Air taxis may still be a cake in the sky, but there is more than one way to move the air travel industry forward. Artisan aerospace aims to do so with an all-new vertical take-off and landing aircraft that it believes could make city-to-city travel simpler, faster, cheaper and more environmentally friendly.
The aircraft, which to be clear is still in small-scale prototype form, uses a new VTOL technique that redirects airflow from its engines using flaps rather than turning them (like the well-known, infamously unstable Osprey), which makes for a much more robust and controllable experience.
Co-founder James Dorris believes that this fast and stable VTOL craft is the key that opens up a new type of local air travel, avoiding major airports for smaller ones or even helipads. Anyone who has had to take a flight that lasts less than an hour knows that three times as much is spent in security lines, at the boarding gates and, of course, in getting to and from these important necessarily distant airports.
“We are not talking about bringing wealthy people to the mall; there are huge inefficiencies in the main corridors,” Dorris told TechCrunch. “The key to shorten that delay is to pick up people in the cities and drop them off in the cities. So for these short jumps, we need to combine the advantages of fixed wing and VTOL aircraft. “
The technique they came up with is what is called “flying wing” or “deviated stream of water.” It looks a bit like something you’d see on the cover of an old sci-fi rag, but the unusual geometry and numerous rotors serve a purpose.
The basic principle of a blown wing has been explored before, but it has never been done on a production aircraft. Just fit a set of flaps (obviously extremely robust) directly behind the thrust, where they can be angled down and into the exhaust stream, directing the airflow downward. This causes the craft to lift upward and forward and, as it reaches sufficient altitude, it can retract the flaps, allowing the engines to run normally and driving the craft forward to produce a normal lift.
The many rotors are there for redundancy and so that the thrust can be finely adjusted on each of the four “half wings”. The shape, called a box wing, is also something that has been tested in a limited way (there are drones with it, for example), but it ultimately never proved to be a valid alternative to a traditional swept wing. But Dorris and Craft believe it has powerful advantages in this case, allowing for a much more stable and adjustable takeoff and landing than the twin-engine Osprey. (Or indeed, many proposed aircraft or tilt-rotor prototypes out there.)
“Our technology is a combination of existing and new technology,” he said. “The box wing has been built and flown; the high-fin aircraft has been built and flown. They have never been synthesized like this on a VTOL aircraft. “
Again, to be clear, the company has demonstrated a limited-scale model that shows that the principle is sound: They are not claiming that there is a full-scale ship ready to go. That’s years later, but willing partners will help them move forward.
The fifth-generation prototype (perhaps the size of a coffee table) hovers using the blown-wing principle, and the sixth, which will fly in a few months, will introduce transition flaps. (I was shown a video of the prototype hovering indoors, but the company does not release this test footage.)
The design of the final ship is still in flux; It is not known exactly how many rotors it will have, for example, but the basic size, shape and capacities are already included.
It will carry 9 passengers and a pilot, and will fly around 35,000 feet or so at about 300 knots, or 345 mph. That’s slower than a normal airliner, but the time you lose in the air should be more than made up by jumping the airport. The range of the cleanest gas-electric hybrid engines should be around 1,000 miles, which provides a good amount of flexibility and safety margins. It also covers 45 of the 50 busiest routes in the world, from Los Angeles to SF, Seoul to Jeju Island, and Tokyo to Osaka.
It should be noted, however, that Dorris wants to make it clear that the idea is not “LAX to SFO” but “Hollywood to North Beach.” VTOL jets aren’t just for show: if regulations allow, they can land in a much smaller location, although exactly what kind of landing pad and micro-airport is envisioned, like the plane itself, is still being worked out.
The team, which has just made its way through Y Combinator’s summer 2021 cohort, has experience building sophisticated transportation: Dorris was one of the principals in Virgin Hyperloop’s powertrain, and his co-founder Axel Radermacher helped build the powertrain for Karma Automotive. It may not have escaped you that none of those companies make airplanes, but Dorris thinks of that as a feature, not a bug.
“You’ve seen what has come out of the traditional aerospace industry over the last 10 or 20 years,” he said, letting the obvious implication speak for itself that companies like Boeing and Airbus aren’t exactly reinventing the wheel. And the companies that partnered with the automotive giants hit the walls because there is a mismatch between the scales: a couple of hundred planes is very different from half a million Chevy sedans.
That’s why Craft relies on partners who have sought to make a difference in the aerospace industry. His advisers include Bryan Berthy (once Director of Engineering at Lockheed Martin), Nikhil Goel (one of the co-founders of Uber Elevate) and Brogan BamBrogan (first SpaceX employee and loyal to Hyperloop).
The company also just announced a letter of intent from JSX, a small airline that offers low-friction flights on local routes, to buy 200 planes and the option to buy 400 more if desired. Dorris believes that, with their position and growth curve, they could be a perfect early partner when the plane is ready, probably around 2025 with flights starting in 2026.
It’s a weird and risky move with great potential payoff, and Craft believes his approach, unusual as it may sound today, is simply a better way to fly a couple hundred miles. Positive industry and investor noises seem to support that sentiment. The company has received an early stage investment (of an unspecified total) from Giant Ventures, Countdown Capital, Soma Capital and their advisor Nikhil Goel.
“We’ve proven it and we’re getting a tremendous amount of traction from aerospace folks who have seen hundreds of concepts,” said Dorris. “We are a team of only 7, about to be 9 people … Frankly, we are extremely satisfied with the level of interest that we are getting.”