The air taxi is waiting for passengers on the ground, and if it is finally given permission to take off, it could redefine urban passenger transport in a way that we will no longer recognise. The technology deserves attention: start-ups for ever more efficient vehicles are proliferating, and a new NASA programme has already demonstrated their viability.
Industry Today’s summary of this issue reminds us that the conquest of UAMs is foreshadowed by extraordinary economic events, from the meteoric success of SPAC to the acquisition of factories such as Elevate, which was an air taxi division of Uber but is now being taken over by its new owner, Joby Aviation. Companies have started thinking about public transport – and not just hobby vehicles – because the latter company’s eVTOL is already being tested by NASA. Joby has made history by becoming the first air taxi to be seriously pursued by the agency under the National Advanced Air Transport (AAM) Programme. The campaign to validate the new devices for domestic transport will really heat up next year, when, after efficiency and acoustic tests, they will be put through more extensive trials involving even more prototypes.
It seems quite likely that by the end of the decade there will be manufacturers with drone-like vehicles for urban passenger and freight transport on the market. Of course, they will all be electrically powered, with a range of about 160 kilometres and a top speed of up to 320 km/h.
The convincing-looking Joby will be an air taxi with six or more piston engines. The eVTOL will be designed for quiet, emission-free travel, carrying 1-2 passengers or the equivalent weight of goods. Of course, they are not the only ones competing in this field: the VoloCity with 17 pusher engines (which its manufacturer plans to launch in Paris and Singapore within three years), the eHang, a self-driving air taxi, and the Airflow winged aircraft (eCTOL) and the Electra, designed for short take-off (eSTOL), look promising.
It is worth noting that the air taxis of the (near) future are unlikely to come to our doorstep, as they cannot be flown from rooftop to rooftop or car park to car park. To ensure their stable and safe operation, they will need to be equipped with so-called ‘vertiports’. These will initially be deployed in suburban areas and will serve air taxis to and from nearby airports. Their deployment will be simpler than their authorisation, as the authorities will have to create new rules for them.
It won’t be easy to get self-driving technology accepted, but until we get to autonomous flight, there is a golden mean, the unmanned aircraft – remotely piloted by trained people, certainly on fixed air corridors.
The USA is the closest to introducing air taxis, where the authorities are already preparing to authorise them (see NASA’s AAM programme, which is helping to develop protocols). Experts expect all the administrative issues to be resolved by 2030 or so, as well as the integration of the vehicles into existing air traffic control systems. Once this happens, UAM will be a fast-growing industry, projected to be worth one trillion dollars by 2040 and nine trillion dollars by 2050.