly 15 petabytes of data.” A petabyte is equivalent to 13.3 years of HD+ TV video. And Per Marthinsson, of Avinode, called “to have more of a collaborative environment. And that means, I win, you win.”
The ‘Pitch’ segment of the conference saw six startups present their ideas to the room, for seven minutes each, in the hopes of winning the competition and attention of the investors present. There were eVTOL concepts, autonomous software and even a grand prix for flying Formula One cars.
Professor Mark McCaughrean, senior advisor for science & exploration at the European Space Agency, compelled the room to think about the future of intergalactic travel. He conveyed the distances involved in visiting the Moon, Mars — six to nine months — and the centre of our galaxy. His message was quite loud and clear: “If Earth is Planet A, there is no Planet B.”
One of the biggest takeaways was the irreversible impact that the rate of carbon emission from aviation has on the planet. Michael Liebreich, chief executive officer, Liebreich Associates, discussed the importance of electric vehicles and said we do not have the charging infrastructure to meet the current demand.
“Shenzhen has around 16,000 electric buses right now. They’re not doing it for fun, they’re not doing it for ‘greenwashing,’ and they’re not doing it to attract you like tourists. It’s cheaper! And they have an air quality problem.”
Essentially, it looks as if we are going to be waiting some years before we fly around in autonomous eVTOL taxis. Tech companies want to keep innovating. Investors want to put their money where their mouths are. But most of all — as it has in the past — the general opinion is that collaboration and co-creation will yield the best results for the industry at large.