Disclaimer: This article has been a living document since early February and was last updated on Feb 22, 2024, which means that previous versions of this article may differ from this final version below.
No topic has arguably sparked more imagination and media buzz in the world of Travel and Mobility Tech over the past ten years than air taxis, also known as eVTOLs, eSTOLs, or eCTOL, depending on the respective aircraft type and use case in mind.
We at the Lufthansa Innovation Hub have long closely followed every development in the emerging Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) sector. In 2021, this culminated in producing major research reports like:
- Our flagship eVTOL patent analysis,
- a comprehensive visual mapping of the entire AAM ecosystem,
- and an interactive dashboard tracking every venture capital dollar being invested in AAM companies around the world.
Since then, our research focus on AAM has slowed down a bit given slower funding dynamics since 2022, but as we fully edge into 2024, our outlook on the AAM market is becoming much more optimistic again.
The AAM Revival: Four Signs of Takeoff
There were essentially four major developments in the AAM sector in recent months that have reignited our research interest and convinced us that it’s time to dive deep into this market once again.
1. Joby Aviation’s Certification Milestone: Joby Aviation has recently achieved a significant leap in the Federal Aviation Administration’s certification process, completing the second of five stages. This critical progress signals Joby’s steady path toward potentially introducing air taxi services by as early as next year.
2. Major Strategic Alliances Are Forming: The end of 2023 and the start of 2024 brought exciting partnership announcements from eVTOL innovator Lilium. Collaborations with our parent company Lufthansa Group and Frankfurt Airport spotlight the growing interest and potential groundwork being laid for eVTOL operations in one of the world’s pivotal markets, indicating serious intentions toward operational readiness and infrastructural support.
3. Historic Debut Flight in NYC: Joby Aviation’s successful execution of New York City’s inaugural electric air taxi flight on November 12, 2023, stands as a landmark event. Taking off from Manhattan’s Downtown Heliport, this was not only a first for the city but also showcased the Joby S.4’s capability in an urban environment, paralleled by Volocopter’s similar feat, illustrating a significant step toward urban air mobility.
4. Ehang’s Regulatory Triumph: At the tail end of 2023, Ehang emerged as the first AAM company globally to receive a Type Certificate for its EH216-S model from the Civil Aviation Administration of China. This certification for its unmanned eVTOL aircraft paves the way for Ehang to embark on passenger-carrying commercial operations next.
Motivated and inspired by these events, we’re excited to launch an extensive research series into the AAM landscape which will last for at least the next six months, starting today!
To truly analyze the state of AAM in 2024, meaning decoding the sector’s readiness for commercial eVTOL operations and pinpointing areas that still need further development for the industry to truly take off.
To achieve this, we crafted a new research product that we coined the Advanced Air Mobility Readiness Radar.
It’s a comprehensive, yet pragmatic framework designed to evaluate the industry across multiple dimensions.
Unveiling the AAM Market Readiness Radar
The AAM Market Readiness Radar emerges as a straightforward tool for visualizing the journey toward the commercial viability of the AAM sector. This spider mapping instrument scrutinizes the essential factors crucial for the AAM industry’s success, particularly focusing on the transition from prototyping to commercialization.
- The tool is structured around eight key dimensions, each a critical pillar in assessing the industry’s preparedness for launching commercial AAM services in the future.
- These dimensions are evaluated on a scale from 1 (indicating areas needing significant work) to 5 (signifying readiness for commercial operations).
Here is what this looks like:
Let’s briefly define each dimension for more context:
Technology: This dimension is the backbone of AAM, spotlighting advancements in aircraft design, propulsion systems, avionics, and autonomous technologies necessary for AAM’s success.
Funding: This category assesses the financial stability and strategy of AAM startups, crucial for securing long-term viability through various funding avenues, including venture capital, corporate investments, or public offerings.
