Podcast: AIR CEO Rani Plaut Discusses Personal-Use eVTOLs
AIR is an Israeli startup seeking to develop and certify a two-seater personal-use electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing (eVTOL) vehicle called the AIR ONE.
With a range of 100 mi. and top speed of 155 mph, the AIR One is being marketed as a personal daily commuter vehicle for those with a pilot’s license. In this episode, AIR CEO Rani Plaut joins the BCA podcast to discuss the ONE and share his views on the personal-use eVTOL market.
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Ben Goldstein: Hello, and welcome to the BCA podcast. I'm Ben Goldstein, managing editor of the Advanced Air Mobility Report at Aviation Week. I'm joined by Rani Plaut, CEO of AIR, an Israeli startup company seeking to develop and certify a two-seater electric vertical takeoff and landing, or eVTOL, vehicle called the Air One. Intended for the personal-use market with a range of 100 miles and top speed of 155 miles per hour, This aircraft is being marketed as a daily commuter vehicle for people with a pilot's license. Plaut is going to tell us about the program and discuss the pros and cons of the personal use eVTOL market. But before we get started, a reminder that you can subscribe to the BCA podcast on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. Now on with our discussion. So, Rani, thanks again for joining us. To kick things off, how would you like to provide us with a brief elevator pitch about yourself, the company and how it got started?
Rani Plaut: Hi. Hi Ben. Happy to be on the show. So my name is Rani Plaut. I'm one of the founders of AIR. The original founder is Chen Rosen. He's a UAV expert for two decades. I bring three decades of experience as I have developed a tier-one supplier for aerospace and automotive in my past. I'm a physicist, he's an aerospace geek, I would say. The company is about five years old. We are developing a two-seater, an eVTOL as you said, the electrical vertical-takeoff-and-landing, which is aimed at personal use, leisure or commuting.
Ben Goldstein: Great. Now let's turn to the aircraft itself, the One. What is the design like? What is the performance like, and how do you envision it actually being used?
Rani Plaut: So, if you look at the eVTOL landscape, there are some companies like the Jetson or the Opener that are developing [FAA Part] 103 aircraft, which is very limited, It's like an e-scooter, I would say. More hobby, more leisure. And the vast majority of the others are going commercial because they're more complex. So most of the players in the market are doing a four-to-six million dollar unit. We are based on a patent that enables us to have a performance of about a hundred miles of cruise, about an hour of flight for two people. We are designed as a sports car. We're aiming at a private user. So the design is very highly appreciated with our team. We have an internal designer, sorry, on top of engineers and we put the user in the center. So, this is like your Porsche or your Audi TT, I would say.
Ben Goldstein: So, what kind of customers do you expect to be early adopters? Are you targeting wealthy individuals, business people who may need to commute—and will they need pilot license?
Rani Plaut: So, first of all, yes. You drive a car, you drive a motorbike, you need a license. You take a plane or a helicopter, you need a license. But the cool thing about our aircraft is that you need just a sport pilot license level, which is about 20 hours of practice. We are designing it for everyday use and we have sold by now over 320 units in pre-ordering. And I can tell you that I spoke to most of the people and there is no common denominator. Some of the guys are young guys that wanted to fly and never got to it. Some of them are retired airline pilots and some of them are, for example, we have two doctors from Seattle that are servicing some patients on islands. So the factors that I would say are key characteristics of our users are people that want to fly. That's the first order. People that can afford it, because it's close to $200,000 between $150,000 and $200,000, and people that have the infrastructure that can support it for landing in both their prime location but also in places where they can go.
Ben Goldstein: I want to dig into that last point of it. Can you give me a feeling for what it would look like to operate one of these things out of your own home? How do you store it? What kind of equipment do you need? What kind of surfaces does it take off and land from?
Rani Plaut: So, first of all, in terms of infrastructure or the electrical power, we are the same level of an EV. So, if you can charge your Tesla Model S, for example, or a Rivian, you can charge the Air One. The surface that you need for landing is about 25 by 25 feet. Better to have 30, let's say 30 by 30 feet, flat surface, not more than a five- or seven-degree slope. Less is better, of course. So the more flat it is, the better it is.
The noise level is very low. We have currently measured 74 decibels from about 200 feet, which is, if you have a neighbor with a Ford Raptor and he revs it, you can hear him, you can't hear our AIR One. And basically, this is the key factor for friction between neighbors when operating an aircraft—the noise. The other factor, by the way, is the commotion or the amount of air that you're moving and in a helicopter it’s dramatically more than what we do. It is being said that an eVTOL is an order of magnitude or about a hundred times quieter than a helicopter on takeoff and close to completely silent on cruise if you listen from let's say 300 feet.
Ben Goldstein: Great. So in December you released a video showing a full-scale prototype completing transition from hover to horizontal flight. Rani, where is the program at now, and what milestones do you need to hit next?
