Democratizing Air Mobility with Jon Rimanelli – Part 1

Fitting air taxis and Urban Air Vehicles into the whole mobility scheme.

When cities ran out of space, people built skyscrapers. This allowed them to take advantage of the space that was already there, waiting to be utilized.

Now, as traffic in cities becomes slower and slower due to congestion, there is a need to rethink transportation in such places. After all, why waste the only resource we can’t create more of, time, sitting in traffic?

Air taxis are seeking to do exactly what people did with skyscrapers, move part of the traffic into the air. While this endeavor is still in the early planning and development phases, the problem it seeks to solve cannot be ignored. 

In this episode, the first part of two, Ed Bernardon interviews Jon Rimanelli, founder and CEO of Airspace Experience Technologies (ASX), a company developing an electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft to transform mobility between cities, suburbs, and airports. He will share with us how their Sigma 6 aircraft will work and their progress so far.

Some Questions I Ask:

  • Why do we need air taxis? (05:07)
  • How is your eVTOL aircraft different from other air taxis? (09:57)
  • Can a Sigma 6 aircraft land on a building? (15:54)
  • What do you mean by democratizing air mobility for the masses? (21:14)

What You’ll Learn in this Episode:

  • The reason why helicopters are not a common means of transport in cities (06:23)
  • The difference between Sigma 6 aircraft and helicopters in terms of cost (07:17)
  • The importance of a swappable payload system (11:14)
  • Why the eVTOL aircrafts will be easier to fly (23:55)

Connect with Jon Rimanelli:

Connect with Ed Bernardon:

 

Ed Bernardon: Jon, you’re a pilot with thousands of hours in the air, you’ve been involved in aerospace all your life, but you are in Detroit. So, a while ago, you brought in the Red Bull Air Races to Detroit. Tell me, do you think that air races will ever be as popular as Formula One and IndyCar? 

 

Jon Rimanelli: I think that the element of excitement about head-to-head racing in Formula One is really what drives people to the track is the danger that there could be an accident and these dramatic crashes. And for some sick reason, I think the public really likes that. It’s just what drives people to these races, I think, in my view. But I think air racing certainly has potential, especially if we can manage head-to-head, wing-to-wing scenarios. That’s one of the reasons why Red Bull Air racing decided not to go wing-to-wing. I think if we went wing-to-wing, the excitement and the interest level could go way up and we would likely see more air racing in the future.

 

Ed Bernardon: Well, 50 feet off the ground, 200 miles an hour, going around pylons, I think that’s pretty exciting. And there’s certainly an element of danger in that — one quick little twist of the wheel and you’re probably in the river.

 

Jon Rimanelli: It’s true. I would like to actually get back into it and compete head-to-head with some of these other eVTOL companies just because I think it would be a great way to accelerate technology. I mean, racing has always been a source of innovation for aeronautics and for automotive. There are all kinds of new technologies that sprang from that as a result.

 

Ed Bernardon: Maybe Red Bull is listening and soon we’ll have the first electric airplane pylon racing right there in Detroit. What do you think?

 

Jon Rimanelli: I think they could do it, I think they would consider it. Absolutely.

 

Ed Bernardon: Every year, US drivers waste $300 billion in fuel and productivity due to gridlocked traffic. In the face of increasing noise, pollution, and road space demands, what are the solutions to lessen our environmental impact and to take steps to improve the flow of traffic? Well, we know our mobility future is going to have many modes of transportation from micro-mobility to cars to shuttle buses. But what about air travel, especially that niche between traditional air and ground transportation? That’s where air taxis come in. They’re going to help us address the needs related to both ground and air travel. In 2021, NASA began flight testing electric, vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, also known as eVTOL aircraft and sometimes called Urban Air Vehicles or “air taxis”. An air taxi is intended for shorter travel distances when compared to traditional aircraft. With government initiatives and investments boosting the growth of the global air taxi market, it could reach $1.5 trillion by 2040 with the electric segment expected to be the highest contributor. Recently, at the Detroit Auto Show, I met someone that’s starting a vertical takeoff and landing aircraft company to give us transportation between cities, airports, and the suburbs. His name is Jon Rimanelli, the CEO and Founder of Aerospace Experience Technologies and I am sure that Jon can help us understand exactly where air taxis and Urban Air Vehicles fit into the whole mobility scheme. Airspace Experience Technologies, or ASX, was established in 2017 and evolved from the Detroit Aircraft Corporation, where John was CEO. While there, he was inspired to design an affordable, flexible payload eVTOL aircraft that will democratize air mobility.

