With some very serious players announcing the development of personal VTOL aircraft over the past few months, many are wondering if we are about to enter the future predicted by the creators of The Jetsons. Does this portend the end of the aerospace market as we know it? Or is it an opportunity for the sector to drive convergence and build new markets?
In 1962, ABC aired The Jetsons – a whimsical animated primetime show set in a future where people are served by robots, talk face-to-face through television sets and fly around in their own personal aircraft. The first two predictions have already come to pass. Will the third? Are we on the cusp of a Jetsons-type air transportation system?
There has certainly been a flurry of announcements that would suggest so. In October, Uber laid out its plans for developing an “on-demand aviation” system using a network of small, electric Vertical Take-off and Landing (VTOL) vehicles. Intel’s Volocopter VC200 took its maiden manned flight in March 2016. Airbus is developing a personal VTOL aircraft as part of Project Vahana. And Dubai’s Roads and Transportation Agency has promised to have personal VTOL aircraft in commercial operation by July.
With competition heating up, timelines have become aggressive. Uber Elevate’s plan calls for operational vehicles within the next five years. And most experts seem to think that is feasible.
While most of the players now leading the personal VTOL charge were born from either the auto sector or the technology sector, the participation of traditional aerospace players in the race towards a Jetsons-style future suggests that some may see the emerging VTOL market as a potential disruptor.
Are these players making a pre-emptive strike against a technology that threatens to erode the commercial airline market?
Likely not. The reality is that VTOL aircraft will be limited to inner-city and very short-haul routes. Indeed, notwithstanding a change in the laws of physics, the ability to generate lift from an efficient wing (rather than pure engine power) will mean that commercial aircraft will remain the most cost-efficient form of air travel for many years to come.
The more likely answer is that the traditional A&D players have recognized the potential opportunity of leveraging their existing capabilities to create and then dominate a new and emerging market adjacency. The personal VTOL business may be in its infancy, but it is clear that it will be a big market. And if it’s going to meet the growth expectations outlined by the likes of Uber, it’s going to require thousands of new craft. Why should that business be ceded to a technology startup when the OEMs have the experience, technology and capital to win the market?
Based on this view of the future, we believe there are five things that aerospace players should be doing to prepare for a Jetsons-like future.