When considering all that will be needed in order to achieve commercialised air mobility with air taxis – designated places for takeoff and landing in densely populated urban environments, dedicated airways, certification of vehicles – it is clear that the 2024 estimated rollout for air taxi use may be more dream than reality.
In this piece, Chen Rosen, CTO and co-founder of AIR, explores the ways in which the advanced air mobility industry can still take flight by 2024 and provide consumers with an air mobility experience that’s safe and stress-free.
Leaping into the third dimension
Short-range transportation is leaping into the third dimension. But is the popular dream of autonomous eVTOL air taxis a little too lofty?
While technically, electric takeoff and landing air vehicles are beginning to actually fly, and current aircraft regulation has already adapted to accept eVTOLs as certified aircraft, (think Joby, Archer, and Volocopter) urban air taxis like those presently proposed are still likely over a decade away.
That’s because of the key regulatory hurdles that remain to be overcome: the safety of these vehicles at high flight hour volumes, integration of a mass of these vehicles into urban airspace and setting standards for autonomous systems without the need for pilots.
Until all these new regulations are in place, air taxis will remain a novelty, a minor experimental addition to urban mobility, and an expensive one — with one pilot per each three to five passengers. Without sufficient total passenger mass, operating and infrastructure costs will be divided among very few commuters, resulting in either very high-ticket prices or operation loss.
But are urban air taxis the only way for eVTOLs to take flight?
Throughout the history of transportation, personal vehicles have often preceded public transportation. Many of us drive ourselves around in our own cars, and while this will also probably change in the next decade, can anyone imagine leaping to autonomous driverless cars as a service without having gone through personal vehicles as we know them?
Personal eVTOLs can expedite many of the benefits promised by Urban Air Mobility (UAM) to commercialization in only a few years’ time, because they are not blocked by the long-lead regulation and infrastructure changes mentioned above.
So how do we get people to adopt flying personal vehicles? After all, personal aircraft have been here for a while, and we don’t see everyone flying. Part of the answer lies in the same convergence of technologies that enable eVTOL air taxis. Subsets of the same technology can be used to create personal eVTOL aircraft that can be operated by everyday consumers (not trained pilots), with the difference that for the personal use case, regulation is ready and available. In other words, this can happen now.
All new air taxis rely on computerised fly-by-wire control systems. These simplify flight in two tiers: The first tier is auto stabilisation and envelope protection (preventing the aircraft performing unsafe manoeuvres) and the second tier is fully autonomous mission and decision making.
While the latter is still in its infancy, the first tier has been applied in military and large passenger aircraft for decades and has become lighter and affordable in drones. As long as you have eyes, the first tier is all you need to fly safely, even with very minimal skills — similar to the skills required to pilot toy multicopter drones.
And here we have the first step for consumerisation of aircraft — disconnecting skills from safety. But it’s not enough. Current aircraft also require a lot of tedious effort to keep safe, even before taking off. This includes- meticulous inspections every day before flight, then before starting up and before takeoff, and there are even routine monitoring procedures to carry out while flying. All these are gathered into checklists which the pilot needs to perform. Not exactly what most people call user-friendly.
But modern sensors, constant monitoring by computer and even computerised vision and AI technology can monitor the vehicle and eliminate the need for checklists while integrating a lot more data, more frequently, and without the risk of human error, making the vehicle even safer, and upgrading the user experience to the familiar “buckle-up, start and drive (fly!)” experience.
Among the final issues to solve in shifting from air taxi tech to personal electric air vehicles — “air EVs” if you like — is cracking the range-price coupling. Almost all of the very few eVTOL concepts aimed at personal use are wingless multi-rotors. As such, they are simple enough to achieve a price that can allow personal ownership, but the cost of this simplicity is range and endurance typically under 20 miles, 20 minutes and relatively low cruising speed.
Air taxi concepts, on the other hand, use wings to achieve at least three times that range, at much higher speeds. But to combine wing-borne cruise they resort to tilting motors and variable pitch rotors or dual phase (hover/cruise) power systems that bump their price up to several million dollars per vehicle — well beyond the reach of most.
When change is afoot, challenges are inevitable — and while urban air taxis may not arrive as soon as once expected, personal eVTOLs currently offer a more promising and realistic pathway to transforming the flying vehicle from dream to reality.