Life with The Jetsons: Personal VTOL aircraft take off

Life with The Jetsons: Personal VTOL aircraft take off

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?

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The Jetsons

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?

5 Tips for A&D players

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.

  1. Find your place in the world. Aerospace manufacturers – both OEMs and suppliers – must carefully consider where they want to play in the new environment and then invest in the right areas and capabilities to achieve that objective. Take a long-term view of market disruption.
  2. Look around for opportunity. Massive new markets are being created and commercialized all the time. Think about how your existing capabilities and technologies may answer a new need in adjacent markets.
  3. Make smart friends. Developing a VTOL aircraft – or any other new transportation technology – will require aerospace players to develop and cultivate an ecosystem of partners and suppliers that can innovate with them.
  4. Talk to the boss. Likely the biggest barrier to the commercialization of new forms of aircraft is regulation. It will take time for the FAA to get comfortable with the idea of personal VTOLs, particularly in an Uber-like model. Aerospace players will want to start working with regulators to define the market early on.
  5. Keep innovating. While the aerospace sector has never been an innovation laggard, it is clear that some companies are already investing into driving entirely new ideas and technologies through innovation and technology. Aerospace players will need to keep innovating if they hope to remain ahead of competitors from other sectors.

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