Air Taxis: The future of transportation

By | March 4, 2018
Individual journeys by air – to work, to the airport, between cities – may feature in the not-too-distant future
the airbus vahana takes off
 The Airbus Vahana: all-electric VTOL.

Last month Airbus released a video of the first successful test flight of its electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) autonomous drone. Although it only hovered in the air for 53 seconds, the fact that its eight rotors were powered entirely by electricity was a landmark for the manufacturer of gas-guzzling planes. The goal is that the technology could be used for airborne travel in congested cities. “Our goal is to democratise personal flight by leveraging the latest technologies such as electric propulsion, energy storage and machine vision,” blogged Zach Lovering, Vahana project executive.

Ehang 184

the ehang 184 electric plane carries a passenger in guangzhou in february 2018
 Impressive: the Ehang 184 carrying a passenger in Guangzhou last month.

Chinese drone manufacturer Ehang is considerably more advanced than Airbus. In February it flew 40 journalists and local dignitaries on trips of up to 15km in Guangzhou, southern China, reaching top speeds of 80mph. To fly, passengers simply mark their destination on a map and the drone creates and executes a flight plan. Ehang claims the craft is robust enough to withstand thunderstorms and typhoons – in the event of problems it can be piloted remotely from a control centre.

Volocopter

the volocopter 2x on the ground at the frankfurt auto show in 2017
 Volocopter’s 2X model: capable of 30 minutes’ flight.

The German company behind this 18-rotor, two-person air taxi is backed by Daimler and recently struck a partnership deal with Intel. Their latest model, the 2X, is capable of 30 minutes of flight – designers are aiming for a full hour, which they think will be sufficient for typical shuttles across most major cities. Risk of crashing is diminished by nine battery packs – in the event of catastrophic failure a ballistic parachute will save the day. The craft are being tested in Dubai.

Uber Elevate

a mockup of the uber elevate
 A solution to the LA gridlock? Uber’s Elevate concept.

Uber is developing several air taxi concepts. Last November the taxi firm signed a deal with Nasa to develop on-demand, 200mph electric aircraft that would begin testing in gridlocked Los Angeles in 2020, with a view to having the service fully operational for the city’s 2028 Olympics. Last month it announced a project with helicopter manufacturer Bell to begin flying air taxis in Fort Worth, Texas by 2023. Back in 2016 it published a 98-page white paper analysing the technical and regulatory hurdles that would have to be overcome before taxis become airborne.

Lilium

the lilium electric vtol jet in flight
 Lilium’s electric VTOL jet: the team say speeds of 185mph will be possible.

In April 2017 this Munich-based startup demonstrated the first unmanned flight of its two-seater prototype VTOL vertical take-off and landing jet. Powered by 36 electric jet engines, rather than rotors, the craft could reach speeds of 185mph. Lilium claims the 19-mile journey from New York’s JFK airport to Manhattan would take five minutes in its air taxi compared with 55 minutes by car; it also says the fare would be around 50% less. Lilium hope to have the service operational by 2025.

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