Regulation: This area navigates through the complex regulatory landscape, ensuring that AAM innovations align with safety standards and obtain the requisite certifications from authorities like the EASA, FAA, and CAAC.
Scalability: Focusing on the operational readiness of AAM services, this dimension evaluates production capacity, supply chain management, fleet operations, and the infrastructural foundation necessary for scaling AAM operations.
Ecosystem: This variable centers on cultivating the infrastructural and community ecosystem essential for AAM, including vertiports, maintenance facilities, air traffic management, as well as ground mobility integration.
Business Model: This dimension delves into developing sustainable business models and identifying strategic routes and use cases that can effectively market AAM technologies and ensure commercial viability.
Sustainability: Highlighting the environmental ethos of AAM, this area emphasizes eco-friendly technology development, emission and noise reduction, and the overall environmental impact of AAM services.
Public Desirability: The final category gauges public acceptance and enthusiasm for AAM, underscoring the importance of building public trust, securing community support, and aligning with stakeholders and city officials for successful AAM deployment.
AAM Readiness: Charting the Path Forward
Over the next few weeks, we’ll dissect each of the eight dimensions that determine the sector’s readiness for commercialization, based on the current landscape in 2024.
This evaluation aims to offer a comprehensive understanding of the industry’s progression and its readiness to transform urban and regional air mobility into a commercial reality.
Without further ado, let’s start with the first dimension: the technological backbone of the AAM sector.
In simple words, we’re diving deep into R&D progress, scrutinizing how far technology has evolved, especially when drawing comparisons with past years.
(1/8) The State of Technology
In our journey to dissect the current technological landscape of Advanced Air Mobility, we embraced a familiar yet potent analytical approach: the study of patents, similar to our 2023 patent analysis of the airline industry.
This approach is supported by numerous scientific studies highlighting patents as a reliable barometer for gauging the intensity and direction of technological innovation within any field.
Recognizing their importance, we delved into the patent filings of all major AAM contenders, drawing on our history of employing data-driven research methods to surface trends and insights.
Patent Activity: Signs of Exponential AAM Innovation
Delving into the patent filings within the Advanced Air Mobility sector reveals an intriguing narrative of innovation and ambition.
- Over the last 14 years, the AAM industry has mostly shown a steady and linear increase in patent activity.
- However, in the past two years, the sector has gone through a remarkable surge.
- In 2023 alone, the industry hit a milestone with an unprecedented 760 patent filings, setting a new record.
This massive surge in patent filings serves as a strong indicator of the AAM sector’s accelerated phase of innovation, unlike anything we’ve observed previously.
This development is not just noteworthy; it’s a sign of promise, aligning with our assessment that the industry is currently gaining momentum at an unparalleled pace.
The interpretation of this dramatic increase in patent filings is clear:
- AAM companies are eagerly safeguarding their R&D breakthroughs.
- This rush to patent filing is a testament to the sector’s technological advancements and a signal that the industry is moving closer to the reality of commercial AAM operations.
- As companies increasingly protect their intellectual property, it also underscores the growing competitive landscape of the AAM sector and the critical importance of securing a potential technological leading edge.
The race toward commercialization seems to be heating up, but let us further dive into where most of this patent filing activity is coming from.
Unpacking the Geographical Innovation Hubs
The recent explosion in patent filings across the AAM sector unveils intriguing geographical trends that spotlight the regions driving the most innovation. The data since 2022 underscores a significant concentration of innovation efforts.
As the chart illustrates, the United States accounted for an overwhelming majority of patent filings.
- In 2022, 60% of all AAM patents originated from the U.S., a figure that impressively climbed to 71% by 2023.
- This increase not only emphasizes the U.S.’s leading role but also its expanding influence in the AAM domain.
On the contrary, China, while holding the second spot in terms of patent filings, saw its share halve from 16% in 2022 to just 8% in 2023. Europe, despite its rich aerospace heritage and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency’s (EASA) encouraging regulatory framework, also saw a decline, contributing to only 7% of the total patents filed in 2023.
