The age of the air taxi
As recently as the beginning of 2018, the mere mention of air taxis could turn you into a laughing stock. That’s what happened to CSU Minister of State Dorothee Bär, who was mocked and derided online after a TV appearance. Even then, a quick Google would have told you that what might at first look like science fiction, is actually about to become reality.
If you can afford it, you might already be escaping the thick air and congestion of the world’s inner cities via helicopter. And soon, taking to the skies may also be an option for the average consumer. That, at least, is what is being promised by air taxi services, which are planning to start operations as soon as the beginning of the next decade.
Test operations are set to begin in cities like Dubai, Los Angeles, Dallas, and Singapore as early as 2020. Experts estimate that commercial operation will begin from 2023. There will still be pilots on board during that initial stage, but there could be drones flying autonomously over the rooftops of metropolises by 2025, controlled in groups by personnel on the ground. A study by management consultancy Roland Berger predicts that there will be around 3,000 air taxis in operation by then. By 2030 their number should rise to 12,000, and then again to just under 100,000 flying taxis by 2050 at the latest – and not just in the US and Southeast Asia, either, but also in large and medium-sized German cities. In areas such as the Ruhr, the Rhine/Main region, or within the triangle of Munich, Augsburg, and Ingolstadt, these vehicles could considerably speed up both long and short-distance journeys. Air taxis are set to save time compared to today’s means of transport, even on journeys as short as 10 kilometers. They will have a maximum range of about 300 kilometers.
It is still largely unclear who will be responsible for controlling the air taxis on a long-term basis. There are plenty of organizations currently working on technical and organizational concepts, including car manufacturers such as Daimler, driving services such as Uber, aircraft manufacturers like Airbus, and various start-ups, but also cities and municipalities. Technology companies, such as Bosch, are also working on air taxis. The Stuttgart-based company has used its car construction expertise to develop a sensor box that measures the air taxi’s acceleration, altitude, speed, and position, and helps to keep the vehicle in the air. Developments like these show why air taxi prototypes are being developed so rapidly these days. After all, the technology transferred from modern cars is considerably cheaper than the aviation technology used for constructing traditional helicopters. For these air taxis, which operate at a moderate height and under temperate conditions, that kind of technology would not only be expensive, but also completely disproportionate to the vehicle’s capacity. Transferring technology from cars, however, puts the estimated cost of a complete drone at just EUR 400,000 to EUR 600,000. That’s about as much as a tour bus.
The drones are powered by electricity, usually by means of four propellers. These quadrocopters might also look familiar from the toy market. Alternatively, or additionally, there are multicopters or designs with wings for intermittent gliding flight. The required energy is supplied by batteries based on those in electric cars. The booking and payment system could also be adopted from the automotive business. It’s no coincidence that Uber is among the major contributors to these developments.
While the technology for these aircrafts is already very advanced, it still falls short in other areas. In addition to technical issues, it is yet to be clarified where the drones will be able to take off and land. As well as high rooftops, another possible option is the upper levels of multilevel parking garages. These spaces must not only provide enough space for the aircraft itself, but also for passenger waiting areas and facilities to recharge or change batteries. Fuel company Aral recently presented a design for the gas station of the future, featuring the complete infrastructure required for drones.
It is still unclear how customers will actually use these air taxi services. Will there be specific routes, as for bus and tram networks? Or will the passengers select the time and place themselves, like with a taxi cab? These options could also work side by side. When it comes to mobility costs, the idea is for drones to be able to compete with current public transport options. Nonetheless, companies will probably be allowed to add a premium for the congestion- and smog-free transport service.
This article was first published in German by next-mobility.news.