Advanced Air Mobility Profile

Going the Distance: PLANA Draws Plans for Long-Range Hybrid VTOL

Going the Distance: PLANA Draws Plans for Long-Range Hybrid VTOL

Imagine being able to fly yourself and a group of five friends from Los Angeles to Las Vegas – a journey that usually requires a more than four-hour drive across 270 miles – in a mere hour and 15 minutes. On top of that, traveling there in a vehicle that emits 80 percent fewer carbon emissions than a regular commercial jet.

It may sound far-fetched, but this is a reality that Braden J. Kim, Chief Executive Officer of PLANA, is working hard to realize.

Indeed, as CEO and Founder of a South Korean aviation and aerospace start-up, Kim and his team of engineers have been toiling for the past year and a half to make their mark in the advanced air mobility industry (AAM) with their hybrid electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft.

The company is designing its seven-seat hybrid eVTOL to specifically fly long distances – up to 350 miles and at speeds of 217 mph. This will allow their vehicle to fly much further than any fully-electric eVTOL currently being developed. Vermont-based aerospace manufacturer Beta Technologies’ planned eVTOL, for example, will supposedly be able to fly up to 280 miles – making it the eVTOL with the longest range so far – while eVTOLs produced by Lilium and Joby Aviation will only be able to operate up to 150 miles.

This increased range is what Kim firmly believes will make PLANA’s aircraft stand out from the competition. “By going for a hybrid eVTOL, we are able to extend our flight range,” he says.

The company has hit key milestones in recent months – in November, it signed a letter of intent with global electric powertrain supplier Electric Power Systems, which will supply PLANA with batteries for its hybrid VTOL, and in October, it successfully raised US$8.3 million in a pre-series A investment round.

With a total of more than US$10 million in funding raised so far, the company is aiming to have a sub-scale aircraft ready by 2023, a full-scale jet by 2025, and is targeting a 2028 commercial launch. It hopes to enter North and South American and European markets.

Fuel for thought

Ensuring that the aircraft will be able to go the distance is admittedly the most complex aspect of the task at hand, Kim says. “The biggest challenge will be perfecting the aircraft’s propulsion system,” he says, noting that PLANA hopes to ensure their hybrid eVTOL meets safety standards equal to those of commercial aircraft by integrating a turbine generator into the vehicle. A turbine is a device that harnesses the kinetic energy of a fluid, such as water, steam, air, or a combustion gas, and turns it into the rotational motion of the device itself. “Turbine engines in commercial aircraft have evolved over the last few decades in their reliability and redundancy, providing the highest level of safety.”

From an aviation standpoint, redundancy refers to the prevention of any system operation disruptions in the event of technical failures by ensuring a continuity of service. “We will meet similar redundancy and safety standards with our new power train and propulsion systems, which consist of a highly reliable turbine generator with battery packs, and six tiltrotors of distributed electric propulsion,” he adds.

Opting for a hybrid eVTOL will not come at the cost of the environment, Kim emphasizes. While many manufacturers are focused on battery-reliant eVTOLs for short intra-city trips, Kim says PLANA will begin by fueling their vehicle using sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). “Though SAF costs double that of jet fuel, prices will likely go down over time,” he says. “We are also looking at using hydrogen or natural gas. This is because our turbine isn’t a direct propulsion system; it’s an electricity generator, so we can use a low carbon emission fuel such as SAF or natural gas. That, I believe, is the future.”

Kim adds that the company is looking to use fuel cell technology to power its eVTOLs once the technology further matures. “The use of hydrogen depends on the infrastructure as well. We see this happening down the line,” he says. 

Seeing is believing

Another major hurdle that PLANA, and much of the whole AAM industry, will need to face is gaining social acceptance from the public. This is key, Kim says, as any lingering doubts or concerns may deter potential customers from ever stepping foot in an eVTOL. “It’s understandable that people might not believe eVTOLs are that safe in the initial stages – this is why we have to gain social acceptance at the start,” he says.

The public first has to physically see eVTOLs safely up in the air, and how they will be able to transport people from point to point. The best way companies can increase their chances of error-free flights, Kim says, is to operate their eVTOLs far from busy or densely-packed places. “In order to gain public acceptance, we want to operate initial journeys away from congested areas, so journeys that cross the sea or rivers. Once people see eVTOLs and VTOLs in action, they’ll start to recognize that they are safe vehicles. From there, we’ll be able to slowly integrate them into urban areas.”