This distribution highlights the U.S.’s increasingly dominant position in AAM technology. The dominance of the U.S. is not merely a reflection of its innovative capacity.
- There are also a larger number of AAM companies based in the country that benefit from a robust ecosystem of venture capital that is eager to invest in breakthrough technologies.
- Furthermore, a forward-thinking regulatory stance by U.S. authorities contributes to an environment conducive to rapid technological development and experimentation.
In contrast, Europe and China face more challenging economic conditions that have recently underperformed against expectations. Such economic headwinds have arguably led to a more cautious investment approach, potentially slowing down the pace of innovation and patenting activities among their AAM players.
Given this, the current trajectory suggests that the most groundbreaking technological advancements and collaborative opportunities in AAM are likely to emerge from the U.S.
Three U.S. Companies Lead in AAM Patent Filings
The dominance of the United States in the AAM sector is further underscored when examining the companies that are most active in patent filings.
Leading the charge are the U.S.-based companies Joby Aviation, Wisk Aero, and Beta Air. Together, they not only top the list of AAM entities with the highest number of patents filed over the last 15 years but have also shown remarkable activity in the last two years.
- Notably, Beta Air has been particularly prolific in 2023, filing more patents than any other company within a single year.
- Patent leader Joby Aviation, on the other hand, experienced a slight slowdown in its patent growth in 2023 compared to its historical performance.
The ranking reveals further interesting takeaways:
- Traditional industrial giants like Honeywell are also actively engaging in AAM innovation alongside dedicated AAM firms. This diversity underscores the wide-reaching interest and potential impact of AAM across various sectors, including automotive and technology.
- Lilium, ranking fifth and representing the forefront of European AAM innovation, significantly expanded its patent portfolio in 2023. This growth signals that European companies also possess the potential to develop substantial technological foundations in AAM.
- The increasing accumulation of patents within the sector suggests rising barriers to entry for newcomers, potentially concentrating future innovation among current market leaders.
Especially the latter insight underscores the growing significance of strategic alliances within the AAM sector. Emerging or smaller companies are likely to seek collaborations with established patent holders to leverage their essential technologies and avoid infringement issues. A prime example of this dynamic is the legal and subsequent collaborative relationship between Archer and Wisk Aero, a company with deep ties to Boeing.
- In 2021, Wisk sued Archer for patent infringement, highlighting the competitive nature of technology development in the AAM space.
- However, by 2023, the two companies had not only settled their lawsuit but also agreed to collaborate on specific technological areas, such as autonomy.
- This collaboration was further solidified by Boeing’s decision to invest in Archer after having more or less taken over the ownership of Wisk.
This turn of events illustrates the complex interplay between competition and cooperation in the AAM sector, where yesterday’s rivals can become today’s partners in a bid to accelerate technological advancements and market readiness.
Leading Innovation Areas in AAM
With a clearer picture of who the leading technology innovators are within the AAM sector, our attention now shifts towards the specific domains where these innovations are concentrated.
Analyzing the categorization of patents filed within the last two years sheds light on the technology areas most ripe for advancement in future eVTOL vehicles.
As the chart illustrates, the category known as “Power and Magic Movers,” predominantly focused on propulsion and energy systems, leads not just in the volume of patent filings for both 2022 and 2023 but also showcases the most significant uptick in intellectual property (IP) activities.
- The relentless pursuit of advancements in this area is driven by a fundamental industry mandate: without the development of electric propulsion technology that is not only efficient and quiet but also capable of achieving meaningful range, the vision of air taxis and their transformative impact on urban and regional connectivity simply cannot materialize.
- Given that the range of most eVTOL prototypes currently falls short of supporting any realistic longer-distance connections, such as intercity flights, the surge in patent filings here signals a strong push toward extending flight capabilities. In other words, it is a direct response to this critical bottleneck.
