Up in the Air: Are Flying Taxis the Future of Mass Transit?
The growth of cities, increased density of their population and the transportation issues that result from it are making car manufacturers look to the sky for solutions. The first prototypes of flying taxis, as well as personal or public transportation are already being made. ITMO.NEWS takes a look at the existing models and asks experts: how realistic are these projects?
Air taxis of today
Several large companies and startups are currently developing VTOL (Vertical Take-Off and Landing) vehicles. These flying machines are expected to provide short-distance transportation to passengers.
In 2016, Uber had described the company’s vision of future air transportation, making an emphasis on the speed of travel. “Imagine reducing your 90-plus minute stop-and-go office commute to a mere six minutes!” – teases Uber’s press release. Surely, such prospects would please any city dweller!
For instance, the average citizen of San Francisco spends approximately 230 hours a year on their commute from home to work and back. That’s nearly 10 full days! This kind of time-waste also has a negative effect on health – including the function of the cardiovascular system and the citizens’ stress levels.
Specialists at Uber believe that the use of air taxis will reduce the traffic loads in cities – after all, landing pads can be built on top of parking lots, buildings, shopping malls, etc. But will it really help relieve the traffic situation – after all, air taxis are bound to be costly? Uber, however, believes that, with the development of infrastructure and increasing praise from users, air taxis will gradually become cheaper and more affordable.
In late September, the German company Volocopter had tested its VTOL vehicle in Dubai with support of the local transport authorities. The machine had spent five minutes in flight over a beach. It can boast a ring frame with 18 props located above the fuselage. The flying taxi can carry up to 160 kilograms of cargo and spend 27 minutes in the air at the average speed of 70 km/h (44 mph). The vehicle uses electric power and takes no more than two hours to reach a full charge – although a fast charge option (40 minutes) is available. According to the company’s press release, by 2030 automated air transport will make up 25% of the city’s traffic activity. Volocopter 2X can be automated, remotely controlled or driven by an actual pilot. The vehicle is also equipped with a parachute, although the developers say that it is highly unlikely that anyone will ever need to use it.
Their competitor from China, the company Ehang, is also testing a similar vehicle. The EHang 184 is a quadcopter that has 2 electric engines at the end of each of the four “arms”. The vehicle can transport up to 120 kilograms of cargo, remain in the air for 25 minutes and achieve speeds of up to 100 km/h (62 mph), with an altitude ceiling of three kilometers. The single-seat machine can be remotely controlled or automated.
The plane manufacturer Airbus is, too, keeping up with the trends and is developing the CityAirbus project, estimated to be completed by 2023. The automated vehicle can carry up to 4 passengers. Using 8 fixed-pitch props, it can stay in the air for up to 15 minutes and reach speeds of up to 120 km/h (76 mph). A small-scale prototype has already been tested and a full-size demonstration is slated for late 2018. At first, these will be remotely controlled and then tested with an actual pilot. In the future, pilots will remain present in CityAirbus to make the certification process easier and help passengers feel safer.
The Israeli company Eviation offers a radically different solution: their project Alice Commuter is a small airplane for 9 passengers and 2 crew members, fully powered by electrical power and capable of travelling 1,000 kilometers on a single charge at a speed of 450 km/h (280 mph). The vehicle can operate autonomously as well. With a wingspan of 13.5 meters and fuselage length of 12 meters, the small vehicle is intended to serve as a “cityhopper” that can travel between closely located major cities.
Air taxis are being developed in Russia, too. The Skolkovo startup Bartini has showcased a virtual prototype of a flying electric car. The company is currently seeking funding to produce a working prototype; in addition to four-seater cars, the company also plans a two-seater version. The first full-size prototype is expected to be complete by the end of next year.
Another Skolkovo resident, the company Hoversurf has developed a working hoverbike. Scorpion 3, a cargo quadcopter equipped to carry a human pilot, can already be ordered for $59,900. The vehicle can stay up in the air for up to 20 minutes and reach a speed of 70 km/h (43 mph).
Issues with VTOL
Experts have pointed out several technical issues that hinder the development and adoption of VTOL technology into everyday life. Alexander Kapitonov, assistant researcher at ITMO’s Department of Computer Science and Control Systems, has commented on several of these issues.
Issue 1: Vertical take-off and landing
This one shouldn’t really be a challenge. What matters is that the center of mass is located below the prop’s plane to reduce the chance of tipping over.
Issue 2: Prop noise
Special air lanes should be outlined for such vehicles; there is no noise if they’re up high.
Issue 3: Developing collision prevention systems
Every vehicle should be equipped with systems that can detect other objects in the air and transmit information about its own movements.
Issue 4: Passenger safety
Such “air taxis” should be able to glide; in case of malfunction, the props can still revolve enough to slow down the descent. I assume that the emergency procedures for flying taxis will be similar to those of today’s helicopters.
Sergey Lonshakov and Alexander Kapitonov
Issue 5: Weight
I’ll just point out that ultralight solar-powered planes already exist – like the well-known Solar Impulse, for instance.
Issue 6: Lack of landing pads
We’ll need to further develop the existing network of helicopter pads. Flying vehicles of this kind will be much lighter than helicopters and requirements for these platforms will probably be made less strict.
As it is necessary to manage all the automated flying taxis, the question emerges: is it viable to use blockchain technology to develop such a system?
Blockchain technology can help coordinate the movements of a large number of automated taxis, confirms head of Airalab project. The project’s team is working with employees and graduates of ITMO University on the development of an automated drone fleet as part of the Drone Employee project. These drones are able to make “smart contracts”, file their routes with a dispatch operator; if a drone plots a route through a no-fly area or crosses paths with another drone, the operator will correct its course.
Flying taxi as seen in Fifth Element (1997)
“For example, to call for a flying taxi from an airport to a hotel in the city center you’ll need to: plot a safe route, notify the airport, city administration and other entities making use of that airspace: emergency services, the military, private companies and other air taxi operators. Only once the route is approved can the vehicle take off. In today’s system lacking a public distributed registry, such a procedure will take two weeks. In a blockchain network, you’ll only need to perform a single data transaction to instantly notify everyone involved in the process,” – explains Lonshakov.
He then adds that a pilotless taxi service is a human-machine system and public blockchain networks can establish an economy that is accessible to both humans and robots, meaning that there is no need to teach people to control these robots, who will comprehend the system on their own and adapt to it.
Unmanned air taxis and cars are no longer fiction, but to fully implement them, we will need to develop not only the technology itself, but the systems that would manage it. It will also be important to assure the society of its benefits and develop the mechanisms for VTOL’s social “adaptation”.