Viva La Revolution!


From Monday to Tuesday last week, the Grand Hyatt hotel in San Francisco hosted around 300 people — from tech start-ups to serial investors and aviation entrepreneurs — to talk about some of the most exciting upcoming developments in aviation.

Exciting was the keyword. Aviation conferences have become synonymous with a heavy dose of “cautious optimism” over the last few years. The private-aviation and helicopter market alike have not had the best decade.

However, electric flight is closer than ever, air-taxi services are coming back and a whole new market is blossoming in the form of passenger VTOLs.

The take away from the conference is that electric aircraft are closer than you might think. Specifically, hybrid-electric aircraft projects are quite far down the line. Zunum is one of the most interesting electric aircraft companies right now and is expecting to fly its first prototype aircraft in 2020.

More than $2 billion is being invested into electric aviation – a figure that has risen dramatically compared to just three years ago.

The eVTOL (electric vertical take-off and landing) hype was on full show at the conference. Whilst VTOLs might face challenges on the regulatory and infrastructure fronts, everyone is keeping an eye on the 100+ projects out there and looking forward to a Jetsons-like future where we are commuting in flying cars.

It is not just VTOLs that have regulatory challenges. As we see the worlds of Silicon Valley and aviation merge, the tech entrepreneurs are just now realising the amount of red tape in aviation. Safety is paramount, so this red tape is necessary and not going anywhere. Whilst this might delay technology like commercial VTOL flights and autonomy – it is all in service of keeping people safe.

But the tech people are not complaining. Companies such as Uber, NASA and Toyota are aware of these challenges. However, the amount of regulations in the US might mean other countries such as New Zealand and Brazil might be the testbed for this tech before it makes its way overseas.

With these new technologies comes the need for funding and investors want in. Companies such as Toyota and Porsche have opened new tech venture-capital arms to invest in everything from AI, drones to VTOLs. Private investors are also testing the field on start-ups. But there are hundreds of new aviation projects every year looking for funding and there’s only so much money to go around.

We also hosted a pitch session, where six new start-ups, ranging from cargo-delivery drones to a new runway-light manufacturer pitched their idea to a panel of four investors. The San Francisco cargo drone start-up Elroy Air won both the panel and audience vote.

Whilst everyone is aware that these new developments will take a lot of money and time to come to the market, this did not dampen the mood.

The reason everyone is in this industry is that they love aviation.

And no matter how aware people are of the costs and regulatory risks involved in things like autonomy, VTOLs, Blended-Wing Business Jets and supersonic aircraft – these things are the future. And at the end of the day, that is what brought the 300 people together in San Francisco last week.