Archer Unveils Midnight Production Vehicle
Though it was part of a late-breaking wave of entrants into the electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing aircraft industry when it emerged from stealth in 2020, Archer Aviation says it is poised to be one of the first air taxi companies to carry paying passengers.
The San Jose, California-based startup on Nov. 16 unveiled a mockup, images and performance details of its Midnight production vehicle, a piloted, four-passenger air taxi that it says will enter service by 2025. Archer says the aircraft is designed to carry passengers on short hops, such as 20-mi. beeline routes between airports and downtown centers.
Adam Goldstein, Archer co-founder and CEO, says the company is obsessively focused on designing an electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing (eVTOL) aircraft that can obtain FAA certification and start carrying paying passengers as quickly as possible.
- Passenger vehicle to enter flight testing by second quarter of 2023
- Archer expects to receive Part 135 certificate by the end of 2024
“Let’s go out and build a vehicle that we think we can get to market using today’s technology—not a future battery—and let’s get it to market as fast as possible,” Goldstein says.
The company’s strategy is akin to the minimal viable product (MVP) concept that is popular with Silicon Valley software startups: build a product with enough features to be useable by early customers, who then can provide feedback for future improvements.
“How do you build the least complex vehicle that’ll complete the mission? That’s the goal,” Goldstein says. “The reason why you wouldn’t want to frame it as necessarily MVP is [that] you don’t want to imply it’s not safe. It’s being built at the highest safety standards possible.”
Performance improvements like higher cruise speeds, extra range and additional flight autonomy—if they do not aid certification or the business case—were waived, he says.
“If the difference is my flight takes 7 min. versus 6 min. and 40 sec., yet I can lower the price because I’m not killing our batteries fast and I can have a better product, I think that makes more sense,” Goldstein says.
With certain commercially available technologies, such as batteries, at a performance level to facilitate regular eVTOL flight, Archer says it was important to freeze certain design requirements early in its engineering process so that it could establish a rapid timeline to certification with the FAA.
The FAA approved Archer’s G-1 certification basis in 2021. Archer is aiming to achieve G-2 means of compliance with the FAA by year-end. It says it is confident it can receive a Part 135 certificate by the end of 2024.
However, rival eVTOL companies are facing delays. On Nov. 3, Joby Aviation told analysts that a plan to certify its eVTOL aircraft in 2023 and begin service in 2024 had hit certification and manufacturing snags. Certifying the company’s S4 air taxi by the end of 2024 would be “tight,” and its aerial ridesharing service is delayed to 2025, Joby CEO and founder JoeBen Bevirt said. The FAA’s May decision to shift from Part 23 to certification of eVTOLs under Part 21.17b as a special class of powered-lift aircraft forced Joby to create new operating rules, the company said.
Other eVTOL companies are also facing delays. Volocopter of Germany now expects European certification of its VoloCity eVTOL early in 2024, after recently anticipating the milestone by the end of 2023. That timeline would still make the company the first to launch air taxi service outside of China, where EHang anticipates approval this year of its two-passenger, uncrewed aircraft.
For its part, Archer says it does not expect delays, and FAA certification changes have “proven to be largely administrative.”
Outside of designing the Midnight around efficient FAA certification, Archer says its production vehicle’s performance is tuned to serve what it sees as the most profitable routes. The company used its proprietary data modeling program, called Prime Radiant, and cell phone tracking data to find routes where potential customers were spending a lot of time in a car and might save time flying in an air taxi.
Those routes are near city centers and 10-50 mi. long. The Midnight is optimized to perform back-to-back flights of about 20 mi. It should be able to fly 45 trips per day with 10-min. charge cycles on the ground to top off the battery in between flights. The eVTOL’s batteries provide a range of up to 100 mi. initially and 70 mi. at the end of service.
“We can take people [on] routes that typically take 60-90 min. on the ground by car and put them in the air, five where we can fly these routes in 5, 10 or 15 min., saving people enormous amounts of time,” Goldstein says.
On Nov. 10, Archer and United Airlines announced an air taxi route from the Downtown Manhattan Heliport to Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, an approximately 14-mi. journey along surface streets that can take a taxi nearly an hour during the evening rush hour. Archer expects its Midnight aircraft will fly the route in less than 10 min.
