Exclusive Interview with Dirk Hoke, CEO & Managing Director of Volocopter
Ayşe Akalın: First of all, thank you for sparing time for our readers. Can we start our interview by taking a brief summary of your personal journey to the Volocopter after leaving Airbus in 2021 as CEO of Airbus Defense and Space?
Dirk Hoke: It was an interesting journey. I really took some time to weigh different options and had many conversations to identify what would really be the best fit for my stage in life. I had offers to lead multinational companies, but I had always wanted to lead a startup, but the time had never been quite right. When Florian Reuter, my predecessor approached me to take his job, this struck me as a unique opportunity. I’ve known the sector since 2016 and after thoroughly vetting Volocopter it became clear to me that if anyone makes the race, they will. In the end it was two factors that really pushed me toward Volocopter: the once in a lifetime opportunity to write history, the fact that my family was really supportive, and my adolescent kids thought it was a “cool” thing to do.
Ayşe Akalın: How would you best describe Volocopter, which is headquartered at the Bruchsal in Germany, founded in 2011 and employs more than 500 people in Germany and Singapore? Could you please provide some key facts about the company for our readers?
Dirk Hoke: Volocopter is the pioneer of urban air mobility. In 2011 the founders proved that electric vertical flight with distributed propulsion is actually possible. From there on, in a rather German fashion, they enlisted the support of various local champions in this area to build the first eVTOL (electrical Vertical takeoff and landing aircraft) which led to a permit to fly crewed in 2016, another historic moment for us. The company gradually grew from 2017 and racked up milestones thereafter, like the first Design Organisation Approval of an eVTOL company, the first eVTOL company to hold Production Organisation Approval, and the first to fly crewed in a city center in Singapore in 2019. The list is endless. We now have offices in Germany, France, Singapore, employ people from over 60 nationalities and are closer to receiving commercial certification from EASA than any other player in the industry.
Ayşe Akalın: At Airbus, you served as CEO of Airbus Defense and Space. To what extent were you able to transfer your experience from Airbus into Volocopter, the pioneer of Urban Air Mobility (UAM), an emerging branch of fully electric aviation and has more than 10 years of electric aircraft development experience?
Dirk Hoke: I’ve been tasked with many difficult feats over my career – many focusing on the reformation, problem solving, and raising profitability of certain sectors. The last few years at Airbus were especially instructive with regards to navigating highly regulated aviation territory and doing so effectively. Frugal and focused leadership on pushing forward the most impactful topics serves most companies well. Digital transformation was another key aspect that I pursued, knowing that all companies must adopt and adapt to make their business operations efficient and effective for customers.
Another similarity is the necessity to work globally in industries. Defense and Space, just like the UAM sector, will only work if it is approached globally, from a regulatory perspective just as much as a partnership perspective. While local subsidies and ties are instrumental, only a global vision will do justice to the truly grand opportunity eVTOLS offer.
Ayşe Akalın: Your position with Volocopter was announced in March 2022, but you have taken up the baton from Florian REUTER as CEO and Managing Director of the Bruchsal-based company as of September 1, 2022. How did you spend this transition period until officially entering your role? Can you elaborate on your vision and goals for Volocopter?
Dirk Hoke: I used the transition period to continue my involvement with innovative tech startups globally, get inspired from various conferences, and spend time with my family. Having a month of overlap with Florian was a blessing to really navigate the company before steering into the exciting waters of final certification.
My vision is to kick-start the electrification of aviation next year and not in the far future, thus enabling cleaner transportation in one of the “most CO2-intensive industries.” We are focusing on the promising partnerships we have built with our first few launch cities and pushing for eye-level collaboration to establish what will be the future of urban air travel.
Ayşe Akalın: Can you inform us about Volocopter’s current production facilities in Bruchsal and its annual production capacity? In April 2023 a new hangar that would host the company’s final assembly line with an airfield to conduct development flight tests as well as quality checks was opened.
Dirk Hoke: cccIn April 2023 we opened our production facility and hangar with the German transport minister and other high level German politicians. This event was a symbol to celebrate the completion of our facilities, and the beginning of our future production. Today, the production facility is able to manufacture 50 VoloCity aircraft a year under a one shift operation. As part of the hangar, we inaugurated the first Vertiport in Germany, so we can execute extensive testing right here in Bruchsal.
