DETROIT – With the halls of the North American International Auto Show thinner when it comes to automakers showing their wares, it has opened real estate on the main floor for companies peddling “mobility,” especially companies selling personal aviation.
From a newly designed seaplane to a battery-powered Air Taxi that can go from Ann Arbor to the Renaissance Center here in 15 minutes or from, say, Middletown, NJ, to a Wall Street rooftop in the same amount of time, companies are coming up with new designs to tempt millionaires who previously have bought Lamborghinis and Ferraris as their mobility toys.
Several marketplace factors are driving interest in small personal aircraft, especially among the fat-wallet brigade who can afford to drop between $150,000 and $1 million on mobile “air candy” and/or “road candy.”
- Follow the money: There are 21,951,000 millionaires in the U.S., according to the 2021 Global Wealth Report by Credit Suisse, up substantially from 2020 thanks to stock market and real estate gains. The number of “ultra-high net worth individuals,” the wealthiest category, grew by 24%. For the first time, more than 1% of Americans are millionaires.
- Time is as valuable as money: Helicopter and vertical-lift small-aircraft sales are rising as the wealthy look for ways to avoid the bridge and tunnel crowd when moving about between houses in the country and suburbs and traffic-congested city centers.
With small personal short-flight aviation vehicles, there is a new emphasis on battery-electric power over gasoline or jet fuel.
- AIR ONE, from Israeli firm AIR, is a two-seat battery-powered VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing aircraft), carries up to 550 lbs. (250 kg) and reaches speeds up to 155 mph (250 lm/h). Price: $150,000.
- A kind of drone for people, the XTurismo hover-bike from Aerwins Technologies/AL.I. Technologies in Tokyo, made demonstration flights at Coleman A. Young International Airport on Detroit’s east side. Rather than having to fly it, it is controlled by a remote control similar to a drone. It stays airborne for about 40 minutes and reaches a speed of 62 mph (100 km/h) – plenty for a commute in metro San Francisco or Tokyo. The price tag is $777,000, about the same as a two-bedroom condo in Silicon Valley.
- Airspace Experience Technologies (ASX) in Detroit is showing its Sigma-6 electric VTOL as a “luxury air cruiser.” The aircraft is a tilt-wing under development with a modular payload design and has, according to the company, pre-orders from logistics companies and the U.S. Navy. It also comes with a firefighting and air-ambulance package. The Sigma-6 design can be outfitted with hybrid-electric or all-electric battery-pack powertrains, with autonomous or pilot-optional flight. The cruise speed is an estimated 126 mph (203 km/h) with a maximum speed greater than 200 mph (322 km/h). Price: about $1 million depending on package.
- Gravity Industries from Salisbury, U.K., is showing off its third-generation personal Jet-Suit. We have been seeing these in some form or another since the 1960s, and the military has used them in certain applications. This is an attempt to commercialize them more broadly without getting burned. Gravity’s outfit produces 1,000 hp and is aimed at search-and-rescue, first responders, etc. The idea of commuting in one doesn’t seem to be okay with the FAA…yet. Price: $440,000.
- ICON Aircraft from Vacaville, CA, is showing its A5 amphibious two-seater light aircraft with retractable pontoons, a much more elegant design than most seaplanes these days. The A5 is powered by an internal-combustion engine and stays aloft for about four hours in between refueling. Price: About $400,000.
Drones have made small-vehicle aviation a bigger curiosity, and more top-of-mind as far as what is possible for manned aircraft. Some are referring to these vehicles as “flying cars,” but that does not seem accurate. Perhaps a term like ‘micro-aviation” would be better for some of these personal aviation products.
“We are thrilled to showcase these important technology advancements in the mobility sector,” Rod Alberts, executive director of the Detroit auto show. “The entire AutoMobili-D area is sold out, illustrating the key role these companies are playing in the new world of mobility.”
These new aviation vehicles are easy to use for the experienced. If you want to take off from your backyard or back-40 acres via a VTOL, you need only file a flight plan with the nearest airport and get a clearance.
And while they will save owners lots of time and wow the neighbors, they will not be without tragedies. The number of deaths resulting from plane crashes recorded in 2018 in the U.S. was 393, a 13.2% increase from 347 in 2017. Most crashes involved light aircraft. A staggering 84% of all aviation fatalities in the European Union in 2018 were caused by light-aircraft crashes. A majority (about 70%) of these small-plane crashes were recorded in France, Germany and Italy.
Piloting any plane is a highly technical skill, and personal aviation pilots get far less training than commercial pilots. Unlike in commercial aviation, small plane pilots do not need to register as many flight hours before they are qualified to fly these planes.
Watch this market to see if it really…takes off.
Check out this link for information about the demonstrations and presentations of these aviation experiences: https://naias.com/air-mobility-experience