The air taxi could become a viable mode of urban transportation in the future, taking cars off the road, saving time, and obliterating urban boundaries. The new flying car donning the looks of a helicopter-drone hybrid will initially cruise at a speed of 180 mph, with the ability to seat few passengers, including a pilot. It would be equipped with multiple rotors, increasing safety in the case of any individual rotor failure, and a parachute system for emergencies.
The aircraft would take off vertically, transition to wing-borne lift in cruise, and then transition back to vertical flight to land. Many tilt-rotors on the tail and several other rotors distributed around the egg-shaped cabin would facilitate vertical take-off and landing, which would be quieter than helicopters with combustion engines.
With rotor-powered flight eliminating the need for a runway, and smaller, electric-powered rotors producing less noise than a combustion engine helicopter, aerial vehicles could perform short flights over or between cities.
Several companies are working in the air taxi domain, including start-ups, drone makers, ride-hailing companies, aircraft manufacturers such as Boeing, Airbus, Bell, Embraer, Joby Aviation, and automakers such as Hyundai, Toyota, and Porsche. Lilium, one of the most promising start-ups in the field, hopes to ferry passengers between Manhattan and Kennedy International Airport in its fleet of aerial vehicles within five years.
How the concept of smaller aircraft took off
In 1996, the General Aviation Propulsion (GAP) program was initiated by NASA to encourage and advance the US light-aircraft industry. The program aimed at developing more affordable propulsion systems, mainly engines. Williams International teamed up with NASA to develop the FJX-2 turbofan engine. This smallest commercial engine, weighing less than 45.4 kg (100 lbs), paved the way for the development of a new class of lightweight aircraft.
In 1998, Williams International’s president and founder, Dr. Sam Williams, joined with entrepreneur Vern Raburn to form the Eclipse Aviation Corporation that went on to develop the very light jet (VLJ) called Eclipse 500 jet aircraft in 2005.
In 2001, NASA and the aerospace industry came together to harness the potential of light-jet aircraft manufacturing. It led to the birth of the Small Aircraft Transportation System (SATS) under which air taxis could make a quick, no-hassles plane ride, dispensing with the need for spending long, agonizing hours on the highway.
Subsequently, partnering with the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Consortium for Aviation Mobility (NCAM), NASA set up the Advanced General Aviation Transport Experiment (AGATE) program. AGATE aimed to evolve the technology needed to support the air taxi concept by enabling safe and affordable access to almost any runway in the United States.
The air taxi segment has picked up the momentum since 2016, as part of the burgeoning field of personal air vehicles such as passenger drones.
Air taxi operations are governed in the US by Part 135 of the Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR). Canada regulates air taxi operations under Canadian Aviation Regulation 703. Both commercial single-engined aircraft and multi-engined helicopters flown by day visual flight rules by one pilot as also all multi-engined, non-turbo-jet aircraft with a maximum take-off weight 8,618 kg are covered under this regulation.
Hyundai and Uber join hands for aerial ride-share network
Significantly, Hyundai has partnered with Uber to design a concept for a future air-taxi service offering a small commercial aircraft for short flights on demand. The concept is called Urban Air Mobility (UAM), wherein small, electric passenger vehicles would make use of the airspace above cities. In the UAM concept, the vehicles would be piloted in the early stages of commercialization, but they could eventually travel autonomously, like personal drones. The concept builds further on the emerging technology of eVTOL (Electric Vertical Take-off and Landing).
At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) held in Las Vegas in January 2020, the two companies announced that they were joining forces to develop an all-electric air taxi that would be part of a future “aerial ride-share network.” Hyundai would help produce and deploy the aircraft while Uber would provide airspace support, ground operations, and, of course, the app through which customers can book flights.
Hyundai’s concept car S-A1 is designed for cruising 1,000 to 2,000 feet above the ground, taking trips up to 60 miles with four passengers and a pilot on board.
