Electric aircraft start-up Joby has secured new funding from major investors including Tesla-backer Capricorn and Intel Capital to commercialise its 5-seater eVTOL vehicle
Although electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft are still a few years from mass production and commercial operation, they continue to excite investors.
On February 1, start-up Joby Aviation announced that it had secured US$100 million in Series B funding to take its prototype electric aircraft into pre-production and certification.
The company claims to have “designed, built and flight-tested a fully-electric, vertical take-off and landing passenger aircraft” specifically for providing local and regional on-demand air transport.
The intended capabilities of that aircraft are also impressive. The team intends to produce 5-seater vehicle that can fly faster than existing rotorcraft, cover at least 150 miles on a single charge, and be 100 times quieter than conventional aircraft during takeoff and landing, and “near-silent” in flyover. While the latter may be relatively easy to achieve, flying long distances with four passengers and a pilot on batteries alone is still a major hurdle to overcome.
Yet the venture capitalists leading the charge seem optimistic. Big-ticket investors in the programme include Intel Capital, Singapore-based EDBI, JetBlue Technology Ventures and Toyota AI Ventures. It follows the company’s unannounced Series A funding which was led by early Tesla Motors investor Capricorn Investment Group in 2016, and now takes the company’s total funding to over US$130 million.
Neither is this vapourware. Covering the funding announcement, reporters from Bloomberg witnessed a trial flight at the company’s secretive airfield in Northern California, in which the pilot managed “a vertical takeoff, 15 minutes of flight in a 15-mile loop, and a safe landing.” 15 minutes is not yet 150 miles, but much of the legwork on the team’s prototype – nicknamed Rachel – appears to be well underway.
The team at Joby also has previous experience with some of the sector’s more cutting-edge projects. Having originally produced electric motors, founder JoeBen Bevirt turned his attention to electric planes in 2009 and the team at Joby has since worked on (and supplied motors to) major projects including NASA’s X-plane programme, and the development of the all-electric X-57.
With a team of 120, and demand for even more – the group is recruiting structural and electrical engineers, and staff in power electronics, battery electrochemistry, certification, flight controls, and software – Bevirt is confident that Joby can get commercial operation off the ground in the next few years. Exactly when that will happen though is unclear, owing to the remaining grey areas of FAA certification and indeed public opinion.
ElecTrans also suspects it may be several years before battery technology catches up to the demands of the aircraft too, although it is likely happen, with time.
Nevertheless, Bevirt’s statement makes it clear where he believes e-mobility is headed: “People waste billions of hours sitting on roads worldwide each year. We envision a future where commuting by eVTOL is a safer, faster, and cost-competitive alternative to ground transportation,” he explained. “We have spent the last ten years developing the technologies that have made our full-scale technical demonstrator possible and are now ready to build a commercial version of the aircraft. We’re excited to have attracted the backing of leaders in auto manufacturing, data intelligence, and transportation sectors.”
Intel Capital president Wendell Brooks also added:. “Joby Aviation has been laser-focused on delivering a unique vehicle into the market. This is a truly disruptive technology with the potential to push the geographic boundaries of where people can live and work.”
Competition for perfecting eVTOL and electric flight is heating up, with companies like Zunum Aero, Volocopter Aurora and Lilium all aiming for a slice of the as-yet untouched urban, on-demand aircraft market (Zunum also securing backing from investor JetBlue). The question now is whose technology will prove to be the most capable.