In August, United, which flies out of Newark, made a $10 million predelivery payment for 100 examples of up to 200 Midnight aircraft it plans to purchase. The airline wants to use eVTOL aircraft to provide “first- and last-mile travel” at its major airport hubs. It also sees electric aircraft as an important part of its commitment to be 100% green by 2050. United will make all decisions on pilots and other employees, Archer says, declining to say if it will operate the airline’s eVTOLs. Earlier this year, Archer and United announced the creation of a joint eVTOL advisory committee to counsel Archer on maintenance and operational concepts for its Midnight aircraft.
Archer has also committed to launch and operate air taxi service in Miami and Los Angeles by 2025. The company is working with city officials to identify routes, with an emphasis on intracity travel and integrating existing transportation infrastructure such as train stations and helipads. The company says its agreement with United does not exclude it from operating from airports served by the airline.
Like other eVTOL companies, Archer is banking on the public accepting frequent eVTOL flights overhead. The Midnight will have a cruising altitude of about 2,000 ft., and noise that reaches the ground should be around 45 dBA.
Fabrication of the first example of the Midnight has started, and the aircraft should be flying by the second quarter of 2023, Goldstein says. The air vehicle has 12 rotors driven by electric motors. The front six rotors tilt to transition between vertical and horizontal flight, while the back six rotors remain fixed and then stow in a lower drag placement during cruise.
The Midnight is based on the Maker demonstration eVTOL that Archer started flying in December 2021. That vehicle is flying multiple times per week and is poised to perform its first vertical-to-horizontal flight transition before the end of this year, Goldstein says. Archer expects the Midnight to reach critical design review in the first half of 2023.
Archer has recruited former members of the Zee Aero, Wisk and Airbus Vahana eVTOL design teams, and its rapid progress has alarmed some. Boeing-backed Wisk Aero is suing Archer, arguing that similarities between the Maker demonstrator and its “Generation 6” production eVTOL are the result of stolen trade secrets and infringed patents.
In a lawsuit filed in 2021, Wisk asserts that Archer’s aircraft development progressed unreasonably fast after the startup hired 10 engineers away from Wisk in January 2020, including one employee who allegedly downloaded thousands of files prior to quitting. Both designs have six tilting rotors at the wing’s leading edge, six fixed rotors at the trailing edge and a V-tail.
For its part, Archer has previously said the lawsuit is without merit and noted in February that the U.S. Justice Department decided not to bring charges against the employee accused of downloading files. The company declines to comment further on the ongoing litigation but is suing Wisk in return, claiming that allegations of intellectual property theft damaged its ability to fundraise.
Archer’s Midnight production vehicle has about 20% more volume than its Maker demonstrator. The Midnight’s wingspan is 48 ft., 8 ft. longer than its predecessor. The maximum takeoff weight of the Maker is about 3,500 lb., whereas the Midnight’s maximum takeoff weight will be about 6,500 lb. The larger maximum takeoff weight comes from additional batteries and payload capacity.
Where rival eVTOL company Joby Aviation plans to vertically integrate and build many of its eVTOL components in-house, Archer plans to buy parts from established aerospace suppliers. For example, the startup has selected Honeywell’s actuation and environmental control systems. FACC is to fabricate the Midnight’s fuselage and wing elements. Hexcel is to provide carbon-fiber material. Garmin will supply the G3000 integrated flight deck.
The company chose to build some components internally, however, such as its powertrain, battery system and flight controls.
“The challenge is that there’s not a lot of choices for batteries and motors that, one, can be commercialized—meaning they’ve been certified—and two, that can meet the power-to-weight targets that you need,” Goldstein says. “So what we decided to do was to build our own.”
Michael Schwekutsch, Archer’s senior vice president of powertrain, high-voltage and battery systems, who was previously Tesla’s vice president of engineering, says the company is focused on “realistic innovation.”
“Everything you do in aerospace has to be blessed and certified with the FAA,” he says. “I think it’s so important to start with something realistic and then build upon it, rather than shooting for the Moon and most likely never arriving there.”
The company’s battery system is based on cells that are used in commercial home appliances like power tools that are made via “super-high-volume manufacturing,” says Tom Muniz, Archer’s chief operating officer. Taiwan-based E-One Moli Energy Corp. (Molicel) will manufacture and supply the battery cells for the Midnight, Archer said on Nov. 16. Molicel, which was also selected by Vertical Aerospace for its VX4 eVTOL, makes batteries for cordless vacuum cleaners, power tools and garden tools.
Using an established product, with existing performance data, and supplementing that information with additional testing is a cost-effective way of convincing the FAA that Archer has a safe battery system, Schwekutsch says.
The Midnight’s battery system has an energy density of around 250 Wh/kg, Muniz says. “They’re not the highest-performing cells,” he says. “That’s very intentional because it’s all about operating cost and certification.”