An additional yet key level of assurance will be obtaining certification from regulators, Kim adds. “Attaining certification from the Federal Aviation Administration or European Union Aviation Safety Agency implies that our vehicle is very safe. That’s why it’s very challenging to attain certification.”

“In order to gain public acceptance, we want to operate initial journeys away from congested areas, so journeys that cross the sea or rivers. Once people see eVTOLs and VTOLs in action, they’ll start to recognize that they are safe vehicles. From there, we’ll be able to slowly integrate them into urban areas.”

A greener option

But Kim is sanguine and says that despite the barriers to commercial entry, he looks forward to seeing how eVTOLs change the way travel to, from, and within cities, especially once more infrastructure is built to facilitate widespread use. “Once we see more vertiports within cities, people will be able to simply go to a vertiport, hop in an eVTOL, and fly off to their destinations,” he says.

It will, however, be some time before flights in eVTOLs will be considered affordable by the general public, warns Kim. “In the early stage market, airfares won’t be too cheap so we won’t be able to compete with ground vehicles just yet. But I believe we’ll see prices go down over the next 10 years.”

Instead of solely offering a taxi-like service through its hybrid eVTOLs, Kim says the company hopes to also market its aircraft to individuals who rely on helicopters. “I foresee a lot of business travelers and high-net-worth individuals flying in our vehicles,” he says. “In Sao Paolo, Brazil, for example, there are a lot of helicopters owned by high-net-worth individuals, who use them to commute. Replacing their helicopters with our VTOLs could present another business opportunity for us.”

In the event there aren’t enough vertiports available in a few years’ time, Kim says PLANA will be able to tap into existing infrastructure to operate their hybrid eVTOLs once they have been certified. “We hope to use the airspace and communication systems similar to those used in helicopter operations,” he says. “Helicopters are also VTOLs, but our hybrid eVTOLs are much quieter and safer, so we have identified much market opportunity for urban inter-city operations to operate VTOLs the same way helicopters are operated.”

A common purpose

Having been CEO of PLANA for just over a year, Kim has been overseeing the overall development of the business and taking on multiple roles to keep the ball rolling. “I’m mainly in charge of managing the company. I’m also overseeing investment traction, partnership agreements, and overall development. Until we hire a chief technology officer, I’ve also been taking on CTO-related jobs,” he says.

Kim also places a high level of trust in his carefully-selected team of more than 40 members. “We hired these individuals out of more than 2,000 resumes we received,” he says, adding that he hopes for the team to expand to 100 people in 2023. “We have diverse and talented engineers not just from South Korea but also from the US, Turkey, India, and Australia.”

Prior to his current role, Kim was head of South Korean automotive manufacturer Hyundai’s Urban Air Mobility team, before the company announced the formation of eVTOL company Supernal to focus strictly on producing an AAM vehicle. His time at Hyundai, Kim says, provided him with the know-how and confidence to take on his current role. “I gained a lot of technical knowledge in this area through the Hyundai role, especially in very detail-specific technologies,” he says. “I also realized that there are huge barriers and limitations in the commercialization and profitability in the operations of these vehicles.”

With plans to launch their hybrid eVTOL in just over five years, Kim says the company will be focused on ensuring a successful flight of its sub-scale prototype. “Having a sub-scale is key to validating a lot of technology, all of which within a limited timeline and a limited budget,” he says, confidently adding that the next step will be building a full-scale model for a test flight and technical demonstration. “If you look at Joby’s eVTOL, we can see that its full-scale model is performing very well. We hope to achieve the same by 2025, but it’s going to be a step-by-step process.”

Above all, Kim feels grateful for the opportunity to channel his passion for aeronautical engineering through his role and work. Like many companies in the AAM sector, Kim understands that the aviation industry is standing on the precipice of a new era with the advent of eVTOLs, and feels humbled to play a part in it. “I see eVTOLs as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he says. “I believe that each member of PLANA has the same dream; we are all working towards one common purpose, which is the commercialization of eVTOLs. As an aeronautical engineer, it’s my dream to make this a reality.”