The First Electric VTOL Unicorn: Joby Aviation
Joby Aviation used the VFS Transformative Vertical Flight 2020 meeting
to give the first public insights into its electric VTOL developments.
By Kenneth I. Swartz and Mike Hirschberg
For the past 11 years, Joby Aviation has been on a quest to develop the ultimate electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, but few details of the company’s aircraft and progress have been shared with the public.
That changed in January when Joby stepped out of the shadows and released images of the production version of its all-electric, five-seat tiltrotor in conjunction with the announcement of a $590M Series C financing that brought the company’s total funding, including previous rounds, to $720M. This makes Joby the first “unicorn” in the eVTOL industry, using a term coined by venture capitalist Aileen Lee in 2013 to describe the rare occurrence of a private startup reaching a valuation of $1B.
The Vertical Flight Society had the honor of welcoming Joby founder and CEO JoeBen Bevirt as the keynote banquet speaker at its Transformative Vertical Flight (TVF) 2020 in San Jose, California, on Jan. 22, 2020 (see “Transformative Vertical Flight 2020,” pg. 38).
For the 400 people in the ballroom that evening, this was a rare opportunity to hear from one of the pioneers and visionaries of the eVTOL industry — it was Bevirt who originally coined the term “electric VTOL” a decade ago — and learn about his inspirations and ambitions.
Joby Aviation had not revealed anything about its eVTOL projects since its participation in the Society’s first and second TVF Workshops (the predecessor to the annual eVTOL Symposiums) in 2014 and 2015.
However, the secret work of Joby had not gone unnoticed. VFS recognized Bevirt for his pioneering efforts and leadership at Forum 74 in May 2018 with its prestigious Paul E. Haueter Award for “outstanding technical innovation in the development of VTOL aircraft,” for successfully demonstrating the world’s first high-speed, full-scale electric VTOL aircraft. At TVF 2020, Bevirt shared insights into the outstanding innovations behind that award for the first time.
Bevirt said he grew up on the rugged Pacific coast between San Francisco and Santa Cruz. “I won the lottery in many, many ways, both where I was born [and] the time that I was born in the middle of one of the greatest technology renaissances of the human species.” He said he also had parents “that taught me that anything that I wanted to achieve, I could achieve if I persevered.
“So, this is a story of more than 35 years of perseverance, which is going to require another 20 years of perseverance to see my dream come true. Our mission is to save a billion people an hour a day.”
As a child, Bevirt said that during the time-consuming commute to and from school, “I had lots of time to spend dreaming about flying,” which led him to build VTOL aircraft powered by small Cox .049 cubic inch (0.8 cc) gas-model engines “that made ridiculous amounts of noise.”
“I started strapping them onto wooden wings and flying them and crashing them. And pretty soon I realized that … I better learn something. And so I started riding my bike up to the McHenry Library at [University of California, Santa Cruz] and poring through technical journals. And I quickly realized that the math required to not make these things crash was far beyond me,” and he needed more education.
Research and Revenue
Bevirt studied mechanical engineering and robotics at the University of California, Davis and Stanford University. “I had the great fortune to get to work for one of the pioneers of VTOL, Paul Moller. And he built what was probably the first electric quadcopter.”
Bevirt said he spent a lot of time researching batteries and running wind tunnel tests for Moller. However, “at that point in time, batteries didn’t have the specific energy that we needed to make a very useful VTOL. We were dealing with batteries about 40 W-h/kg of specific energy. But there was a roadmap that showed that we were going to be up over 200 W-h/kg within 20 years.”
However, Bevirt explained, “As an impatient 20-year-old, I didn’t want to wait around for 20 years. And so I went off and started a robotics company” that became “wildly successful” building DNA sequencing robots. He sold the company, Velocity11, to Agilent Technologies, a spinoff of Hewlett-Packard, in 2011.
In 2006, Bevirt founded the consumer products company called Joby (his childhood name) that made the knobby GorillaPod adjustable tripod for cameras and cellphones that proved to be extremely popular and “created a ridiculous amount of free cash flow.” He sold the company the next year (still called Joby, the company was acquired in 2017 by Vitec, a leading provider in the image capture and content creation market).
With that free cash flow, “I wanted to start thinking about what I could do to give back. And one of the big concerns I had was with climate change.”
Bevirt began looking at electric vehicles and founded Joby Energy in 2008 to develop giant kites to fly into upper-atmosphere winds and generate high-output electricity. To launch these kites, the company designed highly efficient, lightweight, brushless, permanent magnet motors and generators with high power density. Bevirt sold Joby Energy and served for a year as the chairman of Makani Power before it was bought by Google.