Rani Plaut: Yeah. So first of all we are very proud of that. If you look at the aircraft with a wing, as far as I can tell, there are only two companies on the planet that have shown transition... Sorry, three and we are one of them. So, we are very proud to be one of the first top three that have videos of transition. We are now expanding the flight envelope. So the testing is being expanded and we are going longer in range and faster in speed. The cruising speed, the maximum cruising speed is rather high, but the nominal cruising speed is going to be about 80 knots, which is about 120, 130 miles per hour. So we are getting there both as well as getting to the range and testing some edge cases.
And the next steps in the program are basically building a mass production prototype, because what we have now is a technological prototype, full scale, full-weight by the way, which is also an anomaly in the world. Most of the companies are flying a reduced-scale model. So we have to build the final mass production prototype and start testing it. And then going into the certification process, which we have started with an application at the FAA around the middle of last year, I would say.
Ben Goldstein: So, going off of that last point, what can you tell me about the path to certification for this vehicle?
Rani Plaut: I will try to again review the whole market in two sentences. The small guys are going under Part 103 in the certification, which requires no certification or license. The larger ones are going to commercial applications, which are obliged to have type certification. The section is 21.17 B under the FAA rule book. And this type certification is a must when you are operating a commercial application, Part 135. In our case, which is Part 91, we are aiming at type certification, so 21.17b, but we have a caveat of having the optionality of having lower levels of certification, either experimental or the light sport, the new light sport evolving new certification level under the Mosaic project by the way. So, we are aiming at type certification, but we are planning on releasing some aircraft even if we don't have the type certification complete by the end of '24, still maintaining this main route of type certification.
Ben Goldstein: What is being done to guarantee the safety of these vehicles?
Rani Plaut: The Air One, first and foremost is built around redundancy, simplicity and safety. So, we have eight motors, I'll give you an example. We have four separated power lines, so four batteries. Each battery is powering two opposite motors. You can lose a motor, you can lose more than one motor, you can lose 50% of the power, you can lose the battery, so a whole power line, and still fly. This has been tested in the flight testing that we have been doing in December and proven to be very robust.
So, first of all, statistically speaking, you're safe. On top of that, we have what we call the safety blanket. And in normal aircraft, the safety blanket is full of holes basically. So the aircraft can stall, you can lose your motor, things can happen, and in most cases, those holes are being plugged by the pilot. So, you're being taught not to stall or what to do when you lose an engine. In our case, because it's a fly-by-wire or fly-by-intent in our case, those holes are being plugged in by the software and by the technology which is enveloping you, so to speak. On top of that, you have a ballistic parachute. So, in complete loss of power, which is statistically close to an impossibility, you can still open your parachute and lower yourself to the ground safely.
Ben Goldstein: And what do you say to skeptics who doubt the viability of the personal-use eVTOL market? And second part, how do you think about the future size of that market?
Rani Plaut: There is a very famous saying, I think it was Bernard Shaw, but I'm not sure. He said, "People who say it cannot be done, shouldn't interrupt the people doing it." Many things that were weird, including the bicycle, the car, the train, and the airplane have been laughed at. There is a very famous laughter of Steve Ballmer about the iPhone. He was laughing like, "Who would buy a $500 phone?" Apparently 40% of the people that own smartphones are doing that. So I think that there is no question that there will be a personal eVTOL, much faster than the commercial application. This is something that can be developed and flown under some of the certification routes which are existing today.
The size of the market, of course, is a question. And the real answer is, I have no idea. I believe, from the traction that we are receiving, that is a market of thousands per year. And if, God forbid, we are mistaken and there are only hundreds per year, I should remind people that the largest supplier, the single model which is being sold on the largest quantities on the planet is 300 units per year. So if we sell only 500 and we have more than 300 today, so if we sell only 500, we're the biggest airplane manufacturer on the planet. Now, of course, I don't know if we can get to the thousands level, I hope and I believe that we will, but this is in the future and as Yogi Bera said, "It's very hard to make predictions, especially about the future." So, yet to be seen, of course.
Ben Goldstein: Great. Now if all goes according to plan, when might customers actually begin flying on the One?
Rani Plaut: End of ‘24, very simple. We are going to start flying with the mass production prototype early '24 in the U.S. We hope to finish the testing in six to nine months, which means that by the end of '24, or if we're a little bit late, early '25, some of the customers will be able to start flying. We are looking for customers to join us and to be the first ones. We have programs to accelerate the use, letting people fly around because we need assistance in clocking the hours and learning and having feedback from users.
Ben Goldstein: Excellent. Now I'm afraid we are running out of time, but I do want to give you, Rani, the chance to add some final thoughts. So is there anything that you'd like to add, Rani?
Rani Plaut: First of all, go to our website, www.airev.aero. You can subscribe, you can follow us, and you can also pre-order. We are looking for funding by the way, for the Series-A Round. And just follow us on LinkedIn and all other platforms.
Ben Goldstein: Great. Well, I'm afraid that's all we have time for today. Don't miss the next episode by subscribing to us in your podcast app of choice. And one last request. If you're listening to the BCA podcast in Apple Podcasts and you want to support this podcast, please leave us a star rating or write a review. Thanks again, Rani, for joining us and thanks to our listeners. Bye now.