- Companies like Joby Aviation and Beta Technologies are at the forefront of addressing these challenges. This is crucial given that recent test flights have underscored the difficulty of extending range and flight time while maintaining power stability throughout the flight.
- Moreover, as urban areas are particularly sensitive to noise pollution, the push for quieter propulsion systems is also a direct response to one of the most significant barriers to public and regulatory acceptance of eVTOLs. High-profile tests conducted by companies such as Joby and Volocopter in densely populated cities like New York City, Paris, and Rome aim to demonstrate their aircraft’s ability to operate with minimal noise impact, an essential step toward gaining widespread acceptance.
- Lastly, the commercial viability of these aircraft hinges not only on their efficiency and range but also on the ability to quickly recharge or swap energy sources. Beta Technologies is pioneering in this area by developing a comprehensive charging network. Their efforts include partnerships with competitors like Archer Aviation, indicating a collaborative approach to overcoming one of the industry’s most pressing challenges.
Looking beyond propulsion and energy systems, the second most notable growth in patent filings is observed in the realm of “Flying Machines.”
- This cluster relates to the technology enabling the aircraft to perform its primary function—fly.
- Innovations in this category are crucial for improving flight stability, control systems, and overall airworthiness, making it a fundamental focus area for AAM companies aiming to enhance the safety and reliability of future air taxis.
- Notably, Beta Technologies stands out for its leadership in innovation efforts, particularly in the domain of in-flight stabilization.
The other areas of innovation, such as “Eco-Friendly Flyers” focusing on sustainability measures to minimize emissions, and “Core Aeronautic Technology” covering the essential elements of aircraft design and function, have maintained a consistent level of patent activity.
This consistency suggests that while these areas remain critical components of AAM technology development, they have not seen the same level of accelerated innovation as propulsion and flight control systems.
Scoring the AAM Technology Dimension
Reflecting on the diverse facets of patent activity within the AAM sector, it’s evident that the Technology Dimension has seen significant progress in 2024 compared to the previous year.
This advancement is underscored by a notable increase in overall patent filings, a clear regional focus with the United States leading the charge, and a concentrated effort from a select group of AAM pioneers.
The surge in patent activity, especially in the realm of propulsion technology, indicates a push towards extending the operational range of eVTOLs and maintaining power stability in-flight. This is a pivotal development, as enhancing travel distances directly impacts the feasibility of AAM services, creating viable business cases that (hopefully) offer real-time savings for passengers opting for air taxis over traditional ground transportation.
However, it’s also apparent that certain critical areas may require further attention and development.
- Notably, the relatively lower focus on safety and maintenance technologies might raise questions about long-term operational viability and passenger trust. However, it is important to note that despite comparatively lower patent activity, significant y-o-y growth in this area indicates a growing industry focus on safety. Collaborations and technology sourcing from aerospace veterans like Honeywell, which provides avionics to companies such as Lilium, underscore this commitment, even though it is not reflected in patent filing. Given the current landscape, the pursuit of a universally accepted safety standard for eVTOLs and other new air taxi models remains a work in progress. The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) is inclined towards adopting the stringent “10-9” safety standard, which would permit only one catastrophic failure per billion flight hours. Meanwhile, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is considering a more flexible approach. This variation underscores the ongoing dialogue and efforts within the industry to balance innovation with the imperative of safety.
- Another current white spot that rightfully raises some serious questions is the lack of emphasis on customer-facing digital innovations, such as the seamless integration of AAM services with existing ground-based mobility solutions, which suggests an opportunity for future innovation. Both of these elements are crucial for differentiating AAM services in a post-launch market where user experience and safety will play significant roles in determining success.
Given all these considerations, we score the Technology Dimension of the AAM sector as having made considerable progress but with room for further enhancements. The technology race within AAM is far from concluded.
Next month, we will delve into dimension #2, examining the current funding landscape.
Stay tuned for more.