Aerospace & Defense
Roland Berger advises the aerospace, defense and security industries. We support OEMs, suppliers, agencies and investors.
by Steffan Heuer
Photos by Katrin Binner
Former Airbus Defence and Space CEO Dirk Hoke, now at the helm of flying taxi startup Volocopter, believes that cities need a new mode of airborne transportation to deal with growth and congestion. His next challenge is meeting a tight deadline to get things off the ground in time for the 2024 Paris Olympics.
Dirk Hoke's previous jobs were all suit and tie, landing large contracts for industrial giants Siemens and Airbus. These days, Hoke sports fitted black T-shirts and wants to write transportation history. When the experts one day pen the chapter about electric passenger drones taking flight, chances are a few paragraphs will be devoted to Volocopter, a startup based in a small town in southwest Germany. The company is among dozens of contenders that want to cash in on an as yet untested mode of mobility. As Hoke tells it, applying the art of management and execution honed at the big incumbents may just be the crucial piece to get air taxis ready for liftoff.
You moved from a very big company, Airbus, to a small startup called Volocopter that aims to build electric passenger drones. What were your reasons for giving up a well-paying job at a big incumbent and jumping to a young company with an unproven business model?
Dirk Hoke was the CEO of Siemens' Large Drives electric motors division before joining Airbus in 2016 as CEO of its Defence and Space division. In September 2022, Hoke took over the helm at German air taxi developer Volocopter. As of mid-2023, the company had raised in excess of $780 million in funding. It expects to receive regulatory approval from the European Union Aviation Safety Authority in 2024, in time to launch the first commercial flights at the Olympic Summer Games in Paris in July 2024.
I declined a lot of offers to join large companies as CEO and already had a very nice contract in front of me, waiting to be signed. My predecessor and one of the board members at Volocopter who knew me from my former job at Airbus really tried to convince me to become CEO. At first, I declined, then I gave it a second thought, because I always wanted to run a startup, but somehow there never was the right opportunity. And then I had a long talk with my family. My daughter kept saying: "Dad, you have run big businesses, you have made good money. Why don't you do something really cool?" How often do you have a chance to bring a completely new industry segment to life and write a small chapter of the aerospace industry?
Do you think experienced managers coming from a big company are the best choice to run a startup?
Not in any case, but in this case, definitely. Because the company has come to a point where it's not just storytelling, but delivering what it promised. It's about being consistent and structured because we have to follow a very diligent certification process, hitting very challenging targets.
In terms of running a company that's fairly young and small, are there things you realized you didn't know until you joined?
The difference is not that big. We have 700 people, but when you lead 30,000 or 40,000 people, you don't manage them all directly, but through the next layers of the pyramid. What you learn is that you don't have an extra department for every topic, you have people that do several jobs to address the challenge. And of course, being cost-conscious and careful with resources is a change. We also have a totally different environment in terms of diversity. Ours is a very young team, just over 30 years old on average, bringing together 60 nationalities. A lot of them joined because of the purpose of the company: They want to contribute to the decarbonization of our industry.
Multirotors that are efficient in hovering and suited for short-range operations in cities.
Winged and efficient in cruising, they use two different propulsion systems for hover and cruise flight.
These use the same propulsion system for both hovering and cruising and have either fans or propellers in addition to wings.
(Lilium, Joby, Archer, Aurora)
Very broadly speaking, how do you think humanity will get around in the decades to come?
There's an increasing effort to decarbonize the whole industry. For big commercial aircraft, there will be a very strict focus on sustainable aviation fuel. We will see experimental aircraft with hydrogen or hybrid propulsion and there will be a strong effort to go into electric flying, depending on the speed of the development of next-generation batteries. It will happen for smaller aircraft first, but the intention is to do this for big aircraft, too.
Your new job is to get a passenger drone or eVTOL, short for "electric vertical takeoff and landing vehicle," to market. How do you see those fitting into tomorrow's mobility mix?
We have the opportunity to create a new modality for transportation, not only for business, but also for normal day-to-day life. We're not talking about an overnight revolution, but toward the end of the decade when we will have thousands of these aircraft operating. It's a complementary modality concept. We will not replace anything; it is just an additional option. Our intention is not only to offer a comfortable flight for 15, 30 or 45 minutes, but to ensure that we are embedded into an end-to-end mobility concept. You need to ensure that the time that you gain by using our vehicles is not lost by getting to the vertiport, getting onboard or off and then reaching your final destination.
Do you see particular preferences for the future of mobility in different geographies, namely North America, Europe and Asia?
We have to be clear that eVTOLs don't make sense in all the different cities of the world. We have to concentrate on cities where you have a high degree of congestion and where there's a real need for an additional mobility concept. That's why we perform thorough analyses of a city's layout and its existing ground infrastructure. For instance, how much space is there to develop additional options for vertiports and how to integrate our vehicles into urban life, whether it's short hops in the city or regional travel of up to 200 kilometers in an hour or so.
The way we meet other people has fundamentally changed. What role do you expect digital travel to play going forward? Why get on any flying device if we have Zoom, Teams, or perhaps one day soon the Metaverse with avatars and mixed-reality offerings?
