Shared mobility will be the future of transport and it’ll all be in the air. Literally. The automobile sector will have to bring the ‘next big-thing’ in shared rides and a “flying taxi” is a reality closer than you think.
Now some must be quite sceptical of the prediction. Primarily because the concept has not taken a visible shape anywhere in the world to date. Let us warn you though, the development on the technology has been going on for a while now.
To think of it, humankind has managed to create re-usable rockets, power cars with a pack of batteries with utmost efficiency, planted crops on the far side of the moon and looks almost ready to send our own kind to Mars. In comparison, making a passenger pod fly on a quad-copter does not seem to be much of a struggle now, does it?
Hopefully, you are able to see the ray of hope for flying taxis now. And just to ascertain the efforts going on towards bringing the vision to reality, here is a look at some firms in the race and what they are up to.
1. Uber Elevate
The world’s largest ride sharing platform shows strong interest in creating an aerial node-to-node network for commuters. The idea is to use vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) vehicles for transporting passengers from and to set destinations. Watch the video below to have an idea of how the concept will shape:
Among others, the company has partnered with Bell Helicopter for this, an American aerospace manufacturer headquartered in Texas. Recently at the CES 2019, Bell Helicopter showcased its Nexus, a 5-seater VTOL that is supposed to give wings to Uber’s Elevate vision. A look at its 6 massive 90-degree tilting rotors can already show you a glimpse of your future. Feel like the Jetsons yet?
A whitepaper on the concept by Uber explains why the flying taxi service makes sense. As per it, Uber says that the initial cost for commuters of the Uber Elevate will be marginally higher than the present rates of its cabs. In the long term, this cost will be even less than the present cab tariffs. Similar cost efficiency is predicted for the VTOL manufacturers.
Now get this. Uber aims to launch the service by as soon as 2023. But that is only for Dallas and Los Angeles. Other international markets will follow. The exciting part, Uber is actively evaluating a potential launch market in India too, among four other countries.
2. Audi Pop.Up Next
Audi’s ‘Pop.Up Next’ prototype is a flying taxi which combines a self-driving electric car with a passenger drone. Both the components are detachable. Meaning the passengers can travel on road in an autonomous car, to the take-off site. Once there, a drone attaches itself on top of the car and the vehicle is then carried to its destination through the air.
Check out Audi’s cool flying taxi concept here:
The concept is being pursued in collaboration with Italdesign and Airbus and is expected to be deployed within the next decade. Notice that while Uber’s concept is more of a node-to-node transport, Audi’s Pop.Up Next is a complete door-to-door transport concept, also offering the to and fro transport from the landing sites.
As seen in the video, the aerial part of the journey will be made possible by an eVTOL by Airbus, powered by a twin electric motors of 65 kW each which claim a 60 kms range, a mere 15 mins charging time and an impressive 120 kmph top speed.
On the ground, an autonomous vehicle with a range of 130 kms and a top speed of 100 kmph will be deployed. It is imagined to move to the next passenger or the charging station on its own and have other technology laden features like eye tracking, face recognition, touch and voice control and more.
Currently, Audi is conducting tests for this in Mexico City or Sao Paulo, with rides waiting for commuters who book helicopter flights from either of the sites. As the concept of flying taxis takes off, Audi wants to be ready on the ground with the complete knowledge of consumer behaviour.
3. Vertical Aerospace
Founded in 2016, the British aerospace manufacturer is already a front runner in the race to flying taxis. Vertical Aerospace is also one of Uber’s partners in creating a flying taxi network, with a job to provide the ride hailing firm with VTOLs for the purpose. For the most parts, Vertical Aerospace is right on schedule to come up with an eVTOL, as the company has already demonstrated its first ever working prototype for the same, becoming the first ever UK based company to do so.
In practicality, the concept is similar to those above. An electric VTOL will carry those who book a ride through an app from one vertiport to another. It is not as elaborate as the Audi Pop.up Next, as the transport would be limited to between vertiports and not from door to door.
It does aim to solve two crucial anomalies with the way we fly today. One, the intra-city travel, or the short hauls as some might understand, will be more easily accessible as well as economical with the company’s eVTOLs. Second, the huge amount of emissions associated with flying will be cut down, thanks to the battery powered nature of the aircraft.
4. Boeing NeXt
The American major in the aerospace vertical is making consistent efforts to power the urban air mobility. Under its Boeing NeXt initiative, the firm has to date, come up with an autonomous passenger air vehicle (PAV) as well as an electric eVTOL cargo air vehicle (CAV) for aerial transfer of cargo or other such logistics operations.
While Boeing tested out its autonomous PAV for the first time in January this year, trials for the eVTOL CAV were conducted way back in January 2018. Focusing on both the use-case scenarios will give Boeing the edge in the industry once such modern flying vehicle become mainstream.