Ayşe Akalın: Volocopter has been developing family of eVTOL aircraft including VoloCity and VoloRegion electric multirotor helicopters in the form of personal air vehicles, designed for air taxi use. And as the pioneer of urban air mobility (UAM), Volocopter flew their Volocopter 2X electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft at Le Bourget Airfield during the Paris Air Forum in June 2023. Can you describe these three electric eVTOL passanger aircraft for our readers?
Dirk Hoke: Certainly. We have two Passenger Aircraft, the VoloCity and VoloRegion. The VoloCity has been designed for fast certification. Volocopter’s goal has always been to be a first mover to the market - enter the market quickly, prove that the service works, and learn from early access to the market, customers, and partner. With today’s available battery technology, the multicopter design can offer the quietest and most viable city routes, and its product configuration makes it super stable in flight. The VoloCity is what we will enter the market with next year. As battery technology improves, so will range and payload capacity.
The VoloRegion is an addition to the VoloCity, it can take more passengers with a longer range. With its fixed wing, pusher fans, and rotor design, it features a similarly stable flight, but will go faster and father beyond the suburbs and offer emission-free regional routes. It will extend the Volocopter ecosystem. Both aircraft will be certified to the highest safety standards known in aviation to date. Which is just as safe as an airliner.
The Volocopter 2X that flew daily at the Paris Air Show is the predecessor of the VoloCity. We built this aircraft before the EASA regulatory baseline, the SC-VTOL, had been finalized. Nonetheless, the 2X is already a two-seater aircraft which features 9 batteries and 18 rotors, like our VoloCity prototype we are currently testing. Over the past five years, the Volocopter 2X has flown globally and delivered test results and data that have continually influenced the improvements we now see on the VoloCity.
Ayşe Akalın: Besides the passenger aircraft, Volocopter is also developing VoloDrone, fully electric utility drone capable of carrying an impressive – and unprecedented – payload. Which one has the greatest potential to be the first to bring in revenues?
Dirk Hoke: Great question and not so easy to answer. The VoloDrone can be deployed without the EASA certification, rather simply using the Special Operations Risk Assessment (SORA) on the specific routes it is intended to be operated on. That being said, our team is laser-focused on bringing UAM to life, since this will change the way humans move about cities for good. And that is the historic feat we at Volocopter are aiming for rather than chasing quick revenues.
Ayşe Akalın: You also have VoloIQ and VoloPort, which are important components of the business. Can you elaborate on VoloIQ and the VoloPort concept and their importance for your eVTOL ecosystem?
Dirk Hoke: VoloIQ and VoloPort were first born as products of necessity but now we know how valuable it is to have this expertise for the whole of the UAM ecosystem. When first designing an eVTOL and understanding its use cases, Volocopter realized long ago that it needed a full UAM ecosystem to thrive, not just the product. As we were the pioneers in the industry, no one was there to bring these ideas to fruition. We invested a lot of time and expertise to visualize a fully-working environment including infrastructure (VoloPort), various partnerships with local entities in target cities, and a digital infrastructure that will connect to the UAM network (VoloIQ). Volocopter is not an infrastructure company, but our deep work with vertiport developers, city authorities, and the understanding of how eVTOLs fly, we created our own VoloPort design handbook. This became a key influencer in the EASA vertiport standards in 2022.
VoloIQ is a complex and a continuously growing concept. It covers a variety of operational tasks – fleet and customer management, maintenance, booking, communication of aircraft to ATC, other aircraft, and infrastructure, etc. There is no question that any new player in aviation should be focused on digitalization for efficiency and data management capability. The UAM market will grow rapidly once certified and the physical infrastructure prepared. Soon, the existing air traffic control and flight systems will not be able to handle the additional UAM capacity, on both the local and the regional levels. As a nascent industry, new players like USSPs will need to interface digitally between the traditional ATM and UTM systems, where the VoloIQ will receive digital signals to our aircraft network.
Ayşe Akalın: Considering the fact that the company flew the Volocopter VC1 prototype on 21 October 2011, Volocopter has almost 12 years of electric aircraft development experience and is currently the only eVTOL company on track to achieve certification in 2024 from the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). When do you expected to secure EASA certification for the VoloCity, VoloRegion eVTOL aircraft and VoloDrone? Have you also applied for the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification?
