Another well-capitalized startup has officially entered the passenger air taxi arena. Archer Aviation, previously reported as a stealth company located in California, is indeed building electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft at a facility near Palo Alto Airport.
With a similar vision of the future urban air mobility market as leading players like Uber, Joby Aviation and Hyundai Motors, Archer has assembled a team of top eVTOL talent to build, certify and mass manufacture a four-passenger, fully-electric, piloted aircraft intended for aerial ridesharing to address increasingly congest roads and sustainability concerns.
Like many other eVTOL startups, Archer Aviation's website includes a sleek-but-mysterious computer-generated aircraft design, detailed performance targets, and a "master plan" to take over the electric aviation future.
But a few elements of Archer's unveiling set it apart from many of the 250+ other startups eager to join the UAM race. The aircraft's performance targets – 60 miles range, 150 mph cruise speed – are calculated realistically and transparently, incorporating energy reserve requirements, inaccessible elements of battery storage as well as capacity fade.
Archer Aviation's vision also sets a high bar for safety that meets the VTOL special condition released by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA): "Our goal is to make our electric aircraft just as safe as commercial airliners."
The company also does not have a public timeline for first flight, certification, or commercial operation. Co-founders Adam Goldstein and Brett Adcock – who previously built and sold software-as-a-service company Vettery to The Adecco Group for over $100 million – view their company as a "generational business," pointedly using the word ‘decade' during an interview with Avionics International.
"As entrepreneurs, this is a ‘hard-world problem': high capital costs, advanced hardware technologies, very long time-frame…overall, a very challenging business with low chances of success," said Adcock, describing his view on UAM as a former software entrepreneur. "We're in the early days here at Archer, and we're hoping to build an important business for the next 20 years."
Right out of the gate, Archer also has access to enough capital to certify an aircraft. Their primary backer is Mark Lore, a serial entrepreneur who built and sold e-commerce startup Jet.com to Walmart in 2014 for $3.3 billion, and is now the retail giant's e-commerce chief.
Adcock referred to Lore as someone who has experience "raising close to a billion dollars in capital" and "going up against giants" – qualities they believe will be handy in this endeavor. Mark Moore, Uber's aviation director of engineering, has stated that certifying an eVTOL aircraft is likely to cost between $700 million and $1 billion.
Archer hasn't yet made a decision with respect to joining or competing with Uber's Elevate ecosystem, which includes industry leading startups like Joby Aviation as well as Hyundai Motors, the leading automobile incumbent in UAM.
"I think it's too early for us at this stage, in terms of joining a platform, but I don't see anything that would preclude us from one day joining the Uber platform," said Goldstein. "We're very supportive of all the work that they're doing and are super thankful of all the work that they are doing."
Goldstein and Adcock's approach to aircraft design and the UAM market does mirror Uber's public views quite closely. Their aircraft is a winged tiltrotor design with twelve propellers and a V-shaped tail, inspired by Uber's vision of balancing higher performance with low criticality as well as the requirements of certification and eventual mass manufacturing. The design will have a lift/drag ratio of 11, according to Archer's website, and 143 kWh of usable energy, with batteries making up roughly one-third of the aircraft's 7,000-lb target weight.
Archer has assembled a team of 44 engineers with positions open on their website for at least 21 more. Much of the company's talent has been coaxed from other major eVTOL players, including Joby, the Airbus' Vahana team, Wisk, and Kitty Hawk. Geoff Bower, chief engineer for the Vahana program, holds the same title at Archer. Tom Muniz, previously VP of engineering at Wisk, also joined the company at the same position.
Adcock and Goldstein confirmed previous reporting that many of their engineers are compensated above what may be considered "market rates" for eVTOL talent, stating that they have sought to assemble the best team possible in an emerging field where experienced talent is hard to come by – and are often competing for talent with companies outside the eVTOL field, like Blue Origin and Tesla, that offer higher compensation.
"Who would be the number one person in aeroacoustics, who's done the best work so far in eVTOL – where would that person come from? It's probably Joby. Joby has done an incredible job on noise," said Goldstein. "So we went after Ben Goldman, who ran aeroacoustics."
"We've surrounded ourselves with some of the best eVTOL leaders in the world," Adcock told Avionics. "Our whole sub-system team has come from either Airbus Vahana, Wisk, or Joby. It's an incredible amount of talent."
Currently, Archer is a bit behind competitors like Joby and Wisk, with its current focus on sub-scale testing and designing an 80-percent scale prototype that is slated to fly sometime next year. But using language like "decades" and releasing no public timeline for certification or commercial operation, Archer clearly isn't interested in being first to market.
Adcock sees the development of UAM in two phases, beginning with initial commercial use of piloted eVTOLs and existing helipad infrastructure that only make commercial sense for certain routes, at perhaps $3-6 per passenger mile, around half the cost of current helicopters. In Phase 2, scaled manufacturing, autonomy, and purpose-built infrastructure enable higher utilization rates, lower costs and greater safety at scale.
Archer Aviation's goal is to be a leading player in Phase 2 and beyond – "tackling this hard problem for 20, 30, 40 years to come," as Adcock told Avionics. And with top talent, access to capital with a long view on returns and a realistic initial portrayal of their aircraft's capabilities, they might just have a shot at it.