Revolution in urban mobility: Take off aboard an air taxi

Self-navigating flying devices are considered a feasible transport concept for the future. The world’s first ever test operation with autonomous air taxis has been launched in Dubai.

Traffic jams and the constant chorus of beeping horns, missed connections and overcrowded trains – this is all part of everyday life in many cities. Densely populated urban areas continue to grow each year and are pushing our transport systems to their limits. Until recently the thought of leaving behind congested roads aboard flying cars, and all the stress and strain that goes with it, was merely the realm of science fiction. In the meantime, thanks to the emergence of mature technologies of this very nature, self-navigating flying devices are now considered a feasible transport concept for the future.

The world’s first ever test operation with autonomous air taxis has been launched in Dubai. The emirate’s public transport authority has selected the Bruchsal-based company, Volocopter, for the five-year test phase. The flying device developed by this start-up has vertical take-off and landing capability, is electrically powered, and is therefore quiet and environmentally friendly. The flying car can hold two passengers and features 18 small rotors arranged in a circle. The emirate now wants to create the necessary foundations for the operation: Certification guidelines, safety standards, as well as defining flight paths, lift-off and landing points, as outlined in an official government memo. “This stage reflects our goal of switching one quarter of traffic in Dubai to autonomous transport by the year 2030,” explains authority director, Mattar al-Tayer.

Financial assistance in the millions for start-ups

Investors see great potential in the market. In the summer of 2017, Volocopter received a financial injection of over €25 million, from, among others, Stuttgart-based car company, Daimler. However, Volocopter is not the only company active in this future market. Lilium, a Munich-based start-up, has recently been backed with €77 million in financial assistance. The egg-shaped jet enjoyed its maiden voyage in April of this year. Unlike the Volocopter, the Lilium jet has four wings with a total of 36 engines. These electric motors can be tilted to a vertical or horizontal position for vertical take-off or acceleration forward. The lift required to remain in the air is generated by the wings, just like in a conventional aircraft. In the future, the flying taxi will be available to order from the nearest collection station using an app and is expected to be no more expensive per kilometer than a traditional taxi on wheels.

Vertical take-off craft: According to the specifications of the Munich-based start-up, the Lilium jet should have a range of 300 kilometers and is capable of a top speed of 300 km/h.

Developers all over the world are tinkering about with flying cars. This includes the transport service company, Uber, as well as Google founder, Larry Page, Volvo’s Chinese parent company, Geely, and Carplane in Braunschweig with their aircraft which can also drive on the road. Strategy consulting firm, Roland Berger, is convinced that these types of partially or fully electric-powered flying devices will soon become commonplace. “Air travel will change dramatically in the next few decades,” explains Manfred Hader from Roland Berger. In a new study, experts looked at 70 projects for electric aircraft engines and determined that start-ups and independent developers are the main innovators in this field. Large aircraft manufacturers were only involved in 18% of the projects. The complex development of powerful batteries, light engines and energy-efficient designs, for example, are just some of the reasons for this.

Optimal transport – on the ground and in the air

Airbus therefore appears to be an exception to the rule. The aircraft manufacturer is currently working on several projects relating to electric mobility in urban airspace: One of which is CityAirbus: a vertical take-off and landing electric flying device with eight rotors (120 km/h) for up to four people, and Vahana, which can transport individual persons and cargo. Both flying devices fly autonomously. Airbus wants to test Vahana in flight already before 2017 is out; the first flight tests for CityAirbus are planned for 2018.

At the Geneva Motor Show in March 2017, Airbus also presented the combined ground-air vehicle Pop.Up together with the design and engineering company, Italdesign. Pop.Up was previously just a concept car whose technologies had yet to fully mature. The idea: Passengers book a route using an app and automatically receive the optimal transport combination by road and by air. Once passengers reach their destination, the air and ground modules autonomously return to the electric charging stations with the passenger capsule.

Innovative mobility concept: Pop.Up by Airbus is a hybrid of car and multicopter. The passenger capsule can connect either to a ground module with wheels or an air module with rotors.

Text by Gesine Oltmanns
Pictures: Volocopter, Lilium, Airbus/Daniel Fortmann