Archer, an aviation business based in Hawthorne, California, showed its prototype for an electric air taxi last night.
The Maker, capable of carrying two passengers in theory, will only be used as a non-passenger test vehicle while the business develops a larger air taxi. It’s just a prototype, but it’s a step toward a future when people can board quiet electric air taxis for short trips to commute or go somewhere interesting. That is the dream that Archer and other businesses aspire to realize.
There are a total of 12 propellers on this 40-foot-wide, 3,300-pound flying vehicle. The aircraft’s dynamic workhorses are the six positioned in front of the wing. They can tilt. This plane may rise like a helicopter as vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft, with the propeller blades, angled almost parallel to the ground to direct thrust downwards. When the craft is in forwarding flight, the five-bladed propellers reposition in a more specific position to push the vehicle through the air. Existing tilt-rotor aircraft, such as the V-22 Osprey and the V-280 Valor, work similarly, though they aren’t electric.
The angle of the blades on those prop-rotors can also shift, determining how much air they bite. “They’re variable pitch,” says Geoff Bower, the company’s chief engineer, “so they can be highly efficient in both the hover and cruise regimes.”
The remaining six propellers are behind the wing. They’re just two-bladed affairs that don’t tilt or change pitch. “Those are only utilised for vertical take-off and transition, and then they halt and lock into place,” Bower explained. That is, they spin to assist the plane in getting off the ground or landing, but then stop moving and lock in place so that they aligned with the airflow passing over the aeroplane as it flies forward. They’re similar to the landing gear on a regular plane in that they’re only employed when necessary during particular parts of the flight.
These rotors, unlike landing gear, do not retract into the aircraft when not in use. “Certainly, flying clean without the [stopped] rotors would be preferable,” Bower added. But, as Bower noted, aeronautical design is full of trade-offs, and adopting this strategy would have increased the mechanical complexity and weight of the back rotors. In this scenario, keeping things simple was the best option. “It’s a delicate balancing act,” he continues.
The Maker aircraft should travel about 60 miles on a single charge and reach speeds of around 150 miles per hour, making it a viable alternative for a trip between Ft. Lauderdale and Miami, Florida. Its first flight expects to occur later this year, albeit it will most likely only be a brief hover test. The Maker’s successor (which is currently in the design phase but expected to fly in 2023) will seat four people, including a pilot, and have similar speed and range capabilities. “It’ll probably look fairly similar,” Bower predicts. “Think of Maker as a scaled-down version of the demonstrator.” By 2025, passengers may be able to fly in it.
Archer is one of several firms attempting to bring in a new era of electric flight, which might divert some traffic away from congested city streets and into the air. This year, Archer and United Airlines announced that the airline giant would buy $1 billion worth of the startup’s planes (up to 200 planes) in a splashy transaction. According to a news release, this will happen once “the aircraft are in operation and have met United’s operating and business standards.” Other startups in the same field include Beta and Wisk, in addition to well-known competitor Joby.
It’s worth mentioning that Wisk has filed a lawsuit against Archer. “It looks to mimic the identical design that Wisk designed and submitted in a confidential patent application to the United States Patent and Trademark Office in January 2020,” Wisk said in a statement. In response, Archer filed a request to dismiss, claiming that the action is “completely unfounded.”
Regardless of the legal wrangling, Archer’s prototype provides a tantalizing glimpse into the future of short-distance electric air travel.