 

Ed Bernardon: My guest today is John Rimanelli the Founder and CEO of ASX and he’s here to tell us all about his company and the aircraft they’re building. Jon has over three decades of experience designing and building complex electronics and robotics and is an Instrument Rated sea pilot with over 1000 hours of flight time, so he comes with a wealth of flying experience. In Part 1 of this two-part episode, John and I discuss what air taxis are, what it will cost to fly in one, and the technology behind them. Join me, Ed Bernardon and Jon Rimanelli, on this episode of The Future Car as we take to the sky in an air taxi.

 

Ed Bernardon: Jon, welcome to The Future Car podcast.

 

Jon Rimanelli: Ed, it’s a pleasure to be here, and thanks for having me on.

 

Ed Bernardon: So, let’s start at the top. Tell us what are air taxis or Urban Air Vehicles. Why do we need them? How do they fit into the whole transportation scheme?

 

Jon Rimanelli: That’s a great question, Ed. If you can use a big urban center like New York or Chicago as an example for how we’ve taken a finite amount of real estate and have expanded skywards because we just ran out of real estate on the ground floor. If you think of it and know along those lines, our roadways are at capacity. The very technology that we’ve used to democratize mobility for the mass traveling public is now choking cities, airports, and suburbs with congestion and traffic, which is spewing emissions into the National Airspace System or wasting time or wasting money. So when you think about the fact that we are at capacity on the roadways, we need to do something different; we need to start to look skywards and elevate traffic. So, that’s the main driver behind this global industry effort to elevate traffic is we’re running out of room on the roads; if not, we have run out of room in many cities.

 

Ed Bernardon: So, why not just helicopters? You’ve got your traditional aircraft or airliners leaving and coming and going from airports. We’ve got all this transportation on the ground. Why not just take a helicopter?

 

Jon Rimanelli: Well, that’s a good question, Ed. Helicopters are certainly the state of the art, they’re loud, they’re expensive to maintain, and they’re expensive to operate. Probably the biggest problem is noise for urban centers. I mean, many urban centers around the country have banned helicopters. For instance, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, we saw a lot more helicopter pads in urban centers. But as people started to complain about the noise, they shut those helipads down. Between the noise and the cost of acquiring, the skills required, and the maintenance, it’s just prohibitive. 

 

Ed Bernardon: So, noise, skills, and cost. So, we’re looking at an aircraft that’s easy to pilot and probably a lot less costly for that ride from the city to the airport. How does it compare from a cost standpoint to say a helicopter or taking an Uber on the ground — relative costs between the three? 

 

Jon Rimanelli: We like to benchmark the Eurocopter 130 as an equivalent vehicle with an equivalent payload capacity — it’s up to around seven passengers, almost a few 1000 pounds of payload. Just a dry rate on the machine is about $1,400 an hour. Currently, not including all the inflation that’s taking place, we’re going to revise our numbers, but we’re in the $600 to $700 an hour range, where they’re $1,300 to $1,400 an hour. And that’s dry, that’s maintenance, repair, overhaul, operations, and insurance. We’re going to be about half the price of Eurocopter to operate, assuming that we can get our supply chain back in order. The noise signature on our machine is about 70 decibels at about 100 feet above your head, whereas a helicopter is going to be in the neighborhood of 100 decibels at about 100 feet above your head. So, considerably noisier, and in order of magnitude, lower in cost.

 

Ed Bernardon: If you were to take the classic ride from Downtown New York City to LaGuardia or Kennedy, what’s the cost of a helicopter for that ride, roughly, more or less? And what do you think it’ll be for an urban air taxi or a typical urban air taxi?

