The most successful electric aircraft so far has been Alpha Electro by Pipistrel, a Slovenian company that now has a fleet of electric aircrafts flying across the globe. These new aircrafts utilise brushless electric motors which are finally providing the necessary power to compete with their gasoline counterparts.
Alpha Electro started in a tough niche. They had a possible French competitor called E-Fan, but soon that upstart was acquired by Airbus. They were now running head-to-head against a dinosaur, with virtually unlimited influence.
During the early days, they even had to cancel a plan to showcase the new aircraft at a Paris Air Show. Reportedly because of fierce opposition from their own supplier, who happened to be supplying the French company, as well. Nevertheless, they managed to pull through. A few years later, Alpha Electro is now certified and flying in many countries, while Airbus initially promised dozens of E-Fan are nowhere to be found.
It was not long before others entered the space led by Lilium Jet. These new competitors also have serious funding compared to Pipistrel, which is mostly self-funded with only a reported EUR 1.9 million grant from EASME, the European Union executive agency for SMEs received back in 2015.
Company: Pipistrel Aircraft
Team size: 90 (LinkedIn Jan 2021)
Aircraft name: Alpha Electro
Aircraft capacity: 2 seats
Aircraft range: 150 km
Aircraft speed: 180 km/hr
Aircraft battery: ~25 kWh
Aircraft motors: single, total power ~60 kW
Aircraft status: Certified, mass-production
Lilium Jet looks to be the second behind Alpha Electro and the first in the autonomous aircraft space. Other startups claim to be in the space, but do not have wings to support their claims. Those other startups are mostly running vanity quadcopter projects that neither have practical speed nor unit economics.
Lilium Jet has so far put out numerous videos and photos to back their claims. They have also attracted investments from significant players in the technology space, most notably from the Chinese Tencent. This allowed them to attract the right talent and scale their team to more than 500 people.
Currently, Lilium has the backing of Baillie Gifford too, which is the Scottish investment firm behind the biggest outside shareholding in Tesla and SpaceX. Their total funding to date is almost USD 380 million, most of which was raised in 2020.
Team size: 624 (LinkedIn Jan 2021)
Aircraft name: Lilium Jet
Aircraft capacity: 5 seats
Aircraft range: 300 km
Aircraft speed: 300 km/hr
Aircraft battery: ~500 kWh
Aircraft motors: 36, combined power ~320 kW
Aircraft status: Production-ready by 2025
Kitty Hawk started-off a few years back with rough prototype giving rides to celebrities. Later on, they unveiled Heaviside, which is an aircraft with actual wings fitter for practical transportation.
It is unclear how ready Heaviside is for mass production. However, the company team seems to be much smaller compared to Lilium, with significantly less funding. In fact, the only reported funding is a USD 1 million grant, but they seem to be on the right track to create a practical vehicle for the future of intercity commute.
Heaviside main downside seems to be it being developed as a single-passenger vehicle from the start, which might hinder its objective of becoming a replacement to cars, in the near future.
Company: Kitty Hawk
Team size: 138 (LinkedIn Jan 2021)
Aircraft name: Heaviside
Aircraft capacity: 1 seat
Aircraft range: 160 km
Aircraft speed: 290 km/hr
Aircraft battery: ~31 kWh
Aircraft motors: 8, combined power ~60 kW
Aircraft status: Early prototype
Wisk Aero the company behind Cora was formed by Kitty Hawk and Boeing as a joint venture. Despite Kitty Hawk having a similar product, i.e. Heaviside, many of its team have since joined Wisk Aero. Cora electric aircraft now looks more polished than Kitty Hawk's Heaviside and is already operational in New Zealand.
Cora has performed more than 1400 flights, as of January 2021, under an experimental permit. The aircraft has a very limited range of about 40 kilometres, but its planning to double it in the future. Cora takeoff using 12 electric motors, has one main propeller for cruising, and an integrated parachute in case of emergencies.
More than half of Cora's team are engineers working on different aspects of the vehicle, some of whom used to work for Tesla. Overall, it appears to be one of the most polished electric aircrafts among all other aircrafts in the space. Its speed and range are almost the lowest, but at least they are realistic about it and plan to increase it in the future.
Company: Wisk Aero
Team size: 219 (LinkedIn Jan 2021)
Aircraft name: Cora
Aircraft capacity: 2 seats
Aircraft range: 40 km
Aircraft speed: 160 km/hr
Aircraft battery: ~45 kWh
Aircraft motors: 13, combined power ~300 kW
Aircraft status: Experimental service
Joby electric aircraft seems to be one of the most promising projects for commercial airline-like operations within cities. The company was apparently started back in 2009 by Joby the manufacturer of the infamous GorillaPod.
Joby Aviation now has Toyota, Intel, and Uber, in addition to Baillie Gifford firm which also happens to hold a stake in their competitor Lilium. Joby Aero, Inc. is a French company that seems to be affiliated with Joby Aviation too and at least for now holds the company's domain.
Joby Aviation is now the most funded among its peers with almost USD 800 million in funding to date. It also has one of the bigger teams in the industry. In late-2020, they acquired Uber Elevate, an Uber division created to cater to the air taxi business in 2016. The acquisition came after many years of cooperation between Joby and Uber. This long cooperation with Uber being a popular brand helped paint Joby as the face of the electric aircraft industry, at least in the United States.
Company: Joby Aviation
Team size: 468 (LinkedIn Jan 2021)
Aircraft name: Joby
Aircraft capacity: 5 seats
Aircraft range: 240 km
Aircraft speed: 320 km/hr
Aircraft battery: ~200 kWh
Aircraft motors: 6, combined power ~600 kW
Aircraft status: Test service planned in 2023
Bye Aerospace the Colorado-based company behind the eFlyer has raised USD 3.9 million since 2010. The project aims for a 2-seater electric aircraft and another 4-seater variant in the future. eFlyer is utilising LG MJ1 18650 battery cells similar to the ones utilised by Tesla in their early roadster. However, these batteries offer excellent power density of about 260Wh per kilogram.
eFlyer could cost as little as USD 4 per hour to fly, which is almost 10% of the cost of a comparable traditional aircraft. It is also about 10% faster than its traditional counterparts. This is mostly due to the more aerodynamic design adding to the extremely efficient operation of the electric aircraft motor. This would mostly hold for many other players in the space too.
As of January 2021, they have already received over 700 pre-orders backed with upfront deposits. The deposit is said to be USD 5,000 for the 2-seater aircraft, and USD 10,000 for the 4-seater variant. The eFlyer electric aircraft to be sold at USD 389,000 and the assembly of the production prototype has already begun.
Company: Bye Aerospace
Team size: 67 (LinkedIn Jan 2021)
Aircraft name: eFlyer
Aircraft capacity: 2 seats
Aircraft range: 500 km
Aircraft speed: 250 km/hr
Aircraft battery: ~92 kWh
Aircraft motors: single, total power ~90 kW
Aircraft status: Production prototype
The accelerated rate of development using computer simulation has allowed for an order of magnitude improvement in aerodynamic design. That is using advanced CFD, computational fluid dynamics, which allowed new electric aircrafts to be nothing like the old designs dating back to the 70s. The efficiency of operation continues to increase and the hourly cost of flying is expected to drop significantly.
Companies leading the space seem to all have relatively practical vehicle designs. There is obviously other companies trying to enter the space, but mostly seem to be without flying prototypes. Others are trying to use quadcopters, but without fixed wings flight becomes inefficient and not economically viable for transportation. Time will tell if any will actually succeed in lifting us during our daily commute.
The space is underrated and it might be time to divert some of the funding going into electric cars to these future proof alternatives.