Archer Aviation’s glossy black-and-gray four-passenger electric aircraft could begin shuttling passengers from downtown Manhattan to Newark, New Jersey’s Liberty International Airport as soon as 2025.
That 10-minute flight on Midnight at $100 a pop could be a first step in a potentially dramatic transformation of aviation.
San Jose-based Archer is among several companies building a new type of aircraft called an EVTOL, short for electric vertical takeoff and landing. These aircraft employ the same electric motors, batteries and computer-controlled propellers that power drones, but they’re big enough to carry humans and must pass government safety tests.
While flying, Archer’s EVTOL looks like a mid-sized airplane. Across its 48-foot wingspan are a dozen propellers: six in front, six on the trailing edge. With all 12 pointed upwards, Midnight takes off and lands vertically like a helicopter. For traveling horizontally, the six propellers on the front of the aircraft’s wings pivot forward. The lift from the wing improves efficiency, enabling the 6,500-pound aircraft to have a 1,000-pound payload and a 100-mile range.
The 500-employee startup’s vision is to revolutionize urban transit. The first goal is deliberately modest: air taxi trips to the airport. But ultimately that could lead to a future where electric aircraft can shuttle us through the air on renewable energy. That could help avoid the carbon dioxide emissions that make conventional aircraft a problem for fighting climate change.
“Over time, as we scale urban air mobility and you see lots of these planes out there, we can have a significant impact on reducing emissions,” CEO Adam Goldstein told CNET at the unveiling event. “I do think we’ll be a part of the solution,” he said, although we’ll need other types of sustainable transportation, including electric vehicles, too.
Getting there won’t be easy. The engineering is hard, and regulatory hurdles are high. Developing aircraft takes a lot of money and years-long planning cycles. Other efforts have thrown in the towel. Uber sold its Elevate division to EVTOL company Joby Aviation, for example, and Kittyhawk simply shut down.
Archer has the benefit of having raised $900 million during more optimistic economic times than now. Its stock price has dropped 73% since Archer’s 2021 debut as a publicly traded company.
The company appears confident of its prospects, though, sticking to its 2024 schedule for aircraft certification and 2025 for initial flights. United Airlines, which has invested in Archer and other EVTOL companies, is also a fan. It ordered 200 Midnight aircraft and recently paid $10 million for its first batch.
“If you live in San Francisco, if you live in New York, if you live in Chicago, if you live in LA, this is going to be life changing for those trips to the airport,” said Mike Leskinen, president of United Airlines Ventures. “We’re going to make sure that we’re the first major airline to bring this to our customers.”
Research firm Berg Insight expects EVTOL to hit its stride in the next decade, with sales of 20,000 aircraft in the first five years and 60,000 in the next. By 2050, total sales could reach 150,000 if airspace rules are liberalized and autonomous flight technology matures, Berg analyst Henrik Littorin said in an October report.
An aviation revolution
Midnight is part of an aviation revolution that encompasses everything from toy drones to electric versions of conventional passenger airplanes. Drones are leading much of the innovation: Small quadcopters and unmanned missile-carrying aircraft are flying in the war in Ukraine, oil companies are remotely inspecting pipelines, and Amazon and Alphabet are testing aerial package delivery straight to your home.
EVTOLs that carry humans come with bigger challenges because they have to transport so much weight and pass certification tests.
Archer began with a more modest goal than some rivals, like Wisk, which is trying to skip straight to pilot-less aircraft, and Alef Aviation, which is working on flying cars that work on roads and in the air. Archer is starting with piloted aircraft flying in and out of existing airport and heliport sites.
Archer also uses existing technology as much as possible from partners such as Garmin for cockpit software and Molicel for conventional type 2170 lithium ion battery cells, already widely used in electric vehicles. Archer’s engineers, many drawn from the ranks of Tesla, Apple and aviation companies, concentrate their energy on critical areas like lightweight motors and batteries that safely endure “thermal runaway events,” more commonly known as fires.
“We’re not trying to build the highest flying, fastest flying vehicle,” Goldstein said. “We’re trying to build a vehicle that can get to market.”
With time, though, EVTOLs will improve. Better batteries that could let aircraft carry more passengers, fly faster, fly longer and spend less time on the ground charging. Autonomous piloting could free a seat for another paying passenger.
Archer has been developing its technology with a two-seat test aircraft called Maker. At a test flight event on Wednesday, the company showed that Maker has passed an important milestone, the transition from vertical takeoff to horizontal flight.
The aircraft took off vertically and flew some loops in the air over an audience of journalists and aviation industry insiders on one of its daily flight tests, this time designed to push its airspeed up to about 80mph. Midnight is expected to fly at 150 mph.
Maker was audible, but much quieter than his helicopter escort.
At $100 per flight, Goldstein expects flight demand will outstrip supply, particularly with limited capacity at the “vertiports” where the aircraft take off and land. With public acceptance and new pickup spots arriving at places like parking garages, though, passenger volume could increase significantly.
And that could mean big business for whoever is building the EVTOLs. Archer hopes to ramp up from today’s crawl to a sprint later this decade.
“When we hit that 2028 timeframe,” he said, “we believe the demand will be there and we’ll be able to…ultimately bring thousands of these vehicles to market.”