Disrupting the rotor wing market: Flying cars and passenger drones

The rotor wing industry has faced some serious headwinds in recent times; low oil prices, a weak economic climate, geopolitical tensions and ongoing safety concerns have all contributed a slowdown in growth. Indeed, 2016 witnessed the lowest order intake across the rotor wing industry since 2008.

These challenging times have heightened competition in the rotor wing market, which is in turn driving innovation. The helicopter of the future needs to be cheaper, safer, more environmentally friendly, and more technologically advanced than its predecessors.

But does it need to be a helicopter at all?

Option one: The flying car

The flying car has long captured the imagination of inventors and storytellers alike; from the Romanian aviator Traian Vuia to the makers of Back to the Future, countless plans have been drawn up and subsequently abandoned.

However, we have come a long way since Vuia’s early-20th century experiments, with one start-up, Terrafugia, promising to deliver “the world’s first practical flying car” in 2019. To fly the car, you will need to have both a U.S. driver’s license and a sport pilot certificate. The latter can take as little as 20 hours of training to obtain. In contrast, it takes a minimum of 30 hours in the U.S. and 45 hours in the U.K. to obtain a private helicopter license. However, in reality the average is closer to 50 or 60.

Even if flying cars become technological realities, they still have a major barrier to mass-market adoption

Other companies are bypassing the need for a flying car to operate as a car at all by creating aircraft that can take off vertically; this way there is no need to drive to find a runway.  German start-up Lilium has raised €10 million in funding from the founder of Skype to produce their electric vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) jet and also backing from the European Space Agency. The funding will facilitate further testing in 2017 with service entry expected in 2018.

Having released its first fleet of self-driving cars, Uber has also turned its attention skyward. In October 2016 they announced their flying car project, Uber Elevate. Their ambition is to create a network of “VTOL hubs” with multiple take-off and landing pads that will transform the nature of city travel; all by 2026.

Even if flying cars become technological realities, they still have a major barrier to mass-market adoption: humans. Across the globe, around 1.3 million people die in road incidents every year. Drink-driving, phone use, failing to obey speed restrictions and ignoring safety measures will most likely plague flying cars as much as they do road-bound ones. Not to mention the added distraction of soaring panoramic views; Lilium’s jet is intended to fly at 3km altitude in uncongested airspace.

Option two: The passenger drone

Several players in the transportation and technology sectors have committed to eliminating the people problem by removing the need for pilots. Airbus’ Silicon Valley outpost A3 are working on an autonomous “flying vehicle platform” to carry passengers and cargo. The project, named Vahana, is set to test its first prototype at the end of 2017. Last year, the head of A3 Paul Eremenko was promoted to chief technology officer at Airbus with a mandate to ‘build the future,’ so watch this space.

According to Airbus, the sharing economy will make personal flight affordable to millions

In July of this year, a passenger drone is expected to start operation in Dubai, according to the head of the city’s transportation agency. The Ehang 184 can carry one passenger between pre-determined landing spots for a maximum of 23 minutes.

Human error can occur during training, flight planning, the flight itself, or in maintenance. Drones could reduce or eliminate human error in the first three instances; while other technologies such as 3D printing and the Internet of Things are making significant gains in maintenance safety.

In today’s hyper-connected world, many of us forgo asset ownership in favour of using goods and services on demand – as proven by the success of airbnb (currently valued at $31 billion). In the U.K. alone, the sharing economy is expected to generate £140 billion in transactions per year by 2025. According to Airbus, this sharing economy will make personal flight affordable to millions.

If personal travel via passenger drone becomes an affordable reality, then rotor wing operators may face two-pronged disruption from both the traditional transportation sector and technology firms previously operating outside aviation. However, a boom in this form of transportation, previously the preserve of the rich and famous, could also present an opportunity to rotor wing manufacturers and operators nimble enough to adopt their business models and technologies to automated, on-demand flight.

