Trapped in gridlock, drivers have been known to fly off the handle – though none has literally been able to fly off yet. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could move traffic into the third dimension, and use the open sky as our highway? What only a few years ago seemed like a crazy idea is now on the verge of becoming reality.
Around the world, companies are working on small air vehicles capable of transporting a handful of people, so-called flying
taxis. Among these is the Kitty Hawk Corporation, which enjoys strong financial backing from Google founder Larry Page. Uber is on the act, as are aircraft maker Airbus and Boeing subsidiary Aurora Flight, and Bell, too. Not that German startups such as Lilium in Munich or Volocopter in Bruchsal have been any less active: Volocopter is one of the first manufacturers to test its product under realistic conditions in Dubai, a process which has been ongoing since 2017. This year, Volocopter plans to show what it can do in Singapore, too.
The pace of technological progress has been gathering picking up in recent years, a prerequisite for making these developments possible in the first place. For example, auto pilot systems are becoming ever more perfect. Just like autonomous driving systems on the world’s roads, air -vehicles are getting smarter all the time. This reduces the requirements imposed on the skills of human pilots; the risks of air travel are becoming more manageable.
Another characteristic that all flying taxi concepts have in common is vertical takeoff. After all, few of us have a strip measuring several hundred meters in front of our homes and offices that would enable horizontal takeoffs and landings. Here, too, the innumerable small multicopters – helicopter-like drones with multiple rotors – that have been buzzing around in recent years have resulted in a wealth of valuable experience that can now be transferred to full-sized drones.
presumably, it will be a while before flying taxis truly come into their own
Weight matters, too. Using robust, lightweight materials like fiberglass can reduce the mass of small aircraft. And the lighter a flying taxi is, the less energy it requires to take off. Since all flying taxis feature an electric motor, this has been a sticking point when it comes to making further progress.
The biggest challenge facing R&D teams: the storage density of the batteries really isn’t large enough to enable econo-mically viable operation of these tiny aircraft. According to a study by the consultancy Roland Berger, energy density in this case has to be at least 500 kilowatt hours (kWh) per kilogram. By way of comparison, the battery of a Tesla currently manages 250 to 350 kWh. This means that the range of the current battery generation is still very limited. The Volocopter 2X, for example, needs a recharge after flying just 27 kilometers. This is enough for pilot pro-jects like the one in Dubai. Presumably, it will be a while before flying taxis truly come into their own. So, it looks like we’ll have to wait a few years before hailing a taxi on the roof of the station rather than out on the street in front.