FRANCESCO RODELLA | Tungsteno
In just a few decades, the fact that every day bulky aircraft travel thousands of kilometres above our heads, flying from one city to another, has become absolutely normal. Will we also soon get used to the idea of air travel being a common way for passengers to move about within our cities themselves?
The first demonstration flight of a prototype autonomous air taxi over the skies of Stuttgart was completed this month. The flying taxi sector is booming at the moment: pilot projects, advances in research, and the development of new regulations will mean the touchdown of this technology in the real world can take place in just a few years, according to some specialised companies.
Drone of drones
Two months ago, the private research centre Tecnalia unveiled what is considered to be the first prototype of a pilotless flying taxi made in Spain. It is an electric model, designed to transport one person, but scalable to accommodate up to four, which can cover urban distances of up to 15 kilometres and whose dimensions would allow it to take off and land in the space occupied by a car park. It is "a drone of drones" able to maintain high standards of stability and safety for passengers, explained its makers.
For Agustín Sáenz, deputy market manager at Tecnalia, the prototype shows that this "new generation" of urban transport "is not as science fiction as it seems." In his opinion, the growth of the sector is mainly due to the need to respond to some current problems: in particular, the growing congestion of cities and the traffic that circulates in them, as well as the environmental impact of the aeronautical sector (the European Environment Agency points to air transport as the most polluting).
This is why the number of companies involved in the development of air taxis has been growing in recent years. Among them are found aeronautical giants like Boeing and Airbus, but also some unicorns of shared mobility such as Uber, or start-ups like Lilium, without forgetting Asian companies such as EHang.
This prototype of autonomous air taxi would allow to cover the transportation needs of the urban center of 85% of all the cities in the world. Credit: Tecnalia.
Challenges for the sector
Most firms are looking to create electric aircraft that are more sustainable and able to take off and land vertically, to increase their ability to move in tight spaces (EVTOL is often the acronym for electric vertical take-off and landing). There are those that aspire to travel autonomously. And some companies are already at work to bring the operational phase a little closer with tests and demonstrations.
Uber, for example, recently wanted to show where its future plans lie by launching, last July 9, a service that provides the company's most loyal users with the option to travel between Wall Street and JFK International Airport (New York) in a piloted helicopter. Users can take this route from Monday to Friday in peak hours in the afternoon for a price of around 200-220 dollars, according to U.S. media, not much more than the price of a similar service offered by competitor Blade, one of the companies already operating in this sector in some cities.
A NBC journalist who tested the route with the so-called UberCopter, which also integrates travelling by car to the heliport on Wall Street, and to reach the terminal after landing, took a total of 52 minutes, about 15 less (and $213.07 more) than a colleague of his needed on public transport.
At the moment, it seems that the actual time saved by escaping the congested traffic of the metropolis by air is still not very considerable compared to the price involved. But the company is committed to its plans and considers this service (which it already tested in a similar way three years ago in a month-long pilot study in São Paulo) as only a first stage. It already has plans to test EVTOL vehicles developed by different companies starting next year in Los Angeles, Dallas and Melbourne (Australia), and it intends to launch a commercial service in 2023.
The German aeronautical manufacturer Volocopter has managed to complete the first public test flight of an air taxi in Europe this September. Credit: Volocopter.
An increasingly congested sky
Not everyone is convinced that the projects are already so mature. "It's difficult to make forecasts," says Aníbal Ollero, a lecturer at the University of Seville. NASA, for example, believes there will be a viable market for delivery drones and airborne metro (transport between two previously determined points) by 2030, but considers that flying taxis capable of providing door-to-door service will only be able to operate in limited environments. "There are also more optimistic visions," contrasts Ollero.
The expert maintains that in the future we will be able to imagine urban air mobility as an integration of "personal urban aviation," autonomous vehicles such as delivery drones and also air taxis, all of them, in turn, "integrated with surface transport."
For such a scenario to materialise, however, it is necessary to overcome challenges in terms of safety and reliability of traffic management systems, as well as develop appropriate regulations (authorities such as the European Aviation Safety Agency are already working on this), employ specialised professionals and come up with appropriate certification (with the consequent high costs), he adds.
Among the aspects that need to be studied in depth, Ollero highlights "the safe and reliable detection and avoidance of obstacles, navigation using environmental perception sensors in places where there is no satellite positioning, and the dynamic planning of flight paths." The evolution of battery technology, cybersecurity issues and the behaviour of air taxis in emergency situations must also be considered, he points out. "How and where do they land if required?" he asks.
Other potential wrinkles may relate to noise (companies like Uber promise EVTOLs will be silent), the need for suitable infrastructure, and affordability. Ollero believes that these will depend "on technological evolution and public perception." There are those such as Agustín Saénz who point to a generalised service: "The idea is that in time it doesn’t cost more than a taxi service, in the order of thirty or forty euros."
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Tungsteno is a journalism laboratory to scan the essence of innovation. Devised by Materia Publicaciones Científicas for Sacyr’s blog.