They were something many of us dreamed of, but the thought of ‘air taxis’ taking over the skies of the world’s busiest cities could be a commercially viable option as early as 2023.
An influx of new technologies such as drones, efficient batteries and 3D printing have all contributed to the development of all-electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircrafts. With commercial drones having already been tried and tested effectively, the move to autonomous air taxis was surely going to be the next logical step.
The urban air mobility market is estimated to be worth $1.5 trillion by 2040, according to a Morgan Stanley Research Study, so it’s no wonder venture-backed start-ups and major automotive and aviation brands such as Boeing, Hyundai and Toyota are all rushing to get an early foothold.
In January 2020, Hyundai announced a partnership with Uber and its Elevate service at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, which will see it develop and manufacture Uber Air Taxis for a future aerial ride share network.
Hyundai unveiled its full-scale prototype – the SA-1 – at the show, which can seat up to four passengers with a pilot, and will eventually become autonomous. The aircraft can travel up to 60 miles (100km) at a top speed of 180 mph, reaching an altitude of 2,000ft.
Uber wants to begin testing the eVTOL aircraft later this year – with initial services to be rolled-out in Dallas, Los Angeles and Melbourne by 2023.
Toyota signalled its intent with a $394 million investment in Silicon Valley-based start-up Joby Aviation, which is also developing an all-electric eVTOL air taxi.
The partnership, signed at the start of the year, will allow Joby Aviation to take advantage of Toyota’s wealth of experience in manufacturing, quality and cost control – especially as it also intends to launch its own air taxi service in 2023.
While in Europe, German-based start-ups Lilium and Volocopter are making giant strides, with the former sending a remote-controlled prototype on its maiden flight last year and later completed the first phase of testing.
Volocopter secured €87 million in Series C Funding from global logistics giant DB Schenker, with the money being used to secure certification of its VoloCity aircraft. It aims to offer fully autonomous commercial flights within the next decade.
As well as ferrying human passengers between suburbs and major cities, eVTOLs have also shown their worth in the transportation of medical equipment. Chinese-based autonomous aerial vehicle (AAV) firm EHang successfully used one of its eVTOL aircrafts to travel 4km and deliver supplies to Hezhou’s People Hospital, as part of the country’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.
Work is also under way to provide the appropriate infrastructure, with Skyports partnering with landlords, local governments and large property owners to locate and acquire suitable sites for vertiports. The company collaborated with Volocopter in October 2019 and launched the world’s first passenger vertiport prototype in Singapore. Called the VoloPort, the first commercial flights are planned within the next couple of years.
The advantages of air taxis are significant. For many, they will go a long way to help ease the traffic congestion issues experienced in some of the world’s largest cities. British-based Vertical Aerospace claims its own eVTOL aircraft Seraph can reduce journey times by as much as 80 per cent, and travel from Heathrow Airport to Canary Wharf in London in just 13 minutes – as opposed to more than 80 minutes when making the same journey by car.
As eVTOLs are powered by electric motors rather than jet engines, they will drastically reduce the impact of air pollution. Joby Aviation claims its own eVTOL aircraft will be 100 times quieter during take-off and landing than a conventional aircraft.
But where there are advantages, there will also be some barriers. If eVTOLs are to one day become autonomous and no longer need human involvement to pilot them, manufacturers will need to prove to civil aviation authorities that they are safe to carry passengers.
Any eVTOL aircraft which has been designed using small rotors would fall to the ground in the worst-case scenario, and deploying safety parachutes from above 120ft in the air would be too short a distance for them to fully open and deploy in time. A crash early on would surely lose a passenger’s trust in the urban air market as a whole.
However, the likes of Lilium, Volocopter and USA/New Zealand-based aerospace start-up Wisk have already clocked up thousands of hours worth of test flights, so it seems everything is being done and taken seriously to ensure air taxis can become a trusted method of transport.
And then there is the cost. While many feel air taxis would be a luxury exclusively for the mega-rich, Uber Elevate claims that the cost of one would be the same price the company charges on the road. Time will tell whether they will be as cheap as their counterparts on the ground.
The urban air mobility market continues to grow at an alarming pace, and if early predictions are correct, the introduction of eVTOLs will undoubtedly make travelling across our cities a much more pleasant experience. A new age of aviation technology is just around the corner, and many are eager to see if it will take us to new heights.