The Korean manufacturer plans to build a ground-based infrastructure to support a flying-taxi service. The concept includes a “hub” structure with a landing pad on top, and an adaptive minibus called the “purpose-built vehicle” (PBV). These PPVs could be customized to serve different functions such as a coffee shop and a medical clinic. They would be used for ground transportation to and from the station as they ferry passengers from their pick-up point to the hub for take-off. Resembling a beige rectangle and utilizing AI to find optimal routes and travel in platoons, PBVs are built from lightweight carbon composite materials. They feature a technology-laden interior for the entertainment and comfort of passengers.
Hyundai proposes to blend its manufacturing expertise with Uber’s technology platform to launch a vibrant air taxi network in the coming years under Uber Elevate, the company’s aerial ride-hailing division. While Amazon’s drone delivery program may take years to materialize, you could likely be hailing an Uber Elevate to the club next time you’re in a city like Miami or New York.
Uber is one of the companies leading the eVTOL charge and has presented several aerial vehicle concepts for the past few years. In addition to Hyundai, its partners include the Boeing subsidiary Aurora Flight Sciences, Embraer, Joby Aviation, Jaunt, Pipistrel, Karem Aircraft, and several real estate companies. Earlier, it collaborated with NASA and Bell Helicopter too. Uber has inked deals with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to evolve ideas related to the infrastructure and technology of a crewless aerial network.
In fact, Uber has long been teasing the idea for a flying rideshare car that may come into fruition sooner than you may think. After investing heavily in the development of a flying taxi that can easily and safely transport people from one place to another, the company plans to launch an urban air taxi system by the mid-2020s, starting in Dallas, Texas, and Los Angeles, California. Uber will offer aerial rides in New York from lower Manhattan to John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Uber sees the partnership with Hyundai as an opportunity to draw on the automaker’s mass manufacturing capabilities to create a service that is both affordable and accessible. And, Hyundai would like to position itself as a “smart mobility solution provider” and not just a carmaker.
Advantages of Air Taxi
Air taxi service offers several distinct advantages, some of which include:
- Less load on major airports
- Less traffic jams on highways
- Providing travelers flexibility in travel schedules
- Newer departure and arrival points
- Reduced costs in smaller airlines operations
Among its other advantages, air taxis could provide an economic boom by increasing the number of people heading for recreation and tourism destinations that are not near major airports.
Concerns and challenges
While the air taxi system has been gradually evolving, many challenges are confronting it. While UAM is the latest in a long line of “flying car” concepts, eVTOL technology is still in its infancy, with only a few companies like Boeing and Lilium having tested a prototype.
The players in the air taxi field face enormous regulatory and technical challenges in getting their respective services off the ground. There are dozens of hurdles that these companies must overcome on the long road to regulatory approval. As per a Morgan Stanley report, air taxis will probably be used first in package delivery, which has fewer technical and regulatory barriers.
Building an air taxi that is quiet, safe, and economical will mean overcoming several engineering and technical hurdles. On the one hand, battery technology is limited, and on the other, the cost of operation and maintenance needs to be low enough to make rides commercially viable.
Though air taxi fares may come down as the system matures and expands, they will initially cost significantly more than traditional air travel. In the inception phase, air taxis may attract mainly business travelers and others who do not mind paying the extra expense to save their time.
Safety of operations is another concern likely to bother air taxi travelers. They will also worry about the capability of landing hubs or local airports to handle the fleet of smaller aircraft. The latest computer and electronic technology can help manufacturers increase the safety and reliability of their planes. They also need to utilize advances in navigation and air traffic control for the smooth operations of light aerial vehicles.
Air taxi service may begin on a small scale in the next few years, but it will take many more years for travel by air taxi to go from being a novel choice to common practice. Another bottleneck is the lack of synergy between technological advances for small-airport infrastructures with the development of light aircraft.
However, analysts expect urban air taxis — electric-powered, minimal noise, with vertical take-off and landing capabilities — to be common by 2040, with the global market expected to be between $1.4 trillion and $2.9 trillion in size by then. So, be open to avail air taxis that will allow you to travel faster and more conveniently than ever before.