Meanwhile, Bevirt began thinking about electric VTOL. Looking at the emissions and energy use from transportation, he felt that if society could “move it to electric, we could make a really, really big difference.” But he saw both technology and economic challenges.
Bevirt explained that in the 1940s to 1960s, the United States had a number of growing helicopter airlines, but their long-term success was limited by noise and the cost of operations, which were subsidized until the mid-1960s. Once the subsidies ended, “the cost tips to just the wrong side of the curve and ridership just fell.
“And so, the question is, ‘With electric propulsion, can we get on the right side of the cost curve?’ And the right side of the noise curve where you can build an aircraft that can take off and land vertically that could fly on a wing,” Bevirt explained, “because batteries still contain a lot less energy per unit of mass than the liquid fuel does.”
Bevirt said they built a number of different small eVTOL aircraft configurations and tested them. “The first one was a tail-sitter and it was incredibly nimble. It was really fun to see what you could do with combining differential thrust with wings,” he explained. “It really opened my mind to this. ‘What could we do with this new mode of transportation? If we could couple electric
propulsion with vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, how does that really, fundamentally reshape the way we move around every day?’”
Joby Aviation was officially founded in 2009. The first aircraft design was called the Monarch Personal Air Vehicle (PAV). It caught a lot of attention at the CAFE Foundation’s Fifth Annual Electric Aircraft Symposium in Santa Rosa, California, in April 2011.
Monarch featured eight electric motors attached to a pivoting 37-ft (11-m) wing attached to a high-performance glider fuselage designed by Greg Cole of Windward Performance of Bend, Oregon. The goal was to cruise at 100 mph (161 km/h) with a range of 100 miles (161 km), but the aircraft never flew.
The CAFE Foundation’s blog noted with enthusiasm that “Joby’s animated video of the eight-motor craft levitating, climbing, travelling and landing in a depiction of a perfect commute.” The blog also includes now-inactive links to Joby Robotics and Joby Motors websites.
Joby’s approach to eVTOL design changed after Alex Stoll joined the team in 2012 from Stanford University, after earning his third engineering degree. According to Bevirt, Stoll “built a really comprehensive system-optimization model with the goal of minimizing the cost per passenger mile.” This model allowed Joby to optimize every single parameter of the aircraft, including propeller geometry, the number of propellers, the wing area and the number of passengers.
S2 and eVTOL Research Efforts
As a result of the new analysis, “we took Monarch and hung it on the ceiling… because it wasn’t designed for the speed that makes sense for intercity operations. And so, we set out to design [the S2] air taxi and the goals were really about making something that was safe, that was quiet and it was affordable.”
At the Society’s first TVF Workshop in 2014, Stoll presented the two-seat S2 eVTOL. The aircraft featured a total of 12 tilting and folding propellers — four on each wing and two on each tail. These distributed electric propellers were designed to be used to takeoff and land vertically and transition the aircraft to forward flight. However, in cruise, the propeller blades were to be stopped and folded back, flush with their nacelles. Four small, two-bladed propellers would spin up to provide highly efficient, long-range cruise power.
In the following issue of Vertiflite, Nov/Dec 2014, VFS published a meeting summary, “AHS International Leads Transformative Vertical Flight Initiative,” and its first dedicated article on eVTOL (before the term had been coined): “The Joby S2 VTOL Concept — Exploring the New Degrees of Design Freedom of Distributed Electric Propulsion,” by Mark Moore, who was then at NASA, and soon became one of the architects of Uber Elevate.
The S2 was named a 2014 Popular Science Invention Award, noting that “Bevirt and his team have built about two dozen 10-pound models to demonstrate their concept works” (with some of the earlier non-S2 models included in that count).
In parallel, Joby was also exploring a unique, unmanned eVTOL concept called Lotus. Joby built a 55-lb (20.5-kg) subscale test model with folding two-bladed, wing-tip propellers and a tilting electric tail propeller. The design was intended as a demonstrator for a larger aircraft with 24-hours of endurance, but the model never flew.
At that time, the company was also supporting the Leading Edge Asynchronous Propeller Technology (LEAPTech) wing development project under contract with Empirical Systems Aerospace (ES Aero) and in collaboration with the NASA Langley and Armstrong Research Centers.
The effort successfully designed, built and tested the first full-scale distributed electric propulsion wing system, on a shoestring budget of $1M. The LEAPTech wing was a carbon composite 39-ft (9.4-m) span section with 18 electric motors powered by lithium-ion phosphate batteries. Mounted on a specially modified truck, it was tested at up to 70 mph (113 km/h) on the dry lakebed at Edwards Air Force Base, California, in 2015.
