Text: Steffan Heuer | Reading time: approx. 20 minutesMobility lift-offIn the near future, personal air taxis will redefine our concept of mobility and take freedom to new heights.
CHAPTER 2 – On the ground
CHAPTER 3 – At the drawing board
An airborne future
CHAPTER 1An airborne future
The white 240-kilogram machine took off from the Skydive Margham Center to the south-east of the metropolis as if by magic, flying over the desert before making its independent landing. The eHang 184 is a similar size to a compact small car, and can accommodate a single passenger. A light suitcase can also be carried on the journey.
The drone is powered by eight propellers mounted on four arms positioned around the driverless cab. According to data provided by the Guangzhou-based manufacturer, this vehicle powered by electric motors reaches full charge in one to three hours and boasts a range of 40 kilometers – sufficient to cover a trip from the airport to a meeting in the city center. All the customer has to do is request the air taxi via an app, wait for it to land, and then confirm their destination on the cab’s touchscreen.
The rest of the trip – from take-off to the high-precision landing – is taken care of by the on-board computer, which is linked to a manned control center that can intervene in the event of any problems. It’s no wonder that eHang describes its concept as an “ecosystem in the air”: The vehicle offers passengers unprecedented speed and convenience for short journeys, and eliminates the risk of getting stuck in traffic, or finding yourself lost in an unfamiliar urban jungle.
In fall, Dubai marked its second world-first when German startup Volocopter selected the city as the location for its test flight. The white – also unmanned – “Urban Air Taxi” from Bruchsal in Germany climbed to an altitude of around 200 meters against the Dubai skyline before making a turn in front of the luxury Burj Khalifa hotel and cruising along the coastal promenade of Jumeirah Street at a speed of 50 km/h, above the astonished drivers below. After a five-minute flight, the drone completed a smooth landing under the watchful eyes of a team of experts and representatives from the Dubai Roads and Transport Authority. The AAT (short for Autonomous Air Taxi), which can accommodate two passengers and cover distances of up to 35 kilometers, is powered by a total of 18 propellers, mounted on a circular crown above the cab. “This public demonstration proves that the Volocopter is suitable for use in urban environments,” said company founder and CEO Florian Reuter after the event. “Dubai is a global pioneer with its commitment to this new technology, and it is paving the way for other major cities to add new solutions to their existing transport networks, particularly around congestion hotspots.” By hosting these test flights, the United Arab Emirates has not only made air travel history, but has also moved closer to its ambitious goal of autonomous vehicles fulfilling a quarter of the country’s transportation needs by 2030.
The future on the ground
CHAPTER 2The future on the groundVolocopter and eHang are by no means the only “Vertical Takeoff & Landing” aviation companies (known as VTOLs) aiming to propel us into a future of electric aviation.
There are at least a dozen startups and established companies in Europe, the USA, and Asia feverishly working on solutions to give flight to personal mobility over the next decade. Their research and development work builds on technological progress in a number of areas – starting with the increasingly powerful battery-driven drones that have been tested in package delivery applications by companies like Amazon and Swiss Post. According to experts, the market for so-called “last-mile logistics” is worth around 120 billion dollars a year.
Skycart, based in the Californian city of San José, was one of the first providers to deploy delivery drones. Using these drones, Swiss Post can rapidly and reliably deliver urgent packages or sensitive items like laboratory samples, even to hard-to-reach destinations. As co-founder and CEO Wrede explains, the Skycart system comprises a complete hardware and software bundle that manages all aspects of the landing, flight, and delivery autonomously, and is scalable from a single drone up to a dynamic network of many thousand aviation devices.
What’s more, the on-the-ground systems used to control autonomous vehicles are constantly im-proving in terms of precision and reliability.
Whether the resulting vehicle carries a single passenger or three, has eight or eighteen rotors, or even if it is supported by a combustion engine: How we get from A to B will soon be far removed from the crowded and busy 20th century transportation networks we are used to. A new form of intelligent networked mobility – in which machines transport us to our destinations automatically and in the most environmentally friendly way – is on the horizon.