 

Jon Rimanelli: The target for us is to be equivalent in cost to a rideshare, an Uber Black ride. We’re looking at about $75 to $100 for a ride to the airport. I haven’t checked that fare in a while. But it would be equivalent in cost to an Uber Black ride in essentially about 15 minutes as opposed to about 45.

 

Ed Bernardon: If you’re lucky, 45. It could be hours. That’s probably the other thing that’s good is that it’s predictable; you know roughly how long it’s going to take you to go through the air in a straight line from Downtown New York to the airport where you never know what’s going to happen with traffic, so you can probably better utilize your time as well.

 

Jon Rimanelli: So, right now you’re looking at about a 27-minute ride at this time of day, it’s about 10 miles. So, you’d be looking at, at least half the time.

 

Ed Bernardon: So, there are a lot of air taxi companies out there: Airbus, Joby Aviation, several of them. How is your air taxi different?

 

Jon Rimanelli: So, from an air taxi standpoint, that is a concept of operation for electric VTOL. It’s not the only concept of operation. And what we’ve done is we designed an air vehicle that is flexible to do the job of moving cargo, medevac, emergency responders, as well as passengers. So, we really wanted to build a vehicle that was flexible, that can be repurposed on demand to do a variety of jobs. Our first job to do is not passenger mobility, it’s actually defense in cargo. I’m actually working with the US mail service right now to look at how we can improve the distribution of mail from their hubs to their regional stations. So, cargo is a massive opportunity. A big part of our mission is to elevate that cargo off the road. And down the line, we’ve got an opportunity for passenger mobility, and we certainly are going to go down that road. But right now our primary mission is defense and cargo mobility.

 

Ed Bernardon: As I mentioned earlier, I met you at the Detroit Auto Show. The first thing you see is this big wing of propellers at an auto show — you don’t really expect it. But what was really unique about what I saw was that there was a pod that can move in underneath. So it gives you somewhat of a seamless connection between what’s happening on the ground and in the air. So, this pod seems to be unique to what you’re doing. Are there other pod aircraft out there? 

 

Jon Rimanelli: So this boils down to the flexibility of the machine. Having built a number of these aircraft, one of the things that bug me the most is when they’re purpose-built and you want to repurpose it, you really have to reconfigure the vehicle to do that. So, what we did is we designed a hot-swappable payload system where we can plug and play a new container or a new pod to do a different job. And that new pod could contain a fresh set of batteries to eliminate downtime on the ground for recharging. We do have a ground vehicle, an autonomous ground vehicle that does the job of plugging and playing the pod in a closed circuit environment, be it an airport, a factory, distribution center. These containers, these pods can weigh as much as 2000 pounds, so you need hardware to move, plug and play that container into the aircraft. So, I think that it’s unique and that we have a highly flexible system, whereas 99% of our competitors do not. There are certainly trade-offs associated to having this bit of flexibility, this modularity. So it’s not really optimized aerodynamically, per se, but it’s optimized for mobility. It’s like, “I’ve got a seaplane. It’s great. It lands on the water, it lands on a runway, it flies, and I can pull up on a beach with it. But it’s not the greatest airplane, it’s not the most aerodynamic, but it does the job well enough to get the job done.” So, we realized there were going to be trade-offs in the flexibility, but we figured that it would be more optimized for mobility because, at the end of the day, we want to be able to blend with these other modes. We’ve talked in different car companies about doing first and last mile operations, where they build an autonomous vehicle platform, we can then place our pod or container on that autonomous vehicle or even piloted vehicle, and go on a first and last mile delivery. So, that is a pretty distinct difference, and it’s all about this concept of seamlessly moving product from air to ground since we have an opportunity to reinvent and reimagine mobility, what would we do differently? And if we could have a symbiotic relationship with the ground vehicle, we can do a lot more, a lot faster, a lot more efficiently.

 

Ed Bernardon: So, the idea would be, in what you’re describing here, I could get into a ground vehicle, that’s basically your pod on wheels, and then that would take me to your “port” where are your air vehicles located. What do you actually call it?