Following on the success of the LEAPTech tests, Joby assisted in the design of the NASA X-57 Maxwell research aircraft that is being developed at NASA Armstrong to test electric propulsion technology and concepts.
At the Second Annual TVF Workshop in 2015, Stoll presented slides comparing the two-seat S2 and four-seat S4 with a Robinson R22 and R44 helicopter and showed computational fluid dynamics (CFD) images of the six-rotor S4. Details included performance, weights and photos of the full-scale propeller testing. (Links to all of the past VFS workshops/symposiums, with slides and video presentations, are available at www.vtol.org/TVF.)
However, after years of being very open about their progress and technology, including supporting the NASA LEAPTech program, the company found that several organizations that had been encouraging (and studying) Joby’s progress suddenly began developing rival concepts. Consequently, as Joby designed and built the quiet, zero emissions S4 aircraft, the company went “silent” in the vertical flight community and stopped providing updates on its eVTOL projects.
The last report in Vertiflite (“Air Mobility Bonanza Beckons Electric VTOL Developers”), in the March/April 2017 issue, stated that “The S4 is expected to make its first flight this year. Bevirt declined to provide an update for this article, saying in an email, ‘We are heads down and not taking media requests at the moment.’” Joby did indeed make the (unmanned) first flight of the first S4 later that year, in secret.
Out of the Darkness
Finally, after a long blackout period and nearly a decade of development, Joby announced on Feb. 1, 2018, that it had secured $100M in Series B financing to take its all-electric VTOL passenger aircraft into pre-production and certification.
The financing was led by Intel Capital, and included strategic investors Singapore-based EDBI, JetBlue Technology Ventures and Toyota AI Ventures. Also participating were new investors Allen & Company, AME Cloud Ventures and Ron Conway, as well as existing investors Capricorn Investment Group, 8VC, Sky Dayton (founder of EarthLink and Boingo Wireless) and Paul Sciarra (cofounder of Pinterest).
Including a previously unannounced Series A financing led by Capricorn in 2016, the company had by then secured over $130M in funding.
“As technological and material advancements usher in a transformation of the $10T transportation industry, Joby Aviation is leading eVTOL innovation and has designed, built and flight-tested a fully electric, vertical take-off and landing passenger aircraft that is optimized for local and regional air-transportation-as-a-service,” the press release stated.
Joby began building a second aircraft, with the fuselage stretched slightly to accommodate a fifth seat for the pilot. In an announcement, the company said that “Joby Aviation’s 5-seat vehicle will be faster than existing rotorcraft, fly at least 150 miles [240 km] on a charge, and be 100 times quieter than conventional aircraft during takeoff and landing, and near-silent in flyover.”
As of today, the company has not named the current model, so it has generally been referred to as the S4 in the media since that was the last known name for the project.
Also on Feb. 1, 2018, Bloomberg News published a story, “Air-Taxi Startup Has a Working Prototype and a Fresh $100 Million,” which reported on the S4 flight testing, saying that Joby’s “private airfield is nestled in a valley on the Northern California coast between Monterey and Santa Barbara, and it’s remote by design.”
The reporters noted that “The pilot managed a vertical takeoff, 15 minutes of flight in a 15-mile loop, and a safe landing,” though they failed to mention that the aircraft was unmanned, with the remote pilot flying the S4 from a helicopter. The article continued, “Powered by electric motors and sophisticated control software, the taxi performs like a cross between a drone and a small plane, able to zip straight up on takeoff and then fly at twice the speed of a helicopter while making about as much noise as a swarm of superbees.”
At the 6th Annual Electric VTOL Symposium in January 2019, Joby chief test pilot Justin Paines noted that the company had “Successfully flown subscale and full-scale demonstrators,” and provided the following details on Joby’s five-seat air taxi:
- Safety assurance in excess of Part 23 certification requirements
- Unified flight control — extremely simple vehicle operations (SVO)
- All-electric conventional or vertical takeoff and landing (eCTOL and eVTOL)
- 200-mph (480-km/h) cruise
- 150-mile (240-km) range
- 100x quieter than a helicopter
“We progressed from hover to forwards flight much more quickly than we had expected. And we were very fortunate that the engineering choices that we made and the designs that we built allowed us to progress very quickly,” Bevirt told the TVF 2020 banquet attendees. “We were quite pleased with the acoustic profile on it but there’s still work to do … to improve it.”
On Dec. 20, 2019, Uber announced that it had signed a multiyear commercial partnership with Joby Aviation to launch a fast, reliable, clean and affordable urban air taxi service in select markets. Joby will supply and operate the electric air taxis, and Uber will provide airspace support services, skyport infrastructure, connections to ground transportation and customer interfaces through its aerial rideshare network. With the agreement, Joby became the first partner in Uber’s Elevate initiative with a committed timetable to deploy air taxi services by 2023, the goal set in the 2016 Uber Elevate White Paper.