The list of companies that hope to realize this vision is extensive. In 2016, European aviation company Airbus opened an innovation laboratory known as A3 in Silicon Valley; it is aiming to draw its “Vahana” and “City Airbus” projects to a close with the development of market-ready air taxis by 2020. Nearby are two closely guarded startups – Zee.Aero and Kitty Hawk – each of which has been provided with at least 100 million dollars of funding by Google cofounder Larry Page.
Travel services provider Uber has also promised an air taxi by 2020.
In November, the company unveiled its plans for uberAIR. The VTOL vehicles planned for 2020 will be targeted at the commuter market in Los Angeles and a number of other cities, including Dallas and Dubai. Established aviation companies such as Embraer, Bell Helicopter, Pipistrel, Aurora Flight Sciences, and Mooney Aviation will provide the hardware and the pilots, while Uber will step in to provide the logistics software and billing mechanisms. On launch, the company plans to construct landing sites and charging stations at multiple congestion hotspots, including Los Angeles International Airport, downtown L.A., Santa Monica, and the Sherman Oaks district. In a second phase of the project, Uber plans to develop autonomous air taxis.
Finally, in Munich, startup Lilium is working on a five-seater vehicle known as the “Lilium Jet”, and has raised more than 90 million dollars in funding from major names in the world of technology in Europe, the USA, and China.
There’s only one person who hasn’t been surprised by this fervent activity across the globe: Paul Moller. The 80-year-old inventor, who spent part of his career as an aviation professor at the University of California, has been working on his personal air taxi for half a century. Moller’s company headquarters near Sacramento resemble a fascinating museum of technology run by a passionate and enthusiastic high-tech geek, whose findings many of the new startups are now seeking to explore.
The walls of Moller’s office are covered with yellowing articles recounting the first test of his gigantic flying saucer at the UC Davis campus in 1967, which was watched by hundreds of spectators. Moller has not given up on his dream of making flying accessible to all, and he estimates that he has plowed more than 100 million dollars into the project himself in the hope of finding an investment partner who could help him progress beyond motor design to build and launch a fully fledged vehicle.
Moller is now feeling hopeful that we are teetering on the brink of a major breakthrough in air taxi technology – fueled by the successes of the unmanned drones that are increasingly taking to the skies equipped with cameras or measuring devices and, most recently, laden with packages.But Moller’s vision for reliable A to B transport is something much larger and more powerful – his aim is to develop a sophisticated autonomous flying car with the capacity to cover medium-distance journeys of 100 kilometers or more at altitudes of up to 7500 meters.
His solution is the Skycar 400. The bright red vehicle parked in his workshop has already clocked up a decent amount of flight time; it’s the size of a family sedan, with space for four passengers and their luggage, and weighs in at around a ton.Moller’s Skycar is not an electric helicopter; it has wings fitted at the rear. Its engines can be tilted like a conventional VTOL machine, and the vehicle is powered by a hybrid drive comprising a Wankel engine and electric motors. According to Moller, this combination is the only solution that can provide sufficient energy and torque for the start, landing, and extended flight time. The inventor believes that this technology represents an opportunity for the human race to truly take off – both literally and figuratively.
Moller described his vision for the future in a paper he presented at an aviation congress in fall 2017. His conclusion: “If the growth in our air infrastructure follows the same historic patterns as canals, rail networks, and roads, air taxis will only account for a small proportion of future air travel among the general public.” To become a real, viable transport option for the masses, flying cars would need to be capable of landing at the side of the road outside virtually any address, rather than having to target special taxi ports on apartment buildings, for example. “The infrastructure will develop to this point by 2050, or when we reach five billion users a year,” predicts Moller. However, he is expecting to see initial practical applications for the technology – on a smaller scale – as early as 2022.
Although their designs and ideas differ, the leaders behind eHang and Volocopter paint a similar picture.
Volocopter boss Reuter is similarly optimistic: “Initially, we’ll see point-to-point connections with a specific destination. These connections will be focused around high-traffic routes where air transport can relieve congestion on the ground.” In the long-term, Reuter adds, the air taxi will enable us to “live a simple life in the country and work in the city – which is a truly sustainable and attractive vision for the future.”