 

Jon Rimanelli: The industry refers to them as vertiports, some people call them sky ports. It’s a location where we can land, unload, reload and depart, which right now in the United States are some 5000 small community airports that we intend to leverage; they got power, they got the infrastructure, they got cheap real estate, which we like. But in cities, we will see vertiports that are specifically designed to meet our requirements.

 

Ed Bernardon: So you could get into your pod on the ground, much like you’d get into any car, and ultimately then it would drop it underneath your vehicle and interface quickly automatically into the actual air vehicle and then zip you off to the airport or wherever. It could be cargo, it could be anything.

 

Jon Rimanelli: The target is a two-minute changeover from one container to the next. Conceivably, we could, in fact, do a first-mile pickup to a vertiport and take a passenger or cargo load on the middle mile using the Sigma 6 aircraft, and then the final mile. Right now we are very focused on between cities, airports, and suburbs, doing the jobs of moving cargo on the air side as we develop more partnerships on the ground, which they seem to be very, very interested in this concept of operation; somebody else will do the first last mile business.

 

Ed Bernardon: You mentioned “landing it” like a little regional airport. Helicopters land on buildings, so you could land on a building, I suppose. 

 

Jon Rimanelli: Pinnacle landings are an option, yeah. 

 

Ed Bernardon: Would you have to modify buildings? Or if you got a large number of people coming through the building, would you have to redesign the elevators and all the systems so that you could get the flow of people through it? I suppose there’s a whole ecosystem that wraps around this. It’s not just the vehicle itself.

 

Jon Rimanelli: So, when it comes to vertiport configuration and location, there are a number of options. Actually, the top of a building, those are actually banned in New York. They won’t let you do that anymore because of just the risk to the people on the ground if there was an incident in the air. Each of these vertiports, there’s going to be a set of requirements that they would have to meet in terms of space, in terms of area, in terms of arrival and departure routes. They prefer that these things be clear of obstructions in the arrival and departure procedures to these landing zones. So, that comes becomes part of the requirements. Then there’s the power. These aircraft are generally being designed electric at the moment, but they have to have high voltage and high current capability, and most of these buildings do. But preference, I think, is going to be to set up on parking structures or green space, where infrastructure can be easily installed without too much additional expense. The top of a parking structure could be ideally suited.

 

Ed Bernardon: Yeah, why invent something new if you can use utilize existing space of some kind? I would think that you would have to work closely with cities during design and certainly during the implementation of this. Have you started to do work with cities to try and make sure that the infrastructure you need is there?

 

Jon Rimanelli: So, being in the city of Detroit, we’ve got a very close relationship with the people leading infrastructure development here. It’s a little easier for us because we know people here and we have relationships, and they certainly have asked us what our requirements are. Now, the FAA has put out a standard for vertiport construction, and that’s the direction that the city is going, is following those federal standards for what the minimum requirements are. 

 

Ed Bernardon: You had a visit from the mayor of Detroit just recently. What did he think when he saw this, the mayor of the motor city?

 

Jon Rimanelli: He’s certainly enthusiastic. He wants to create jobs for our community. And certainly, this has an opportunity to create a lot of jobs on the manufacturing side, maintenance, repair, overhaul, and service operators. But I think that he’s still in the position of “Is this really real?” They’re not doing missions just yet. You see some things on the news about some of our competitors, like Joby and Archer, they’re making flights and they’re making progress. But you can’t really book a flight today. So, he’s still sort of like, “Well, you know.” When this thing’s live and you can catch a flight, he’ll take it more seriously. But he said to me that we would be best friends if we could start creating some jobs around here. So, he was enthusiastic.

 

Ed Bernardon: So, when the mayor asks you, “Is this real?” What’s the answer to that?

