Hyundai's Supernal Brings Sustainability to the Sky
Local transportation can be tricky. If a city has invested heavily in wide-reaching public transportation, there's typically little hassle in getting from point A to point B. If a region requires everyone to use a personal vehicle to get around, then it becomes difficult to make it anywhere on time. As car-centric cities attract more and more people each year, what follows is traffic.
One of the proposed solutions to combat that gridlock has been EVTOL (vertical take-off and landing) aircraft. Powered by batteries and resembling giant drones with multiple rotors, these vessels have been touted as a solution to local traffic snarls. Why sit in traffic when you can fly over it to your destination? At CES 2024, Hyundai's Supernal division showed off its S-A2 aircraft, the company's answer to AAM (advanced air mobility).
The aircraft has room for four passengers and one pilot, has eight rotors, and can cruise at up to 120 miles per hour at up to 1,500 feet. Initially, the vehicle will cover a few 25-40 mile trips across a city before recharging. As battery technology progresses, those trips could be longer.
One of the initial concerns of EVTOLs has been the noise. Anyone who's been to a park or beach and heard the wasp-swarm buzzing of an overhead drone knows that these tiny craft are anything but quiet. Supernal says the S-A2 is about as loud as a dishwasher or 65 dB in vertical take-off and landing phases and 45 dB while cruising horizontally.
Of course, being quiet and sustainable doesn't automatically get your aircraft time in the air, especially in crowded urban airspaces. Also, these crafts need to take off and land somewhere.
The "vertiport" infrastructure will require Hyundai and/or partners to find locations that both appeal to commuters while also appeasing local residents and businesses. It's going to be costly. Hyundai's Dr. Jaiwon Shin Supernal CEO told SAE, "Initially, it will be a little bit more expensive than say riding a taxi until that particular mode of operation and mobility becomes popular." Shin believes it'll be 20-30% more expensive than Uber Black.
While working on a solution with the FAA for the S-A2 to share the sky with other aircraft, Supernal showed a demo of a control room that included paths that the S-A2 would follow in the sky. The S-A2s would fly around busy commercial flight paths while Supernal would be in constant contact with local towers. On-board pilots would be in constant contact with the vertiports and Supernal noted that it would be monitoring weather on a minute-by-minute basis.
With partner TruWeather Solutions, Spuernal wants to be able to optimize routes based on weather conditions. With a ceiling of 1,500 feet, the S-A2 is more prone to changes in weather than aircraft at higher elevations. That means distributing sensors across a city to get the weather data points necessary to make real-time adjustments to a fleet of aircraft.
If all goes to plan, it will be a huge fleet. "We believe it could be hundreds of thousands of airplanes flying in many many cities around the world," Shin told SAE. The current roadmap is that pre-production flights will begin in 2026 and 2027. The aircraft will enter service in 2028. Supernal is targeting a timeframe of the early 2030s to begin offering service in busy urban areas like Los Angeles.
That would require thousands of new pilots that would in addition to having their pilot's license would require a certification to fly the Supernal S-A2. That also means a huge manufacturing push that would have to be localized.
Shin pointed out that the S-A2, unlike commercial aircraft, can't fly thousands of miles after being built. Manufacturing would have to occur in each region. US-bound S-A2s would have to be built in North America and likely near a battery manufacturing facility.
Hyundai's Supernal dream might take nearly a decade to take off at a large scale. Yet it points to a sustainability movement within the aerospace industry that follows what's happening in ground vehicles. A move that means more jobs both in the manufacturing of vehicles and battery production. Plus, more pilots jobs. Considering how much people hate traffic, this could be the future hack to get around gridlock.