For now, Boeing’s PAV prototype is powered electrically with a claimed range of 80 kms in a single flight. Spreading out 9.14m in length and 8.53m in width, the vehicle can carry one passenger through an electric forward propulsion mechanism. The flying prototype has been developed by Boeing’s subsidiary Aurora Flight Services within a year of it coming up with the conceptual design.
In its first demonstration at Boeing’s Manassas, Virginia facility, the PAV completed a controlled take off, hover and landing, along with tests for its autonomous functions and ground control systems. Watch how the aerial vehicle faired in its test flight.
Not surprisingly, Boeing’s eVTOL cargo air vehicle is an even more interesting concept, partly because not many makers have been focusing upon transferring cargo through the air using such electric flights for now. A part of a very niche group, Boeing’s CAV is a 339 kg electric VTOL that offers a payload capacity of 226 kgs. Once put into operation, the vehicle is supposed to bring down the sky-rocketing transportation cost for goods over the air.
Boeing was smart about how its NeXt initiative will pan out. The company considered the developments for its CAV as a “flying test bed” for its future autonomous technology applications as well as its eVTOL for passengers.
These are in no way the only players in pursuit of making the modern flying concepts a reality. Rolls Royce, Zephyr Airworks, Hoversurf, Volocopter, EVA and numerous others are also in the race, with most of them having a concept at hand to work upon for now. In fact, more than 70 makers are developing designs to cater to Uber’s upcoming air network alone.
With so many options bound to hit the aviation/transport industry soon enough, it will be interesting to see how the modern flight services pan out. But for that, there are several corresponding challenges that these players need to face. Let us go through them one by one.
Flying has never come cheap, at least till date. Now even though the concept of a flying taxi aims to cater to a minimalist model in terms of the area covered per unit, chances are, it would still cost a bomb just to be put in place.
For starters, the cost of eVTOLs mentioned above is huge, partly because currently they are in the process of development and there is no large factory production taking place to bring the cost down.
Even once the eVTOLs are in place and multiple units can be constructed within a set budget, the corresponding infrastructure will also have to be set up across cities or regions. To think of it, Uber’s ambitions in the skies might not come as easy as on the ground, which already has a set infrastructure in the form of roads to operate on. For flying taxis, you will need to build vertiports, or at least equip the existing infrastructure with the capability to be one.
The problem extends to the requirement of pilots as well. While finding drivers for a car might not be a big deal, flying taxis will require licensed pilots to operate. As such, availability of pilots has been short, since forever, to even meet the existing demand in the aviation industry.
The paramount factor, which can either make or break the world’s flying taxi dreams. Not many people have been comfortable with the idea of giant machines hovering over their heads throughout the city, including the Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, who can be considered the biggest proponent of revolutionary ideas. While Musk might have hinted at a flying Tesla in the near future, he was not very open to the idea beforehand (hence he went underground for transport solutions, with The Boring Company), an ideology that many share to date.
Having a malfunction in a vehicle on the ground is one thing. While it might cause distress in some situations, imagine what would happen if a similar incident takes place in the air. The consequences can potentially be disastrous.
– Regulatory Battles
That brings us to a corresponding struggle that the companies might have to face. Aiming for the skies literally takes things to the next level as across jurisdictions, a vehicle in the sky is not something that can be deemed fit by the road transport authorities. Such VTOLs will have to be approved by the aviation authorities of nations and since these are all newly developed vehicles, the authorities are bound to take their own sweet time for approving any of them before they take to the skies.
It doesn’t end at that. On his visit to Delhi back in 2016, Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick, in addition to sharing his views on why Uber came into existence and how he saw the company revolutionising commute across the world, he had spoken at length about the challenges that the firm had to face. To boil them down into one simple explanation, he clarified that different nations have completely different stances on such services, some completely opposite to the others. So while some countries might embrace the concept of flying taxis with ease, others might be extremely reluctant in incorporating them in their transport models.
Let us say all of the above challenges have been taken care of and a region is about to have it first nodal to nodal flying taxi service. But who exactly will be the governing body for this? The service provider and the region’s aviation authority can understandably be held accountable. But that does not clarify how the airspace management will work, more so if several players start operating within the same location. And a simple look at the history of all the players involved will tell us that not many of them are very well experienced in this.
Uber has thought of this though and that is why the company partnered with NASA to develop models to simulate its air mobility service. As per the partnership, Uber will provide NASA with its data which will then be used by the US space agency to simulate flights. The simulation will be used to gather information upon air traffic and collision mitigation which will ultimately help in air space management.
All these efforts, however, will only be fruitful if the commuters embrace the idea of flying in small pods over a city. So as an end user, how do you feel about the proposal? Are you excited with the prospect of flying to your within city destination within minutes? Or are you uncomfortable by the thought, as a passenger or as a pedestrian who will see such pods flying overhead? Let us know in the comment section below. Also, don’t forget to join our Facebook group ‘Future Transport’ to stay updated with all the latest innovations taking place in the world of transport.