Can Archer make electric aviation a reality?

The electric plane maker is taking a very un–Silicon Valley approach to regulators
Archer's prototype vehicle in vertical flight mode. 
Archer's prototype vehicle in vertical flight mode. 
Photo: Archer
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On a cool day in northern California, a helicopter takes flight at Salinas Municipal Airport, its whirring rotors noisily cutting through the early morning air. But that’s not what a crowd of investors, analysts, and employees of Archer Aviation, an electric plane company, are on hand to see.

Just behind Archer CEO Adam Goldstein, another vehicle is taking flight: Archer’s Maker, a prototype electric aircraft that takes off vertically like a helicopter, but flies like an airplane.

The term of art is EVTOL—“ee-vee-tol”—for electric vertical takeoff and landing. The eight-meter-long vehicle has futuristic lines, and twelve propellers on its short wing, six in the front and six in back. The front six rotate upward during takeoff and landing, like the US military’s Osprey aircraft.

Maker slowly rises about 700 ft overhead, then flies a few miles, circling away from the airport and over low hills before pivoting back for a landing. Goldstein points out how much quieter Maker is than the helicopter, which is in the air to film the demonstration. He’d like to see his vehicles replace some of the 50,000 helicopters he says operate around the world.

Electric aviation is an expensive quest

Vehicles like this one are aiming to become part of the urban transit landscape, ferrying passengers on short journeys. If successful, Archer and its rivals won’t just change the way you get to the airport—they will prove out technology that could electrify aviation writ large.

But the flying car business isn’t for the faint of heart. Kittyhawk, an EVTOL company backed by Google founder Larry Page, went out of business last year, though its Boeing-backed joint venture, Wisk, survives.

Archer went public in 2021 after being purchased by a blank-check company during the SPAC boom; since then, its market capitalization has declined from $3.7 billion to about $630 million. The largest EVTOL start-up by market cap, Joby Aviation, followed a similar path since its IPO, seeing its stock price fall more than 60% since 2021. But both have found some traction with airline customers: Delta Air Lines invested $60 million in Joby, while United Airlines made a $10 million down payment on a future purchase of 100 Archer vehicles.

Archer CEO Goldstein is an investor who founded the company after spending time with aerospace researchers at his alma mater, the University of Florida. At the demo, he emphasized the quality of the engineering team he recruited. Many worked on electric vehicles at Kittyhawk, Tesla, or Uber; amusingly, a number hail from Apple’s Special Project Group, seemingly confirming longstanding rumors that the computing giant has invested in electric vehicles.

The challenge of decarbonizing air travel

Decarbonizing air travel is difficult due to the physics involved. Even the best batteries still store far less energy than jet fuel—about 50 times less per kilogram of mass. Electrical motors are at least more efficient than internal combustion engines, but they also don’t benefit from the reduction in mass during a flight as fuel burns.

That’s why Archer and its rivals are focused on short-haul flights, while academia and government agencies like NASA work to find better batteries that could enable replacements of jetliners.

The first electric aircraft are already flying in test conditions. But the challenge for EVTOL builders isn’t necessarily engineering. Last week, Archer said it had completed structural assembly of the first vehicle intended for certification and operations, called Midnight. It is building six of these aircraft to prove to US regulators that it is safe enough for their airspace.

Can Archer obtain permission to fly?

The flight demo in November was preprogrammed and remotely controlled, but Midnight will fly with a pilot.

The reason is simple: Archer needs the approval of the Federal Aviation Administration if it ever wants to make money from building and flying these planes. And the FAA is widely seen as unwilling to unleash robotic air taxies over crowded cities. In 2022, the agency proposed temporary rules for EVTOL vehicles like the ones Archer will build, and the bureaucratic process behind them will play out over the next year. The earliest these vehicles are expected to come into use is 2025.

What sets Archer apart, according to COO Tom Muniz, who formerly worked at Kittyhawk, is pragmatism.

“A lot of people are tempted to design an airplane, go to the FAA, [and] figure out how to certify it,” Muniz says. That approach, he says, can lead to problems down the line if it the FAA disagrees with the engineers’ approach. Going back to the drawing board for one issue can spiral into other aspects of the aircraft, leading to expensive re-design work. “We need to focus on certification from day really collaboratively with the FAA to figure out the certification requirements and design in parallel to get the most efficient path to market.”

That’s a distinctly different approach than Tesla has taken with its electric cars, or Uber with its arrival in various cities. But aircraft regulation is taken far more seriously than the rules for building cars or operating a taxi service. The process isn’t easy, requiring multiple steps of carefully explaining how the aircraft will operate and be manufactured such that it keeps passengers and communities safe, and providing hundreds of pages of supporting technical analysis. FAA engineers evaluate this work, and if they are satisfied, approve it.

