Air Taxi VTOL aircraft create new possibilities for air transport
Flying cars have become a reality, changing air transport as we know it forever. It’s a highly innovative space with companies obtaining significant levels of funding, with interest from mobility stalwarts like Toyota and Daimler. There’s a range of aircraft in production and while regulations and infrastructure are still being put into place, we can expect the opportunity to travel within the next five years.
For decades humans have been fascinated by the notion of flying cars, with entertainment such as The Jetsons, Back to the Future, Bladerunner and of course James Bond creating a fictionalised version of vehicles that can travel seamlessly on land and in the sky.
Today, flying cars are very much a reality. Strictly, they fall under the category of vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft, meaning they can hover, take off and land vertically. It's a highly competitive space with an extensive list of airframe manufacturers and associated industries.
As an industry, VTOL aircraft aim to speed up the time it takes to travel between cities by effectively leapfrogging road traffic. While it's easy to imagine them as mere playthings of the rich, the industry aims to offer flights that are faster than taxis but at a comparable price. The technology differs according to brands (many of whom operate primarily in stealth mode), but there's a lot we know so far about what's on offer. Let's take a look:
Aeromobil has created what most of us traditionally envision when we think of a flying taxi - personal aerial vehicles (PAVs) designed for door to door travel in intra and inter-urban environments. AeroMobil is focused on developing vehicles for short takeoff and landing (STOL) and VTOL aircraft. This includes electric propulsion systems, battery technology and control systems for piloted and autonomous flight for transportation on the ground and in the air to support short and long range personal air travel with eVTOLs. Based in Slovakia, the company took their first flight in 2014, and As of 2017, the company had raised a modest €9M. The company is currently seeking airworthiness approval for its AeroMobil 4.0 VTOL from the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and have plans for 5.0 (an autonomous car meets aircraft) firmly in their future.
Germany company Volocopter is developing the first fully electric eVTOL aircraft, the Volocopter VoloCity with nine rechargeable batteries powering 18 motors. The air taxis can be supplied with a newly maintained and charged battery shortly after landing and are ready for takeoff again in a matter of minutes. They can fly a range of 22 miles (35km) and a speed of 22 miles (35km).
They've performed over 1000 test flights since 2011 and have over 118m in funding with investors including Daimler, Geely, DB Schenker and TransLink Capital (Japan Airlines and Sompo Japan Insurance). They are the first eVTOL company to receive Design Organisation Approval by the European Aviation Safety Authority and expect the first commercial routes to be opened within the next two to four years. The current Volocopter is manned and designed for one passenger and hand luggage.
Lilium was founded in 2015 in Munich, and they've created the Lilium jet. the world's first five-seater, all-electric, vertical takeoff and landing jet. The human-crewed emissions-free aircraft can complete journeys of up to 300 km in one hour on a single charge (far above its competitors), and has been flown at speeds exceeding 100 km/h, in increasingly complex manoeuvres. It's two sets of wings enable higher levels of efficiency than in aircraft lifted solely by rotors. Two sets of wings contributing to much higher levels of efficiency than in aircraft lifted solely by rotors.
This week it was reported that Tesla's second-largest shareholder has invested $35 million in Lilium, bringing funding to date to more than $375 million.
Kitty Hawk is perhaps one of the strangest iterations of flying vehicles. With a mere $1m in funding, It launched in 2015 with an aircraft called Flyer and the promise it would be so easy to operate a pilot's license was not needed, the company asserting that people would be able to learn to fly in just minutes. The company shared last week that they were winding down the Flyer:
In the previous five years, we did just this. We built and flew 111 aircraft. More than 75 people flew Flyer. We proved to ourselves that people could safely operate Flyer — and become a pilot — with less than two hours of training. On a single day, we trained 50 new novice Flyer pilots, none of whom were licensed. Overall, we conducted more than 25,000 successful flights crewed and uncrewed with our Flyer fleet — a huge number. And most importantly, those who flew Flyer thought the experience was "magical." The feeling of being inside a human drone is hard to describe. For those of us who flew it, it has changed our perspective on the power of flying forever.
Californian based Joby Aviation was founded in 2009 and has largely operated in stealth. What we do know is that they've created a full-sized five seat aircraft with six tilting rotors and V-shaped double tail. According to Joby, it flies at up to 200 mph (322 km/h) in near-total silence and offers over 150 miles (240 km) of range per charge on current-gen batteries.
They have 721m in funding including a $394 million investment by Toyota Motor Corp. “Air transportation has been a long-term goal for Toyota, and while we continue our work in the automobile business, this agreement sets our sights to the sky,” said Toyota Motor Corporation President and CEO Akio Toyoda.
Uber is building the future of aerial ridesharing with its current Ubercopter platform between Manhattan and JFK airport enabling you to hail a helicopter by app. Uber Elevate, takes this a step further, creating a network of Skyports to support an urban VTOL network.
It makes use of repurposed decks of parking garages, existing helipads, and even unused land surrounding highway interchanges that will together create the basis of an extensive, distributed network of Skyports. Uber Air is working in partnerships with a range of aircraft partners with an aimed launch in 2023 from one of more of Dallas, Los Angeles, and Melbourne, Australia.
We're so close but not quite there
As a new form of transportation, VTOL aircraft has been grappling with a range of challenges from battery strength and duration to wind force and the noise of aircraft in flight. Besides the obvious rigorous testing and approval by aviation regulators, they also need the requisite on-ground infrastructure in place. R&D and testing are expensive pursuits and it's likely some companies will run out of money. Factors such as privacy (such as an ability to see into windows and backyards while in flight), airspace management, and affordability will persist to be pain points for the first commercial iterations.
But the potential of VTOL aircraft as part of Mobility-as-a-service (aMaaS) will vastly change the world of travel and pave the way for even more monumental innovation.