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Overair Nears Liftoff

Flying taxi company Overair in Santa Ana has started testing its electric motor systems in the Southern California desert, the latest sign of progress for the transportation technology firm that aims to start passenger service about five years from now.

The upstart aerospace firm is looking to build an eVTOL—short for electric vertical takeoff and landing vehicle—for urban areas.

“We’re focused on having the aircraft certified with the FAA by the end of 2025 and begin commercial service operations with vehicles in 2026,” Chief Executive Ben Tigner told the Business Journal during a recent meeting at the company’s local facilities.

Overair, which has landed $25 million in funding from Hanwha Systems of South Korea, is operating out of 203,000 square feet of space in two buildings at 3001 S. Susan St. and 3030 S. Susan St., near Segerstrom High School.

A 109,000-square-foot lease struck earlier this year for one of the two Susan Street facilities is among the larger new leases of the year in Orange County.

Butterfly Plans

Overair is developing a vehicle dubbed Butterfly, planned for five passengers and one pilot—with pilot-less flights further down the road.

Butterfly vehicles are expected to be significantly quieter than typical helicopters, and as efficient as fixed-wing airplanes in forward flight.

They’re being designed to have a range of over 100 miles, the ability to recharge quickly between trips, and a top speed of around 200 miles per hour.

Competition

It’s one of several companies in the emerging eTVOL industry, including others with ties to OC.

Last week’s print edition of the Business Journal profiled the Irvine expansion plans of Supernal, another eTVOL maker that’s a division of Korea’s Hyundai Motor Group.

Supernal aims to hire about 300 local workers for its engineering and design base.

Other companies entering the flying vehicle space include European plane maker Airbus, Uber partner Joby Aviation (NYSE: JOBY) of Santa Cruz and Germany’s Volocopter.

The skies aren’t too crowded with eTVOL competition, according to Tigner.

“There’s a group of companies that are all in a competition with each other of sorts, although I will say at least in the short term it’s far more collaborative than competitive,” Tigner said of the industry.

He adds: “The potential market is much, much larger than any one company can fill.”

Overair will likely not be first to market with its flying taxi, but the company’s leadership is “very comfortable with that,” says Josh Aronoff, the head of Overair business development.

Karem Contacts

Overair has a base of technology expertise and financial backers that sets it apart from others in the industry.

The company is a spinoff of Lake Forest-based Karem Aircraft, founded by drone pioneer Abe Karem.

Hanwha Systems, provider of the $25 million funding, is part of the Hanwha Group conglomerate of South Korea.

As of now, Overair has said Hanwha owns 30% of the Santa Ana-based company. It’s not releasing the names of other investors.

More funding is on the plate going forward.

“Certifying Butterfly and everything that entails will be much more than $25 million,” Aronoff said.

Mojave Testing

The Butterfly is powered by four giant electric propulsion systems that are now being tested at the El Mirage Dry Lake in the Mojave Desert.

Overair, which has a team of almost 100 employees, plans to sell its airborne vehicles to other companies and also run its own flying taxi service.

The company was advertising for 32 positions on its website as of Dec. 15, including senior flight controls engineer and aircraft structures design engineer.

“We are on track to create 1,000 manufacturing and engineering jobs in Orange County over the next three years as we focus on bringing electric mobility solutions to the market,” Tigner told the Business Journal a few months ago (see related jobs story, page 1).

Industry Challenges

The development of the eTVOL industry has faced numerous challenges, chief among them the safety of the people on the ground and those in the air.

“We are working very closely with the FAA to see how these kinds of aircraft are going to be certified,” Tigner said. “We don’t fit cleanly into the mold of a regular airplane or a regular helicopter or any other known category.

“If we’re going to be putting thousands of vehicles into the urban area, people have a right to expect that we’re going to have an absolutely perfect safety record, which is very challenging to attain,” Tigner said.

Keeping noise down is another challenge, given the annoyance caused by the current generation of helicopters in urban areas.

“Our blades are moving much more slowly, and they are having a much lower impact on the air than general aviation airplanes,” Tigner said.

Tigner said much of the technology challenges are “largely behind us” and the company is now working on building out its commercial relationships and other details.

That includes landing spots and electric charging, as well as the regulation of airspace as eVTOLs are set to join shared space with drones. 

New eTVOL Collection

Irvine’s Aria Group says it has joined together with two other companies to form a group called Co-Lektiv “to steer the evolution of advanced air mobility,” or AAM.

Members said last month they “will leverage their complementary capabilities under the new group, acting as a catalyst for clients working to achieve certifiable aerospace quality, safety and reliability at production scale.”

The other members of the collective are Pankl AG and KTM E-Technologies.

AAM “has the potential to revolutionize transportation and have a massive, positive impact on everyday life, but the business models for the various enterprises in this still-forming ecosystem only make sense when sufficient scale can be achieved,” said Clive Hawkins, founder and CEO of Aria Group.

Aria specializes in production prototypes and low-volume manufacturing; it has said it sees huge opportunities for developing airframes and fiber composite components for electrically powered air taxis and cargo transporters.

Aria created the Hyundai + Uber Personal Air Vehicle “flying car” prototype that was presented at CES in Las Vegas almost two years ago.

— Kevin Costelloe

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