I've looked at that topic for the last ten years. The Metaverse will never replace the experience of having a person-to-person meeting. If I see you now ten times on the screen and then tomorrow we meet in a city, I probably won't recognize you despite the belief that we know each other. If you want to solve a problem that requires more interaction, you don't solve it on a video screen. If it's really critical, you do it in person. Will personal travel disappear, be it for business or leisure? No, definitely not.
What are the biggest problems we're facing with urban mobility? Is it just being stuck in traffic or battling emissions?
Emissions are just a result of increasing traffic. Since 2007, more than half of the world's population has been living in cities, going toward 70%. We obviously enjoy living in communities that have all the amenities and excitement of big cities. But many cities have grown from an existing infrastructure into a megacity and are not prepared for the massive transportation needs that a growing population will require. So, they have to find solutions for how to enhance the current infrastructure. That's a challenge because building a metro system takes billions and probably a decade to two to complete. Mass transportation solutions, were they not built already, won't solve our problem for the years to come, and the amount of people moving into cities will increase faster than mass transportation can be built.
Engineers dream up all kinds of ingenious ideas. What do you think will become of the Hyperloop which promises traveling at high speed in pods shot through a pressurized tube?
At Siemens, I was part of the team that built the Transrapid, the maglev or magnetic levitation train in Shanghai. It was a very smart technology that we unfortunately couldn't explore further. We had a lot of challenges, namely, how to integrate a maglev into an existing railway and mass transportation system. In the end, it didn't work out. Not because we couldn't solve the technical problems, but politically, because Germany didn't build its own system. Looking at the Hyperloop, I think there are a lot of challenges. First of all, people are already afraid of crossing the British Channel on the Eurostar. Going into a tube and traveling underground at high speed is not appealing to many people. And again, you don't build it overnight, even if it were to work. It would take decades to have an efficient infrastructure. The Hyperloop is a great challenge to explore new technology, but I don't believe it's a solution for our transportation problems.
Let's talk drones, or eVTOLs. A lot of people will roll their eyes at the idea of "flying cars." Why are you so passionate about building these vehicles?
We want to transport people in cities in the most efficient and sustainable way. It's a new form of transportation. I understand people are trying to use their knowledge about helicopters to understand what we're going to do, but that's the wrong approach. We're not even close to a helicopter, even though it looks a bit like a helicopter.
Can you explain?
We are 100 times safer than any helicopter because we have this multirotor concept, which means we can lose one or two rotors and can still safely fly and land. Also, we have a very low noise level, which has been verified by independent authorities. You can stand 75 meters from the takeoff point and have a conversation. I think our biggest challenge is that the speed of the battery development is not as fast as many people predicted. That's why the capacity will increase over time. We will start with a two-seater, because this is what the batteries can carry right now. And once the next-generation battery comes into the market, we will add more capacity, in my opinion, in 2026. This step-by-step approach has another advantage. Even if we had a four- or eight-seater, the market is not ready, the population is not ready to have hundreds or thousands of vehicles around them. That means we need to prove in Paris and Rome – as well as in the other cities that we have selected to be our starting points – that it is safe and quiet as well as sustainable.
You are obviously not the only company working on this technology and, as in every industry, most startups don't make it to the finish line. What will the landscape look like once the dust settles?
We are in an asset-heavy, capital-intensive sector, so the amount of money each of these companies needs per year is quite high. We'll see a consolidation process over the next five years, but the ones that will make it are not facing intense competition because the market is more than big enough. If you look at all the different vehicle concepts, I wouldn't be afraid if everyone made it. The faster companies come to the market, the faster the whole process will yield a standard infrastructure and an additional modality in our cities.
Pilotless flying is the end goal for drones, yet if you look at what's happening on the ground with robo-taxis and self-driving cars, most promises are still just that. What makes you confident autonomous operation will work in the air?
It's much easier to operate autonomously in the air than on the ground. Hybrid traffic of humans with automation and without automation is really a challenge, despite processing power advancing very fast and vehicles getting additional sensors. In the air, you have fewer surprises because of very strict traffic regulations, making it more predictable and easier to plan. That's why we will see the level of automation in aerospace increasing faster than we've seen it on the street.
Can air traffic management deal with that?
That will be one of the biggest challenges. We still operate our airspace like we did 50 years ago, handing over an aircraft from one section to the other by calling each other. Everything is radio-based. It needs to be automated and digitally transformed. All organizations have been pushing for it for the last decade, but the speed of transformation is not as fast as everyone would like.
How will you make sure that what you develop is accessible to as many people as possible and doesn't just turn into a service for rich people?
Assuming that we will have several thousand units operating by the end of the decade, we can get to a price point of around $3 per passenger and kilometer, and that's a very reasonable price, roughly like an expensive taxi. But in order for us to really scale, we will need subsidies in the system as we saw for electric mobility on the streets. How to build the charging infrastructure will be one of the critical topics everywhere, so I'm sure there will be subsidies to accelerate the use of these vehicles.
What makes you so sure people will accept this new form of transportation?
As with all new technologies, people go through this phase of ignorance and resistance. You saw it with smartphones. Believe me, once eVTOL service is there, people will embrace it and they will buy it once it comes to a price point where you cannot resist using it. If it makes your life better and easier, you will use it.
Roland Berger advises the aerospace, defense and security industries. We support OEMs, suppliers, agencies and investors.
Roland Berger’s path to sustainability and true-zero emissions for aviation and aerospace, including SAFs, electric propulsion and hydrogen power