Dirk Hoke: Our target to receive certification is summer of 2024 with the VoloCity. Everyone at Volocopter is focused on the VoloCity right now, and we see the VoloRegion and VoloDrone to be potentially a few years after in certification. 12 years in aviation is actually not a long time in development, especially since we were the first to develop this eVTOL concept and kickstart an industry. We already have concurrent validations between EASA and three other entities, the FAA, CAAS (Singapore), and JCAB (Japan), so we are prepared to scale our business globally.
Ayşe Akalın: What stage are you at with testing? How many flight hours have been accumulated with the VoloCity, VoloRegion eVTOL aircraft and VoloDrone prototypes? What is the most challenging aspect of the ongoing testing program?
Dirk Hoke: With 5 generations of various multicopter designs (including VoloCity), the VoloDrone, and the VoloRegion prototype, we have recently surpassed the 2,000-flight test mark. We are nearing a milestone EASA audit after which we can focus on pure certification testing and pushing the envelope up to type certification. Aviation is the most stringently regulated mode of transportation with the highest levels of safety – living up to these standards through redundant systems and structural integrity will always challenge us but never defeat us. We will test however long as we need it in the name of safety.
Ayşe Akalın: When do you plan to start delivery of VoloCity and VoloRegion electric multirotor helicopters and electric utility drone VoloDrone to the customers? When will people be able to travel VoloCity and VoloRegion air-taxis?
Dirk Hoke: In European cities, we will start commercial services as both manufacturer and air operator. This means we do not have a single focus in delivery to others but also to perform customer-facing services. In Paris and Rome, the public can start to travel with the VoloCity in 2024. In other areas of the world, we will deliver aircraft to Joint Venture companies from 2025, where we will again be part of the operations.
Ayşe Akalın: What can you tell us about the target markets you foresee for the VoloCity, VoloRegion and VoloDrone?
Dirk Hoke: Volocopter has clear roles for each of our products – the VoloCity is the multicopter air taxi targeted at short city flights, connecting major transport hubs to bypass ground congestion, the VoloRegion is a fixed wing eVTOL that connects city and suburbs for commuters and travelers, and the VoloDrone as a heavy-duty cargo drone that connects city fringes with large depots outside cities. The VoloCity is already planned to fly in megacities such as Paris, Rome, Singapore, and the NEOM region for this purpose. Once a network of city infrastructure is set up, The VoloRegion can potentially connect city infrastructure to regional airports or hubs. We are looking at many different use cases with the VoloDrone, with the ship to shore use and middle-mile logistics use case looking to be the most promising options in the future.
Ayşe Akalın: As VoltAero, how many sales figures do you predict for the VoloCity, VoloRegion and VoloDrone?
Dirk Hoke: Volocopter currently has over 400 orders and pre-orders from customers, our partners, and joint venture companies. Of those, 17 are confirmed purchase orders. I’m particularly proud of the orders of the German HEMS operator ADAC Luftrettung. They have purchased two VoloCity aircraft to start research operations for saving lives with VoloCity multicopters as early as next year.
Ayşe Akalın: Do you think there is a race to develop electric aircraft? What other projects do you think are close to VoloCity and VoloRegion passenger aircraft in terms of progress in the global eVTOL aircraft market?
Dirk Hoke: Yes and no. Yes, in terms of a race to decarbonize the aviation industry. We are small, but we are one of the forerunners to provide one of many solutions to this issue. After receiving type certification and scaling our commercial services, Volocopter and all other players in the electric aviation industry will make a great impact on the whole. On the other hand, we are not directly racing with other eVTOL market players. We have different aircraft architectures and use cases that can coexist in the future. It is rather a race against time – to change regulations, remove technology limitations, certification, and public acceptance so that the world is ready for us when we are.
Ayşe Akalın: Where do you see Volocopter in five or 10 years?
Dirk Hoke: In 5-10 years, I can see Volocopter operating in around 8 to 10 megacities in multiple continents, including Europe and North America. The goal is for Volocopter to be the trusted household name in electric aviation, known as the safest, most reliable, and most efficient alternative to city ground transportation. Also, from a business case point of view, we should be well into the profit zone, being able to give back to the shareholders and customers through a network of eVTOLs and affordable services.
Ayşe Akalın: Would you like to add anything in the way of a message for our readers?
Dirk Hoke: Volocopter will change mobility as we know, not in another lifetime, but starting next year. Decarbonizing aviation, using the empty space in cities to improve quality of life in the ever-denser populated urban areas. This will be one of the many solutions to build more sustainable living, affordable to anyone who can nowadays afford a taxi