 

Jon Rimanelli: Oh, the answer is 100%. I mean, you could touch it and you feel it. It’s got all kinds of horsepower. It can do the job of moving things. It’s a challenging time in the environment right now as you know. The world isn’t the same place, there are a lot of challenges on supply chain. The lead time on the copper wire is gone out and just basic stuff like that. But batteries are hard to get right now; resistors and capacitors, which were once just so available, now you have a shortage of simple components, passive components. It’s a tough time right now for anybody in the electronics business, let alone the electric VTOL business.

 

Ed Bernardon: When do you think you’ll actually be able to get a ride commercially available? Or let’s just say cargo, you said you’ll start with cargo. When do you think you’ll have a cargo service in Detroit that people can utilize? 

 

Jon Rimanelli: Well, I think right now our timing is trending toward 2025-2026 to begin trials. We were supposed to be at this point two years ago. When COVID hit, it really made the job of building this machine very difficult. We still got it done. It took us a year longer as a result of COVID. So, our timelines have been pushed back, so we’re hopeful that 26 is when we’ll really start seeing it. But I think other guys like Joby have done a great job right now. They’re mowing the lawn for us, regulatory-wise, and getting people adjusted to this reality — it is coming.

 

Ed Bernardon: Well, sometimes it’s better to be the second or the third one and let somebody else take care of, like you said, making sure all the regulations are there.

 

Jon Rimanelli: Yeah, absolutely. 

 

Ed Bernardon: You talk about democratizing Air Mobility for the masses. What exactly does that mean?

 

Jon Rimanelli: Well, look, it means making these things accessible to people. One of the things that really inspired me to get into this business is I had the freedom to fly airplanes at will, 360 degrees; it really is liberating because instead of sitting in traffic, you’re staring down at it. It’s always bugged me that Americans who are working nine-to-five jobs and making middle-class wages can’t afford to participate in this level of mobility. And that’s always bothered me. It just felt like it’s very unfair. And Detroit has got this great history of doing that business of democratizing travel; building cars that are affordable for people. So, it’s always been my objective to make aircraft systems very much like we make automobiles at scale, using the same production processes, same techniques. And when you think about the requirements of a ground vehicle or an aircraft, there’s a lot of overlap. And we’ve taken a ground-up approach to designing and building our machine. So, it’s all about employing automotive electric vehicle architectures, mass production techniques, and producing these things at scale so they can be affordable for regular people because it’s just not interesting to me if there isn’t that opportunity to improve the quality of life for people. 

 

Ed Bernardon: Transportation is key to so many things: education, accessibility, to the things that you need to live your life day to day. Do you envision, at some point in the future, that it could be a school bus or something like that?

 

Jon Rimanelli: I’m going to tell you, I had school bus drivers come to us during the show and they’re like, “Man, this would be fantastic if we could move children this way because they sit in congestion all day long, that’s all they do, and these kids are wasting hours of their days sitting in traffic.” And the main thing is if we can elevate some of this unnecessary traffic, this cargo, for instance, if we can move that other traffic off the roadways, we might be able to lessen the load on the roads so these school buses wouldn’t have as much of a problem getting kids to and from school. I mean, that’s really the problem. We just have too many cars on the road, and the roads are limited in how big they can get and they’re expensive to add more. So, it’s really just about lightening the load on the road and elevating traffic starting with cargo. I mean, there’s a lot of cargo we can take off the road.

 

Ed Bernardon: Well, let’s take one of your school bus drivers here for a second because one of the things you mentioned earlier is the ease with which you could learn how to pilot one of these. Piloting a helicopter is not necessarily the easiest thing to learn how to do. Now, why is it that your aircraft, your class of aircraft, is going to be easier to learn to fly?