Archer says the batteries will last at least 3,000 cycles. If the company can find routes where a vehicle with a diminished range—say, of 55 mi.—might be able to operate profitably, the battery system’s lifespan could be stretched significantly longer, Muniz says.
“Then, instead of 3,000 cycles, it could be more like 5,000 or 6,000 cycles on the battery pack,” he says. “A lot of it is going to depend on the particular network that we’re operating in and how we’re trying to optimize the broader network.”
One component that Archer is building in-house and says will differentiate the Midnight is the aircraft’s electric motor. Each motor generates 120 kW and weighs about 25 kg (55 lb.), Schwekutsch says. “The power density that we realize is completely unmatched,” he says.
Goldstein says the powertrain is central to making operating the Midnight profitable. “We think you need a pilot plus four passengers in order to build a real business around eVTOL,” Goldstein says. The Midnight is expected to have a payload capacity of more than 1,000 lb., with several hundred pounds of margin for weight growth during certification.
Archer chose to incorporate a pilot, instead of pursuing an entirely autonomous aircraft, due to FAA regulations. “If you look at the regulatory landscape today, there’s really no pathway to bring an autonomous air taxi to market in the U.S.,” Muniz says. “It’s super challenging.”
Wisk, which is building an autonomous air taxi, sees eliminating a pilot—and his or her salary—from the cockpit as essential to the eVTOL business case. Archer does not see it that way. “The pilot cost is actually not a dominant driver in the overall direct operating costs for the vehicle,” Muniz says. “That’s a bad assumption that a lot of people have. It’s on the order of 15% of the direct operating costs.”
Unlike helicopters, which are flown infrequently, Archer expects the Midnight to be flown many times per day. “That really has a great effect on driving down the costs,” Muniz says. Higher asset utilization will bring in revenue faster, allowing for a quicker payoff per vehicle, he adds.
Archer expects maintenance costs will still be the Midnight’s largest direct operating cost. “It’s the hardest to estimate,” Muniz says. “Even if we’re pretty conservative, and we estimate costs kind of halfway between what rotorcraft are today and what smaller aircraft are today, we get to direct operating cost numbers that are really attractive.”
The company says Midnight air taxi services should be cost-competitive with ground-based ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft.
“Everything we’re pushing for Midnight is maximizing payload, minimizing direct operating costs, and then efficiently getting to market and minimizing certification risk,” Muniz says.
The company aims to stick with fairly “traditional, low-risk—from a certification perspective—processes that the FAA knows and is comfortable with,” he says.
“We can’t do things like 3D printing,” Goldstein says. “I know if you do additive manufacturing, you can do lightweight, you can mass produce all that stuff. But the FAA is not comfortable with it. It’s new.”
Archer may incorporate novel manufacturing processes starting around 2027 as part of block upgrades to the Midnight, Muniz says.
For the FAA certification process, Archer plans to build at least eight production-representative prototypes of the Midnight in 2023 and 2024. The company wants to increase production rapidly to 250 units in 2025, 500 in 2026 and 650 in 2027. By the end of 2030, the company expects to have made just a bit fewer than 6,000 aircraft, Goldstein says.
Jumping from producing fewer than a dozen aircraft to 250 aircraft per year is unheard of in the commercial aerospace industry. Goldstein argues that the production ramp-up should be compared with the automotive industry, where some supercar brands produce thousands of units by hand annually.
In 2021, Archer partnered with Stellantis, parent of automotive companies Fiat and Chrysler, to help it scale up production and find suppliers. Archer plans to manufacture the Midnight at a 350,000-ft.2 factory at a site adjacent to Covington Municipal Airport in Georgia, the company said Nov. 14.
In addition to selling eVTOLs to United and operating its own air taxi service, Archer plans to sell the Midnight as a helicopter replacement to operators such as hospitals, tourist sightseeing businesses or fast transport services to recreational areas near cities. EVTOLs are better than helicopters for some applications when it comes to operating costs, safety and noise, Goldstein says.
“It is going to take time to scale up urban air mobility, meaning the airline side of the business,” Goldstein says. “From the very beginning, we said we would sell a portion of the aircraft to generate revenue and cash flow.”
Archer executives say, in the end, commercialization is what matters.
“The whole DNA of Archer is built around that thread of, ‘Hey, we’re not here to just do a science project. We’re not here to screw around with technology,’” Muniz says. “We’re here to take these building blocks and put them together in a product that’s optimized for this really compelling business case.”