The path to a decarbonized future has seldom seemed so innovative – or so diverse. There is a rising reliance on three propulsion options: sustainable aviation fuels, hydrogen engines, and electrification. While these technologies have been around for several decades (most notably in the automobile industry), they had not sufficiently evolved as to be suitable for use in aviation. Let’s look at what sustainability efforts are being made in the aviation industry right now, and how Volocopter is contributing to the efforts to decarbonize aviation through its chosen approach: electrification.
Sustainability efforts in aviation
In 2019 – the last year for which representative data for aviation is available – the industry was responsible for 915 million tons of carbon emissions, the equivalent of around 2% of global direct emissions. With the post-pandemic resurgence of air travel, the numbers have begun to rise again. Clearly, the entire aviation industry urgently needs to take action to enable decarbonization – especially in light of the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global warming to well below than 2°C (35.5°F). Now, aviation’s sustainability efforts are starting to take shape. However, with the industry being described as a “hard-to-abate sector” and think tank Climate Action Tracker (CAT) evaluation of climate action progress prompting it to rate aviation’s efforts as “critically insufficient” the reality seems to be falling short of the goal. The bottom line? According to the Mission Possible Partnership, an industry-backed net-zero approach implies a combination of SAFs, hydrogen, and electric propulsion from all aviation players.
With sustainability a growing trend in the industry, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) projects that aviation is actually poised for further growth. ICAO Member States have pledged allegiance to the long-term and very ambitious goal (LTAG) of achieving net-zero C02 emissions by 2050. This is further emphasized by Climate Activation Tracker’s findings that aviation’s efforts are currently “highly insufficient.” It expects the industry to ultimately contribute to global warming of 3, or possibly even 4%.
At Volocopter, we are committed to helping to further sustainable aviation efforts at the policy level. Not only are we part of the EASA (European Union Aviation Safety Agency) working group that is defining aviation sustainability standards, we’re also a member of the German government’s Arbeitskreis Klimaneutrale Luftfahrt (working group on climate-neutral aviation). It is a major achievement for a small company like ours to have a seat at this climate-forward table.
Decarbonization of aviation
One strand of the approach to decarbonizing aviation involves sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs), which offer many benefits. While major airlines have announced efforts to integrate SAFs into their operations, for now it’s baby steps all the way, with one airline reporting a fuel integration rate of just five percent. In fact, the shortcomings of this approach were underlined by a recent IPCC report. In an unprecedented move, it noted that SAFs and direct combustion hydrogen produce a warming effect through indirect emissions, though the impact of hydrogen is lower.
At Volocopter, SAFs do not form a part of our strategy to enable clean tech, as we are working with electric motors. Consequently, this is not an avenue we are – or will be – pursuing.
Then there’s the hydrogen fuel camp, with players like Airbus developing hydrogen power trains. While such fuel sources are unsuitable for the urban use case that we’re pursuing with our VoloCity air taxi, we may explore hydrogen power trains for future use cases. Never say never.
Decarbonization at Volocopter
But what about the electrification of mobility? At Volocopter, sustainability has been an intrinsic part of our mission since day one. We aim to transform how people move around global megacities, sustainably. Not only are we pursuing a battery-electric approach, other key factors include aircraft safety and a low noise signature.
As one of the world’s emerging eVTOL (electric vertical takeoff and landing) companies, we’re championing the benefits of electrification. Given that less than 1% of aviation fuels currently used in Europe are SAFs, the UAM (urban air mobility) segment is going in a different direction, with battery-powered aircraft. Battery-electric aircraft lose only around 40% of energy from origin to consumption, over the approximately 85% energy loss associated with SAFs. What’s more, electricity is widely available today, whereas SAF and hydrogen production both urgently need to be scaled up. A battery-electric approach also offers enhanced climate impact abatement potential.