Challenges for personal travel

Although much of the technology required for passenger drones already exists, significant challenges need to be overcome before they can disrupt the personal travel rotor wing market. To name just a few:

  • Regulation: government will play a vital role in bringing VTOL drones to market but both the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and European Safety Agency (who regulate 80% of the world’s aviation activity) have been slow to certify new aircraft in the past
  • Safety: in the U.S., commuter and on-demand flights have twice the fatality rate of privately operated cars. Therefore, improving the safety record of personal aviation will be critical. Cutting-edge artificial intelligence will be required to prevent pilotless aircraft crashing into each other. But if the right measures are in place, Uber believe VTOL aircraft could be twice as safe as cars
  • Infrastructure: the existing air traffic control ecosystem will either need to adjust to increased traffic over urban airspace, or a new system will need to be created. Either way, this is unlikely to materialise ahead of the technology being finalised. Space will also need to be found to accommodate take offs and landings in already congested cities
  • Cost: one of the reasons helicopter travel is so expensive is due to fuel costs. Companies looking to disrupt the market hope to eliminate this issue by making their jets electric. Indeed, German company e-volo completed a manned test flight of their electric VTOL aircraft last year. However, several issues with battery range and recharge time must be resolved before electric flights can last longer than a few minutes.

Beyond personal travel

If automated drones can lower the cost and improve the ease of individual air transport, they could transform healthcare access

The rotor wing market currently extends far beyond personal travel; medical evacuation, military operations, offshore oil, extreme sports, aerial photography are just some of the sectors facilitated by this form of transportation.

Medical evacuation (medevac) can be the key to survival following an accident. However, these expeditions are fraught with their own risks. Indeed, from 2006-15 medical evacuations were responsible for 97 fatalities in the U.S. alone. As a result, the U.S. Army’s Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Centre (TATRC) has been exploring how autonomous aircraft can improve casualty evacuations. According to the TATRC,

“Unmanned systems will be critical to U.S. operations in all domains across a range of conflicts, both because of the capability and performance advantages and because of their ability to take greater risk than manned systems.”

VTOL drones are able to operate on challenging terrain and reach smaller spaces than traditional helicopters. This makes them suitable for rescuing troops or civilians in areas that rotor wing aircraft would either be unable to reach, or would pose too great a risk to the pilot. As such, as these technologies continue to be tested and proven they will pose a threat to any traditional aircraft that cannot match these capabilities.

Transportation is often cited as a barrier to medical care, particularly in rural developing societies where a lack of roads can prevent travel. According to the World Health Organisation, principal modes of emergency medical transport used in places such as North America or Europe are too costly and often impractical in lower-income countries. If automated drones can lower the cost and improve the ease of individual air transport, they could transform healthcare access in these areas.

The impact on risk management

While drones can reduce human error, they do not eliminate people risk

Amidst the hype currently surrounding driverless cars and pilotless planes, cybersecurity experts are warning of the technology’s vulnerability to hacking. As autonomous vehicles must talk to each other in order to avoid crashing, they are often required to be connected to the internet where every connection creates an opening for malicious hackers or component failure. Any organisation looking to enter this market will therefore need to identify, assess and prioritise their cyber risk resources and embed the most stringent risk management and safety protocols, both in their product and organisation.

If and when something does go wrong with a passenger drone, apportioning blame may present problems. If there is no pilot error involved, then the question is: who is responsible, the operator or the manufacturer? This may need to be negotiated before the aircraft enters operation, as the answer will have implications for how these risks are addressed by the insurance market.

While drones can reduce human error, they do not eliminate people risk. As automation looks increasingly likely to replace traditional jobs, companies must have the foresight to understand how technology will transform the nature of work in their organisation.  Leaders would be well advised to take action now to build a workforce with skills fit for the future; so technology can be an enabler rather than a displacer of people.


Robin Milan is the Sales and Marketing director for the Willis Towers Watson General Aviation and Aerospace practices. Having worked within our Global Aviation team for over 12 years, Robin has been an account manager, broker and is now responsible for designing and executing our sales strategy within these two key areas.

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