“We’re excited to partner with Uber,” Bevirt stated in the December press release. “By bringing our next-generation aircraft and urban flight operations to Uber’s on-demand ground mobility network, we aim to get people to their destinations five times faster than driving, reduce urban congestion, and accelerate the shift to sustainable modes of transit.”
This partnership was really a marriage of titans: the world’s leading urban mobility company, Uber, which has been a leader in electric VTOL community efforts, partnered with the developer of the world’s leading electric VTOL aircraft. Prior to this announcement, none of Uber’s partners appeared to be on a path to meet the Uber Elevate goal of flight demonstration in 2020 and commercial Uber Air flights in 2023. This has now changed with Joby deciding to partner with Uber.
Bevirt told the TVF 2020 attendees that Joby’s “guiding principles” are safety, acoustics and operating costs. “We wanted this to operate as an air taxi that is really easy to get in and out of and really safe.”
A sample air taxi route might be from Palo Alto to San Francisco, where it can take up to two hours in traffic but could be 10 minutes by eVTOL aircraft. “That becomes a really huge transformative effect for a lot of people who do that trip,” said Bevirt, adding that it’s critical that the acoustic signature “doesn’t have a negative impact on communities that we’re serving.”
The company applied for certification with the FAA in late 2018, “and we’re incredibly appreciative of the support we’ve been getting from the agency.”
In terms of the range, Bevirt said the design team was “incredibly thoughtful around building an aircraft that was very efficient and very aerodynamically clean. And we would put a lot of work into the battery — building both a battery that had a very high cycle life but also could deliver a very high specific energy.”
On Jan. 15, exactly a week before the TVF event, Joby released photos of the second aircraft, which features a five-seat cabin and other elements not installed in the first aircraft. Joby calls it the “production prototype.”
Bevirt told the TVF attendees, “We’re beginning the work of preparing for manufacturing.”
“In order for this to be cost effective, we need to produce these at a scale that we haven’t seen aircraft produced in for more than 50 years. And so we’re looking at how to build composite structures that are both very cost effective and very light and strong,” Bevirt said as he showed a video of Joby’s automated fiber placement robot.
The latest funding round, Series C, was led by Toyota Motor Corp. In addition to investing $394M in Joby, Toyota will share its expertise in manufacturing, quality and cost controls for the development and production of Joby Aviation’s breakthrough eVTOL aircraft.
Prior investors, including SPARX Group, Intel Capital, Capricorn Investment Group, JetBlue Technology Ventures, Toyota AI Ventures and AME Cloud Ventures, also contributed to the round, and were joined by new investors Baillie Gifford and Global Oryx (ALJ family’s investment arm). Shigeki Tomoyama, the executive vice president of Toyota Motor Corporation, will join Joby Aviation’s board of directors.
In August 2018, the company received approval from the city council of Marina, California, to lease two hangars totaling 74,000 ft² (6,900 m²) at the Marina Municipal Airport, with plans to expand to a large-scale air taxi factory.
On Jan. 10, 2020, details of Joby’s expansion plans were published as part of an environmental review. The build-out is expected to take place in two phases, eventually reaching a footprint of 580,000 ft² (53,900 m²). According to statements in 2018, the site could ultimately support a manufacturing facility of 1.5 – 2 million ft² (139,000 – 186,000 m²).
Joby currently employs about 400 people in Bonny Doon, California, in Santa Cruz County; the Marina Airport is about 30 miles (50 km) southeast as the eVTOL flies … or a two-hour drive in rush hour.
The Future of Joby
After his talk at TVF, the Joby CEO provided more insights as part of a lengthy question and answer session, which included a few questions about bigger and better follow-on aircraft. Bevirt didn’t rule out developing other eVTOL aircraft to fly different missions, but said it would probably not be a larger eVTOL aircraft, primarily because of its higher weight-induced noise.
While he is extremely confident about the future, Bevirt said, “We are still in the very, very early stages of a very long undertaking.”
“It’s going to take us decades before we’re having the really profound impact that we want to have in which a significant portion of the population is flying where they want to go every day. And it’s going to take a massive ecosystem.”
Bevirt closed his TVF 2020 presentation by thanking VFS for its leadership, and “I’d just like to express my incredible gratitude to all of our investors who have made this journey possible and are continuing to make this journey possible. We’re incredibly excited to be working with all of you and very, very grateful for the opportunity. And then finally, I’d like to thank the incredible team at Joby.”