Moreover, Deloitte has noted an ongoing lack of clarity and coordination across governments and regulatory authorities on emissions reduction targets. This aligns with the findings of the CAT report mentioned above. But, the Volocopter fleet is still off to a good start, as it has zero in-flight emissions. What we also want to do is prove that our battery-electric aircraft are as safe and reliable as possible for our chosen use case. And, we always aim to deploy technology in line with considerations like safety, costs, and sustainability.
Electrification by Volocopter
So, why is electrification so crucial? Well, because it has the potential to replace more than 15% of global jet aircraft by 2050, thus contributing to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Volocopter (alongside the host of eVTOL companies that are following in our footsteps) believes that AAM (advanced air mobility) is an essential step toward a decarbonized future. Yes, we may still be a relatively small fish in the larger aviation pond. But, we also expect incredible growth. Though we will start small, with a pared-down initial launch in 2024, we will consistently scale up our operations to alleviate the negative impact of climate change, urbanization, and other passenger concerns. Battery enhancements will also result in improvements to factors like the range and passenger capacity of our aircraft.
Just take the trend toward urbanization and its new challenges. With around 70% of the world’s population living in cities by 2050 and transportation being responsible for approximately one-fifth of global carbon emissions, the time to act is now. Volocopter’s UAM offering will be a fast, affordable, and sustainable solution to urbanites’ woes in the coming decades. For Volocopter, there are simply no viable alternatives. There’s no more space on the ground in megacities, and underground projects have too long a lead time (20+ years). So, operating in the lower airspace seems like a very wise move.
Battery development for our aircraft
Volocopter’s unique battery approach unlocks further CO2-reducing potential. Initially our focus will be on battery swapping, a concept that offers a host of possibilities for considerably extending battery lifetime. This will enable fast fleet turnaround times at vertiports. And since global megacities come with space limitations, efficiency is key. Battery health is equally important, and so Volocopter will be paving the way toward conventionalizing our future-forward battery tech via a battery swapping concept, thus carving out our position as a frontrunner and industry shaper. In the long term, our focus will be on even lighter and more powerful batteries.
Safety is a top priority for us
Safety is crucial across the entire aviation industry, but especially for players in the emerging urban air mobility sector. When we talk about safety, we’re referring to passengers, people on the ground, and aircraft airworthiness. So, we must ensure that our aircraft meet all the relevant safety criteria for eVTOLs. To that end, we are working closely with EASA (European Union Aviation Safety Agency) to meet these criteria, while obtaining all other approvals needed to enable our battery-electric aircraft operations. A full breakdown is available in our article on how we’re certifying our VoloCity air taxi.
How Volocopter reduces noise pollution
Another key consideration for sustainable flights is a low noise signature. Operating a service with minimal noise is particularly important in the urban context. How does a low noise signature feed into our sustainability efforts? Well, just consider the tremendous noise a helicopter emits while flying over our heads. If we were to apply the same noise profile to the urban setting, we’d soon have a serious noise pollution problem on our hands! So, we’re taking steps to keep noise pollution to a minimum, building air taxis that fly as quietly as possible. To test our aircraft’s noise profile, we’ve run multiple noise testing campaigns at various locations, including at Pontoise airfield near Paris. What we can say with confidence at this point is that the noise signature of our VoloCity air taxi will not be audible against regular big-city sounds. In fact, we don’t expect our air taxis to be much louder than other electric public transportation options.
Concerted UAM efforts worldwide
Volocopter aims to launch its air mobility services in select cities across the planet. These include NEOM (Saudi Arabia), Osaka (Japan), Paris (France), Rome (Italy), and Singapore. As authorities work toward enabling decarbonization, taking steps toward a more sustainable future (think Singapore’s Green Plan, Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, and others), together we are paving the way to a tomorrow peppered with more sustainable transportation.
In a post-pandemic world, sustainability is top of mind across transportation industries. Volocopter aims to offer an additional layer of transportation that decongests ground-based options by providing an efficient and sustainable airborne alternative. We’re bringing electrification to the aviation table, as one strand of the decarbonization drive. And we’re very excited to see it come to life.