In August 2017, experts from Swiss bank UBS conducted a study to calculate the potential of the autonomous aviation market. They concluded that the ability to fly without a pilot would save at least 35 billion dollars a year in staffing costs, or that this amount could be generated through new revenue streams – from freight to personal transport. “On-demand urban aviation” is just one of many aspects of the autonomous aviation concept – but it is likely to become a major disruptive factor in the market over the next few decades.
The future at the drawing board
CHAPTER 3The future at the drawing boardSo, now we know all about the vision. But there are a number of technical, legal, and social hurdles to overcome before the first paying passengers can take to the skies in an autonomous aircraft.
One such hurdle is the issue of propulsion, range, and reliability of the electric motor in an air taxi. “Batteries for aircraft still need to grow exponentially in terms of their power to weight ratio and price to performance ratio,” says trend forecaster Paul Saffo, whose roles include a teaching position at the Singularity University in Silicon Valley. “The more energy we cram into a cell for rapid availability, the more dangerous the battery becomes. Eventually, you end up literally sitting on top of a ticking bomb.”
Missy Cummins, Director of the Humans and Autonomy Laboratory at Duke University, holds similar beliefs. The professor – one of the first women to pilot a fighter jet for the US Marines – is now engaged in a number of other projects, including research into air taxis on behalf of NASA. “For short-distance flights, we have all the technical components we need. There’s no magic involved – the electric drive is a perfectly viable, established technology.”
“There’s a good reason why aircraft have engines: We can’t afford to underestimate the force of gravity.”
The aviation expert is calling for two conditions to be met before take-off. Firstly, there is currently no rigorous test protocol to certify air taxis as fit to fly and that can be overseen by a supervisory body such as the American FAA. To date, no country in the world has developed a recognized process to certify manned drones. The licensing rules for flying unmanned drones weighing over 25 kilograms are still a gray area too, with such flights requiring special permission in the USA.
The regulatory uncertainty surrounding the technology is delaying experiments. For example, Chinese manufacturer eHang announced at the start of 2016 that it would test the eHang 184 in the US state of Nevada, one of the world’s leading locations for drone experiments. However, since this announcement, no actual testing has taken place. “What we are lacking is a checklist. I would only assume that these machines are safe if a CEO of the company would let their own child travel in one,” remarks Cummins.
Even if Nevada had worked together with FAA experts to produce a detailed test program with the aim of obtaining permission to fly, there is still a second issue to contend with: How will the hundreds or thousands of cargo drones, manned air taxis, and other flying vehicles taking to the skies in the most heavily congested areas be managed safely and reliably?
Tom Wilczek, who is heading up Nevada’s drone program, explains the challenge: “The smart city of the future will rely on intelligent systems on the ground and in the air. We need to invent the mother of all systems to give us an overview of all of the elements within our network.” With the volumes of traffic involved, this would only be feasible with an automated system. “We have no idea how this type of system would look and how it would work,” admits Cummins. Uber has announced a collaboration with space agency NASA to develop the next generation of air traffic control (ATC) systems.
The company has provided a tentative timescale for its air taxi launch, estimating ten years for taxis with a pilot, a further ten years for a transitional solution with one staff member on board for safety, and yet another ten years for fully autonomous flying.
However, the public – and potential customers for this transport model – have their reservations. As awe-inspiring as the idea of requesting an air taxi at the touch of a button may be, most people are still inherently wary of entrusting their life to a robot.These concerns were discussed in the UBS study already mentioned. According to the results, just one in six end customers would currently be prepared to travel in an autonomous aircraft. In Germany and France, distrust of robotic airplanes is twice as high as in the USA. Confidence is higher among younger passengers; one in three respondents aged between 25 and 34 would willingly climb aboard a drone or a larger, autonomous jet.
For these reasons, many share trend forecaster Saffo’s belief that manned drones will initially only be used in a small number of very specific scenarios. They will benefit business travelers who need to get from the airport to a convention center or meeting swiftly, and will be useful in military operations and rescue efforts – for example helping to locate and rescue missing people on challenging terrain when sending assistance in person would be too dangerous. Once a routine has been established in such situations and all safety concerns have been alleviated, the wider public may be more open to the idea of an air taxi. “If a flying car were to break down, the resulting crash would be catastrophic. We need to be able to rely on this technology 100 percent,” says Saffo, pointing to similar debates on the use of autonomous vehicles in road traffic.