Event Roundup: Vertical Flight Society and Heli-Expo

Perhaps January felt especially long this year because it was bookended by CES on the front end and Helicopter Association International Heli-Expo at the end, with Vertical Flight Society’s Transformative Vertical Flight technical meeting in between! It was a busy month, but we wanted to share some of our presentations, impressions and takeaways from the latter events as there was no doubt after attending these that the industry surrounding urban air mobility is maturing and growing.

VFS Transformative Vertical Flight Meeting

This year’s event brought together nearly 500 people in San Jose to discuss every detail of vertical flight - from helicopters, to air taxis, to parcel delivery drones, every component part and the infrastructure and systems that will enable them to share the airspace and the ground, when needed. The scale of the event alone was a big step change, but we were really impressed with the caliber of attendees this year as well.

It’s clear that we at Acubed are not the only ones who have been hard at work - we saw new approaches to infrastructure challenges, advanced simulation software, much discussion on the applications in the freight category (perhaps first before passenger), medical applications being explored to bring needed supplies and medicines across city cores on-demand (and taking trucks off the road), and component optimization through additive manufacturing.

What we heard in Vahana’s primary category of eVTOLs is that batteries are still the number one concern, followed by reliability, cyber security, autonomy and acoustic impact. These should come as no surprise, but certainly everyone seemed to agree this year. As the event was hot on the heels of several major funding announcements in the space there was also a lively debate around the manufacturing challenges of eVTOLs with many believing it’ll look a lot more like automotive manufacturing than current aircraft manufacturing.

As this is a technical event, Monica Syal, Vahana’s Senior Aerodynamicist, gave a presentation at the conference on DUST, the medium fidelity aero modeling tool that they designed to help them tackle the myriad challenges presented by unconventional configurations in urban air mobility (Airbus' own included)!

(Monica's full presentation can be downloaded HERE)

DUST, which is open-source (use it, it’s free!), is flexible in terms of the definition of the model / case, it features a grid-free solver, is optimized for speed, and much more. You can access the code here.

Zach Lovering, the Project Executive of Vahana for many years, spoke alongside others who are working on the actual UAM vehicles to give an update on the successful completion of Vahana’s flight testing campaign, which culminated in November 2019. On his panel there was a short presentation and discussion on Unified Flight Controls (made by Joby’s flight test pilot who was there discussing the eradication of pilot error). Though Joby has publicly discussed their approach before, it’s always eye opening for people to realize the power of unified flight controls to simplify the operation of VTOL aircraft. As was pointed out, these aircraft are kind of like two aircraft in one (hover and forward flight), which presents a huge flight controls challenge. It’ll be interesting to see how others - not to mention regulators - ultimately view these tactics for reducing the mental workload on pilots as the complexity goes up.

Helicopter Association International Heli-Expo

Just a week later Helicopter Association International Heli-Expo took place in Anaheim and, in this case, we were able to bring our full-scale Vahana Alpha Two to the event and have it shown alongside several of Airbus’ helicopter products. We had recently completed a final video of Vahana - and flown it alongside one of our helicopters. We revealed the video at the event.

As Vahana has just transitioned from an active technical demonstrator to a transitioned project, it was bittersweet to display the aircraft, but the enthusiasm from attendees was palpable. We fielded many questions about the next steps of our vehicle program, which is still in full force with CityAirbus being in active flight testing in Germany.

In addition to Vahana being on display, Airbus Urban Mobility’s Head of Certification and Regulation, Travis Mason, spoke on the UAM Forum to help inform the audience on the current state of play in the UAM industry. The forum’s topics were wide ranging, but included: the availability and progress being made in sense-and-avoid technologies, how the industry can claim aircraft reliability without proof via performance data, acoustics and the demand for understanding additive noise from UAM vehicles, how vertiports will be treated (and allowed for) in urban cores, timelines to certification, and much more.

We’ve said it before, but the conversations around this category are increasing in their sophistication by the day. We almost can’t remember the last time we got a question about the Jetsons or when people would be flying into their own garages. This feels like an important moment where more people in the industry are agreeing on our collective trajectory - certainly more than we used to - and realizing just how many companies and people it’s going to take to make this a reality. Via tools like DUST and talks like the ones we participated in throughout January we plan to continue contributing to this inspiring dialogue. There’s still so much work to be done.

- Paige Wilson