Tech’splaining: What Is A Vertical Take-Off And Landing Vehicle (VTOL)?

  • Liz Kim has written about automobiles, both as a journalist and as a marketer, for 20 years. She enjoys giving advice about them to friends and family who want to make the most of their hard-earned dollars, and incorporates her experience as a mother and savvy consumer in everything she writes.

can be reached at lizkim15@gmail.com
  • Liz Kim has written about automobiles, both as a journalist and as a marketer, for 20 years. She enjoys giving advice about them to friends and family who want to make the most of their hard-earned dollars, and incorporates her experience as a mother and savvy consumer in everything she writes.

can be reached at lizkim15@gmail.com
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In some form or another, vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) vehicles have been around for decades. Helicopters? Yeah, those are VTOLs. Those drones peeping into your yard or sullying your nature hike? Also VTOLs.

Get ready for even more vehicles buzzing about in the airspace above. The next-generation of VTOLs, which are the closest things to flying cars that we’re likely to get, are coming sooner than you might think.

  • Over 70 companies worldwide are developing VTOL vehicles.
  • Advances in battery technology allow for electric propulsion.
  • VTOL-based ride-hail services are promised within four years.
A VTOL flies above a city at sunset
Imagine not having to deal with rush-hour traffic, pedestrians or stoplights, ever again. (Embraer)

What is a VTOL?

Simply put, a VTOL is a vehicle that has the ability to lift off, hover, and land, like a helicopter or drone. As the concept and acronym enter the public lexicon, however, the concept will apply to aircraft used for mass transit in crowded metropolitan areas. That’s the vision, anyway.

These planned VTOL vehicles look more like drones than helicopters. Designs vary depending on their intended purpose, but they tend to employ multiple rotors mounted at various locations around the vehicle. The new VTOLs are mostly composed of lightweight materials, such as carbon fiber and aluminum, and look futuristic, with streamlined silhouettes. Most important, because they are in the air and not on the road, they don’t have to deal with traffic, saving commuting time. Or at least until the skies are full of them.

Given how loud small drones are, people are concerned about noise pollution once all of these VTOLs are buzzing about. The industry maintains that VTOLs powered by electric motors will be much quieter than internal combustion engines, so this won’t be such a problem.

An Airbus VTOL lifts vertically off the ground
Forget about loud internal combustion engines and noxious emissions. Electricity makes a VTOL clean, but the jury is out on quiet. (Airbus)

How Does a VTOL Work?

Unlike a helicopter, which uses an internal combustion engine to drive the rotors, most of the new VTOLs will use electric propulsion technology. Planned flying distances range between 50 and 200 miles. Electric propulsion allows for greater flexibility in the distribution of power, which means that each rotor draws power from its own generator. This improves safety, as redundant power systems allow the vehicle to remain in operation even if one or more of the rotors fail.

Most VTOL’s will require high-capacity batteries that have the power to create enough thrust to safely lift and land the vehicle, the actions that require the most amount of energy. A notable exception to this battery-powered future is the Alaka’i Skai, a hydrogen-powered, fuel cell electric VTOL. This approach, says Alaka’i, provides 400 miles of flight distance range and four hours of flight time.

VTOL skyport in a major city
Plans call for repurposing existing infrastructure to accommodate VTOLs. (Uber)

What’s the Advantage of a VTOL Over a Small Airplane?

Airplanes need an airport, or at least a landing strip, for a rolling takeoff and touchdown. That’s a significant amount of real estate. Meanwhile, VTOL vehicles need no more than a small amount of cleared space. One company developing them says that you only need three feet of clearance on each side. In the crowded cities where VTOLs are likely to fly, this gives them a distinct advantage as they can use the rooftops of existing buildings, shopping centers, or parking structures.

Interior of Uber VTOL
In just two general election cycles, you could be flying in a VTOL. (Uber)

Can I Ride In A VTOL? Can I Buy One?

Most VTOLs will serve as flying taxis and cargo transport vehicles. In fact, Uber is going all-in on VTOLs and is hoping to deliver an on-demand ride-share service by 2023. Uber has stated that it expects the cost for this planned air service to be competitive with its existing car service. For example, a 15-minute VTOL ride from San Francisco to San Jose will cost about $129.

As for the cost of a VTOL itself, compare the Opener BlackFly, a single-passenger VTOL, to the Bell 407 helicopter, one of the top-selling civilian vehicles in the world. The BlackFly’s target price is $50,000. The Bell 407 is priced at around $2.5 million. Opener is the only VTOL producer talking about price, and that 50 grand is for a one-seater. The ride-hail models Uber will use can carry four people, plus a pilot.

Pilot jobs might prove short-lived. Most VTOL companies are also working on fully autonomous vehicles.

A VTOL lifts off in a city at night
Flying cars are no longer in the realm of fantasy, but reality. (Airbus)

How Long Before VTOLs are Coming?

Because of the scrutiny certain to arise related to the safety of these flying vehicles, you can bet that significant and complex regulations must be in place before any of these VTOLs appear in our skies. Still, like Uber, most of these companies are expecting to deliver piloted VTOL vehicles and services in just a few short years.


About the Author

  • Liz Kim has written about automobiles, both as a journalist and as a marketer, for 20 years. She enjoys giving advice about them to friends and family who want to make the most of their hard-earned dollars, and incorporates her experience as a mother and savvy consumer in everything she writes.

can be reached at lizkim15@gmail.com
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