 

Jon Rimanelli: So, for the last decade, we’ve been building small, electric VTOL aircraft using a technology called Distributed Electric Propulsion. And Distributed Electric Propulsion is essentially a plurality of propellers and electric motors, which deliver enough thrust to lift a payload and use a flight control system to stabilize that aircraft. We don’t actually pilot the drone, per se, we don’t fly the drone; we actually steer the drone because the flight computer does the job of flying the aircraft, stabilizing it in a hover, in a transition, in a cruise. So, we’ll initially begin with pilots because the FAA doesn’t know anything different; they only know that we need an operator onboard to operate the vehicle. But really, what we’ll end up doing is once we’ve developed enough of, let’s say, a track record with these things being, for the most part, pilot-optional, we’ll be able to just use what we would refer to as operators. And the operators are mostly there for passenger comfort and managing an emergency situation. So, when you think about the technology that’s inherent in these vehicles, the flight controller does the job of flying the airplane; the operator will do the job of pointing and clicking to a destination. But for the most part, our vehicles will be used in fixed routes. We’re not talking about landing individuals owning and operating these things. These are fleet operations, where they’re going to distinct fixed locations for the most part. 

 

Ed Bernardon: If you’re flying something like a helicopter, you’re playing with the pitch of the rotor and you got the tail rotor, and you’re actually manipulating or controlling the devices and the propellers that move the thing up and down and tilt it and all that — so you have to be knowledgeable of what to do. Whereas here, it seems like, much like any drone, the stabilizing and all that is taken care of; you don’t have to worry about that. You point up, down, left, right — is that really the big difference? That’s why it’s easier to learn how to fly.

 

Ed Bernardon: You’re literally steering as opposed to flying. It’s like driving as opposed to flying. There’ll be a set altitude at which you’ll operate at. There’ll be a set of standards that the aircraft will have to follow when it comes to flying in and out of an urban center. So, a lot of that is being determined right now. I think, early on, they’ll be piloted between now and the end of the decade. You’ll see mostly there’ll be a pilot mandate towards the end of the decade when a lot of machine learning has taken place and we’re able to utilize Level 4 or Level 5 autonomy, we’ll start seeing this open up to operators and not pilots. Now, you’ve probably heard about Wisk and Boeing; they’ve got a four-passenger eVTOL that’s totally autonomous, which is great, but I think the traveling public is not going to feel comfortable. 

 

Ed Bernardon: Yeah, just getting into a drone with a pilot is probably enough of a big step at first than to get into a fully autonomous one. There’s some comfort in knowing there’s a pilot in there with you.

 

Jon Rimanelli: There is comfort. What people are really going to appreciate about these vehicles is the noise signature, the vibration is a fraction of a typical helicopter. I mean, the vibration levels are 1/10th that of a typical helicopter. The noise signature will be a fraction of that.

 

Ed Bernardon: That’s part 1 with Jon Rimanelli. Join us on our next episode where we’ll dive a bit deeper onto what it takes to design, build and fly an air taxi. And as always, for more information about Siemens Digital Industries Software, make sure to visit us at plm.automation.siemens.com. And until next time, I’m Ed Bernardon, and this has been the Future Car Podcast




Jon Rimanelli - ASX Co-Founder and CEO

Jon Rimanelli – ASX Co-Founder and CEO

Jon is an electronics and aerospace entrepreneur with over three decades of experience designing and building complex electronics and robotics. He is an instrument rated seaplane pilot in a variety of aircraft. In 2017 he established Airspace Experience Technologies (ASX), a company with a vison of creating electric aircraft designed to be clean, quiet and connected. Prior, Jon founded Nextronix, a contract electronics design and manufacturing company and Detroit Aircraft Corp to manufacture and distribute small electric VTOL aircraft for military, civil and commercial use worldwide.

Ed Bernardon, Vice President Strategic Automotive Intiatives - Host

Ed Bernardon, Vice President Strategic Automotive Intiatives – Host

Ed is currently VP Strategic Automotive Initiatives at Siemens Digital Industries Software. Responsibilities include strategic planning in areas of design of autonomous/connected vehicles, lightweight automotive structures and interiors. He is also responsible for Future Car thought leadership including hosting the Future Car Podcast and development of cross divisional projects. Previously a founding member of VISTAGY that developed light-weight structure and automotive interior design software acquired by Siemens in 2011.  Ed holds an M.S.M.E. from MIT, B.S.M.E. from Purdue, and MBA from Butler.

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at https://blogs.sw.siemens.com/podcasts/the-future-car/democratizing-air-mobility-with-jon-rimanelli-part-1/