Archer’s attempt to bear-hug regulators into submission also includes hiring them; Michael Romanowski, a longtime FAA official, joined the company in 2022 as head of government relations.

Vying to become the first FAA-certified electric aircraft

Archer hopes to have certification by 2024. Part of the challenge is that the FAA, which has approved over 2,000 aircraft types, has never certified an all-electric aircraft; last year, it released its first set of guidelines for approving electric aircraft motors.

“Maybe it’s Acme EVTOL, and you’ve got a model,” acting FAA administrator Billy Nolen told Quartz. “You come to us, you talk about it. We will figure out how complex it is and what your mode of operation is, and then ... we can walk you through what we believe are the means of compliance. We aren’t picking winners or losers, but we’ve talked with Joby, we’ve talked with Archer, we’ve talked with others, and most of them are comfortable with the path that we’re on.”

The toughest questions will be about ensuring the safety of both passengers and the public, particularly given the hope that these vehicles will largely be used in urban areas. Helicopter pilots I spoke with about Archer wanted to know what would happen in the event of a worst case scenario: a full vehicle suffers an engine or powertrain failure while taking off or landing.

Archer maintains its vehicle is safer than a traditional helicopter, and is designed with no single points of failure. Each battery powers two engines, and each electric motor is designed with redundancies to keep spinning the propellers even if it suffers a partial failure. But the vehicle needs 10 operable motors to safely complete a flight, which means one battery failure could spell trouble. An Archer spokesperson said the vehicle’s gliding capabilities are similar to a conventional fixed-wing aircraft, suggesting it could perform an emergency landing if it suffered a problem while in forward flight.

"Midnight" is Archer's design for an operational vehicle.
“Midnight” is Archer’s design for an operational vehicle.
Photo: Archer

The future of urban transit

Archer built the design for its vehicle with a very specific business plan: trips of 10 to 50 miles around city centers where driving or public transportation takes an hour or more. With a payload capacity of 1,000 pounds plus a pilot, the company expects the vehicle to carry four people, but with baggage, the margins might be tight. While the vehicle is expected to have a range of 100 miles, the company is optimizing it to fly 20-mile trips with about 10 minutes of charging in between each one.

Mike Leskimen leads United Airline’s venture fund and partnership with Archer. At Archer’s demo day, he described a vision of his customers no longer booking flights from Newark to San Francisco. Instead, they book a flights from, say, Tribeca to Menlo Park, with Archer’s aircraft whisking passengers from convenient urban “vertiports” to major airports. The FAA has just released its first standards for these landing pads, and points to the 800,000 drones it has licensed as an indicator of its ability to manage complex modern air traffic.

Skipping the terrestrial congestion between the airport and final destination is the value add for Archer. While the company has not divulged the cost of making or leasing its aircraft, the initial route United has in mind, from the Manhattan Heliport to Newark Airport, suggests wealthy urbanites are likely early customers.

Archer says its goal is to “make our service affordable for the masses.” They note electric vehicles have fewer components and thus lower maintenance costs than those that depend on internal combustion engines, and they expect electricity will remain cheaper than the high-test fuels used by helicopters.

Ultimately, the company says, “at launch, passengers can expect to pay a price comparable to the cost of a vehicle ride-sharing service to the same destination.” That’s a big ambition: According to Uber, the average cost of a trip from lower Manhattan to Newark airport is $81, or about $20 per seat in a typical car, before tip. Blade, a helicopter service that flies this route, charges $195 a seat.

How much could Archer slow global warming?

From a purely climate-focused point of view, investment in public transportation is likely to do more to take fossil-fueled cars off the road than electric aircraft. Certainly mass transit is more efficient, in theory, though the patchwork of jurisdictions and regulation in the US make expanding rail or bus service slow and expensive. For perspective, Joby and Archer combined have raised $2.6 billion in private funding; a plan to refurbish and expand rail tunnels between Manhattan and New Jersey will cost some $16 billion.

But there are still those 50,000 helicopters flying around the world. The promise of Archer and its rivals isn’t just a world of low-emission flying cars, but demand for battery and electric power train technology that will help electrify all kinds of vehicles, eventually including long-haul jetliners.

Watching Maker loop overhead, it’s easy to think about the gap between the Wright Brothers’ flyer in 1903 and the first paying passenger flight 11 years later. If the FAA is expeditious, we may not even wait that long.