[Game Changer] Plana’s hybrid air taxis prepare for takeoff

Media . Oct 11, 2023

Imagine flying yourself from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, a journey that takes around four hours by car, in less than two hours.

No need to get stressed about going to the airport. You can take the hybrid-electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft nearby, possibly on the roof of the building you are in.

Don’t compare this aircraft with a helicopter, says Braden Kim, the founder and CEO of Plana, as it emits 80 percent less carbon emissions than a regular commercial jet, while also being faster and noise-free.

Kim believes his aircraft, dubbed the air taxi, will bring a paradigm shift in people’s daily lives — at least by 2029 — just like smartphones did in less than a decade.

“As an option replacing the helicopter, Plana’s hybrid aircraft will be able to fly 500 kilometers [310 miles], which means it can carry passengers from Seoul to Jeju, or Busan to Osaka, in some 90 minutes,” said Kim.

“A fully electric VTOL aircraft faces lots of practical issues and it’s nearly impossible to make it run more than 100 kilometers or 30 minutes,” said Kim.

Though Plana, the only hybrid VTOL aircraft startup in Korea, is still in the early stages of development, incoming purchase inquiries prove that it is not aiming for a far-fetched goal. Plana already signed purchase letters of intent for about 100 units from companies in the United States, Japan and Korea.

Plana secured a total of 14 billion won ($10.4 million) in Pre-Series A funding so far from global investors including DSC Investment, Shinhan Asset Management and Industrial Bank of Korea. It is currently undergoing Series A funding.

Morgan Stanley forecasts the world’s air taxi market will continue to grow to $55 billion in 2030, and a whopping $1.5 trillion in 2040.

Before founding Plana in July 2021, Kim served as the head of the urban air mobility (UAM) team at Hyundai Motor, the country’s largest automaker. Kim studied aerospace engineering at Nagoya University, and earned his master’s and doctorate degrees in aerospace engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The Korea JoongAng Daily recently sat down with Kim to discuss the company’s development journey and his future business goals at the company’s headquarters in Yonggin, Gyeonggi.

The following are edited excerpts from the interview.

A rendered image of Plana’s hybrid-electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft [PLANA]

Q. You led a UAM team at Hyundai Motor. What made you establish a startup in hybrid-powered aircraft?

While diving deep into the UAM industry, I had many chances to visit global startups that develop UAMs. I met many people there and was impressed with their determination to narrow the focus.

Of course, financial strength is important. However, since Hyundai is an automaker, not a specialized aircraft developer, the process seemed quite slow. I had a distinguishable technology in this field, so quick decision-making was essential to lead the soon-to-be booming market.

A hybrid-electric eVTOL aircraft is an unfamiliar concept. Can you explain more about it and your technology?

Currently, most eVTOL aircraft use lithium-ion batteries. But for full-electric aircraft, it’s impossible for them to travel more than 100 kilometers and run over 30 minutes. Under the current law, aircraft must always have reserve fuel that can run for at least 30 minutes, which means the full electric aircraft can travel less than 20 minutes at a time.

Plana’s CP-01 hybrid eVTOL aircraft intends to combine electric propulsion through a combination of turbine generators powered by sustainable aviation fuel, electric motors and batteries. It will allow the aircraft to run longer distances, and make commercialization easier in countries that relatively lack infrastructure.

Plana’s hybrid aircraft will be able to run 500 kilometers at a time, which connects Seoul to Jeju Island, Mokpo to Shanghai, and possibly Busan to Fukuoka.

It will be faster than a helicopter with a maximum speed of around 300 kilometers per hour, similar to the KTX bullet train. Of course, it is slower than conventional airplanes, but passengers do not have to go to airports as they can just use the existing helipad.

Plana employees in a meeting at the company’s R&D center in Gyeonggi. Plana has 55 workers so far, of which 10 are foreigners. [PLANA]

How far along is the development process?

We now have a 3-meter aircraft, a smaller version of the real-size one, and have been examining and verifying the safety of its rotor and blade. Our road map is to start the pilot flight of the actual aircraft in 2026, which will be followed by approximately two years of a series of tests and qualification examinations.

We are eyeing the year 2029 for the aircraft’s release in the market.

Plana currently has around 55 employees, with more than 75 percent being engineers and developers. Among them, 10 are foreigners scouted from global names like Rolls-Royce, Samsung Electronics and Airbus SE.

Plana also owns three patents related to the hybrid eVTOL aircraft.

It sounds like the aircraft will be very pricey. Who will be your target client?

In the beginning, the price will be set at $7 million. Innovative products and services like smartphones and EVs always have to be expensive in the early stage and become cheaper as the market grows and demand increases.

The price will be halved to $3.5 million if we scale up our production capacity to around 500 units per year. And when the market grows and countries start to build up the infrastructure, the price will be reduced.

Just like a helicopter, it will be a premium option for transporting CEOs and government officials. But that market is still quite big globally. In fact, in the city of Sao Paulo in Brazil, rich people use their helicopters to commute. Around 2,000 helicopters take off and land each day.

Plana already signed purchase letters of intent with a few global companies. Can you elaborate more on the deals?

Last year, Plana signed a purchase letter of intent with the U.S.’s Ghenus Air for 20 hybrid eVTOL aircraft. Earlier this year, we also signed a deal with Japan’s SkyTaxi for 50 units.

And more recently in July, Plana signed a purchase letter of intent with local carrier Hi Air for 30 aircraft.

Aircraft deals always start with orders before production begins. Our purchase letter of intent is not legally binding at the moment, but this means that our product is attractive in the market and we will have demand from clients.

As the market is not open yet, there must be many obstacles such as a lack of guidelines and regulations. How is Plana responding to it?

It’s true that countries like Korea, even the United States, and Europe do not have any clear guidelines or certification processes at the moment.

But global institutions like the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration [FAA] and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency are working on it and nearing realization.

The Korean government is also running the K-UAM Grand Challenge, a project we are cooperating on, to set up safety standards.

But one thing I can be certain of is that hybrid aircraft are relatively free from regulations. They can use the helipads that conventional helicopters are already using, so face fewer restrictions compared to full battery-powered aircraft that need to be flown low-altitude.

A rendered image of Plana’s hybrid-electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft [PLANA]

If there is anything you’d like to appeal for the government’s help?

Definitely financial aid in the long term. The eVTOL industry is where various tests and technological examinations are needed. We also need way more talent in the UAM area.

Currently, the Korean government does not provide any aid for startups, not even for aircraft development. Without any technological expertise or capabilities in this field, Korea’s supportive action is slower than other countries.

But when the United States and Europe set the standards and rules, the Korean government must take some active action to grab the lead position in the newly emerging industry.

Plana recently established an office in Los Angeles. What’s your plan for overseas business expansion?

We established the office to cooperate with the FAA regarding the certification of our aircraft, as well as to enter the global market.

We are planning to open an R&D center in the United States soon, but the location has not been finalized. California is the priority option as the region is rich in air vehicle talent.

You’re aiming for a Nasdaq listing. When and why?

We are aiming for 2027.

And of course, going public in the U.S. stock market is to attract massive investment. Getting certification and building manufacturing facilities cost astronomical amounts of money, and global eVOTL developers like Joby Aviation, Eve and Lilium secured funds right before the commercialization of their aircraft.

Lastly, what does the future of Plana look like?

Plana’s main goal is to replace helicopters and give people a better option that has lower carbon emissions, reduced accident risks, and low maintenance costs.

Then, the market will grow even larger, even in areas untapped by helicopters.

BY SARAH CHEA [chea.sarah@joongang.co.kr]

source: Korea JoongAng Daily