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.