Taxis flying over cities will be at least ten years away, but the market for electric-powered aircraft is already booming. ORCA Aerospace has also entered this segment, working with tech company AerinX to develop an eVTOL aircraft that would make air ambulance services more efficient and faster. The US is setting the trend in the industry, as overseas, unlike China, it has not only the capital but also the right regulatory environment.
An eVTOL (electric vertical take-off and landing) is actually a vertical take-off and landing aircraft with electric propulsion. There are now several types of such aircraft: the multicopter, for example, is most similar to a large drone, while others are more like classic aircraft.
The latter group includes the small aircraft under development by ORCA. It is planned to have a maximum take-off weight of two tonnes, a wingspan of 13 metres and a fuselage length of about 8.1 metres. “We are currently working on a miniature drone at a scale of 1:5. And depending on the success of the investment, we would like to start developing a simulator later this year. This would be followed by the creation of a full-scale prototype. And if all goes well, a flight test campaign would start at the end of 2026,” summarises the company’s co-founder-CEO.
“The vehicle itself will hang on six rotors during vertical take-off. And during the transition to horizontal flight, the lifting propeller on the front two pods can be tilted 90 degrees. In horizontal flight, only these two propellers provide the propulsive power, the rear lifting units are completely shut down,” said Soma Varga.
“This is a semiautonomous solution, because in horizontal flight the pilot has full control of the plane’s movements. In vertical take-off or landing, and in transitions, the automatic systems will be of great help,” he added.
The vehicle will be used primarily for air rescue, firefighting, disaster management or military applications, i.e. in areas where mass transport of people is not involved. One of the reasons for this is that the batteries currently do not have the capacity to cover distances of several hundred kilometres on a regular basis. Furthermore, the legal framework for air taxi services is not yet fully developed. The emergency medical services (EMS) market, on the other hand, could be ready for this new type of technology now.
Such a vehicle would be able to travel at higher speeds than a helicopter. And operating costs are roughly 27% lower than for a conventional gas turbine, according to preliminary estimates by ORCA. Not to mention the fact that the latter often requires a few minutes on the ground to bring the systems to full take-off condition. The eVTOL, on the other hand, reaches operational status almost immediately. The small aircraft under development could accommodate one or two pilots in the cockpit and at most three people in the cabin.
As Soma Varga pointed out, the bigger challenge is to complete the hardware. In terms of software, there are already a number of solutions available worldwide. Although these are not completely “out of the box” solutions, they can be built on a given type of machine with relatively little extra work.
Speaking about the work with AerinX, the aerodynamic engineer said that they would like to use the company’s mixed reality maintenance system. “One of our big goals is to create a much more sustainable, cost-effective air rescue vehicle. Apart from us, there are only a few and more European eVTOL startups that are targeting this segment like us. For the other players, air taxi development is the most attractive because it is the market with the highest return for investors,” explains the ORCA CEO.
He believes that the era of air taxis will only come around 2030-2035. The United States is ahead of the game in this respect. Overseas, there have already been many cases of unmanned, remotely piloted test flights – even just hovering a few metres above the ground. But in the Far East, the situation is very different. In China, for example, there is huge capital available, but little is known about developments there. Moreover, the local aviation regulatory requirements are different.
Social acceptance is still a question mark worldwide. In Germany, for example, where eVTOLs are the most advanced in Europe, society is very conservative towards this technology. It is therefore questionable to what extent they will be willing to use such a service. And if few people use the new type of aircraft, then the cost per kilometre per person would obviously be very high.