Are electric air taxis ready to take off? Maybe sooner than you think
Imagine you are about to order an Uber to the airport, but there is terrible traffic. Instead, you click « air taxi » on your smartphone and walk a few blocks to a parking lot. You go up to the roof, where an airplane that looks like a giant drone picks you up.
Within minutes, it drops you and a handful of other passengers at the airport to catch your flight.
That’s the potential for eVTOLs, or electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft – and the aviation industry says it won’t be long before they take off commercially.
These battery-powered planes will transport cargo and passengers between the city, suburbs and airports, said Jon Rimanelli, CEO of Airspace Experience Technologies.
His Detroit-based company is one of dozens building eVTOLs, a technology that is gaining increasing attention as reducing greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels becomes a global priority. .
« Traffic is a big deal, isn’t it? It not only takes up our time and anxiety, it creates carbon emissions…it harms our environment, » he says. « We have to do something different. »
Air taxis still have a limited range due to their battery capacity, but some can cover a distance of around 250 kilometers. They usually take off and land anywhere a helicopter can, so they don’t need a runway, and many are pilot-optional and can be flown remotely. They also make little noise when moving.
Rimanelli hopes it won’t take much to win over the public.
« Once people see the use of it, once they get a chance to experience it because it’s super quiet… It’s just a huge difference between commercial grade helicopters that we all know today. »
Rimanelli predicts that some eVTOLs will first be used for deliveries, before actually carrying passengers. Its prototype, which was on display at this year’s Detroit Auto Show, is designed with a pod that can transport goods or people.
« We’re more flexible. We can plug and play different containers to do different jobs, whether it’s medical evacuation, cargo, or passenger mobility, » he says.
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Make big bets
The aviation industry is betting millions of dollars that air taxis will play an important role in the future of transportation.
In recent months, the American airline United Airlines has ordered 200 air taxis from Eve Air Mobility and another 100 from Archer Aviation. American Airlines had a deal for 250 with Vertical Aerospace. Last year, Canadian helicopter operator Helijet signed an agreement with Blade Air Mobility. The partnership gives Blade the rights to Helijet routes and infrastructure, and Helijet access to Blade’s air taxis.
Automakers are also showing interest in the eVTOL space, which has significant overlaps with electric vehicles. They are already investing money in the development of batteries for electric vehicles. Hyundai, GM and Volkswagen are all working on developing their own air taxi prototypes. Automakers can also offer air taxi manufacturers their manufacturing expertise. Daimler has partnered with Volocopter, while Joby Aviation counts Toyota as a major investor.
Analysts say the opportunity is there: consulting firm McKinsey predicts that by 2030, air taxis could be a multi-billion dollar market. But the costs will have to come down for wider adoption; some eVTOLS still cost over $1 million.
Competition is fierce between hundreds of startups and not all companies will survive. Just this week, Kittyhawk, an air taxi maker backed by Google co-founder and billionaire Larry Page, announced on Twitter that it would be winding down operations.
New regulations on the drawing board
Although the technology is maturing rapidly, there is still a lot of work to be done on the regulatory side.
« There’s going to have to be some form of air traffic control and pilot certifications and operational requirements, » says aerospace consultant Nigel Waterhouse.
Regulators around the world are evaluating new machines. With plans to fly low in urban areas, there are significant safety concerns. European Union officials recently released what they called the world’s first rules for operating air taxis. The US Federal Aviation Administration is working on certifying several eVTOL companies, with some hoping to have paying customers as early as 2024.
Waterhouse says it could be slow. “These companies that are developing these planes are quite ahead of the curve and the FAA is trying to catch up, but they are trying to be more flexible in applying the rules,” he says.
Meanwhile, Transport Canada told CBC News that while it currently has no standards, it will ‘review and update its regulatory framework as necessary to ensure its high standard of safety is maintained’. .
Manufacturers like Rimanelli insist their designs are safer than helicopters.
« Because it’s electric, it’s a simple machine, » he says. « Fewer failure modes, fewer parts. So that’s one of the main benefits of a system like this, it’s inherently more reliable. »
But it’s not just regulators who need convincing, Waterhouse says. “It will be an exercise for operators to sell the idea to the public and make them feel safe on these planes…So it can be quite a steep curve.”
If you build it they will come
Cities and suburbs will also need infrastructure to support air taxis, if this new type of mobility is to take off. Some startups are tackling this challenge with terminal building projects called vertiports. Vertiports would offer air taxis a place to take off and land, and recharge their batteries.
Montreal-based VPorts hopes to build and operate a network of 1,500 vertiports for commercial freight transportation over the next two decades, starting with a corridor between Canada and the United States, CEO Fethi Chebil said. « Freight is a very important business and we believe that by having this corridor we will reduce the cost of transporting goods between the two countries by 10%, » Chebil said.
Chebil says eVTOL test flights are planned for the corridor next year. Asked about passenger transport times, he says the technology needs to evolve but « when you and I fly in a few years, we will be able to fly safely. You will be surprised. »
With files from Shawn Benjamin