Start-ups are racing to build the world’s first flying taxis

The flying cars of science fiction could soon become part of our everyday reality, and savvy start-ups are looking to build city infrastructures now.

The recent Blade Runner sequel depicted a futuristic Los Angeles in the year 2049, where acid rain fell from skies crowded with flying cars called ‘skimmers’ that zip along aerial highways.

Disappointing as the movie was, its Hollywood writers may have been onto something in terms of tech developments in the mid twenty-first century. Right now, an industry wide desire to innovate and invest in autonomous air taxis is more palpable than ever, and the concept is fast moving away from science fiction and toward reality.

According to industry stats, upwards of 250 businesses are either planning on building, operating, or manufacturing projects involving urban-air-mobility vehicles (UAM) in the near future. Pie in the sky, no longer.

Hovering above ever increasing levels of road congestion has been a novel idea for around a decade, but until recent advances in ‘vertical take-off and landing’ (VTOL) systems, electric propulsion, and advanced flight-control, the prospect of kicking back in a pilotless ride through the skylines of major conurbations simply hadn’t been feasible. Today though, we can allow ourselves to dream of trafficless journeys without dreaded driver passenger small talk.

That doesn’t mean to say you should delete your Uber app just yet. The autonomous aircraft market is still a bit of a Wild West.

Start-up companies are all working hard on their flagship vehicles, while venture capitalists, aviation corporations, and – as we previously mentioned – rideshare companies stake their claims with big bucks on a rapidly growing industry, and one which could be worth as much as $1.5 trillion USD by 2040.

Some of the most notable ventures at the forefront of this shift include the Volocopter 2X, which is essentially an oversized drone craft developed by German tycoons Volocopter, Joby Aviation’s unnamed hover vehicle recently purchased from Uber Elevate, and the Skolkovo Foundation’s four seater Airbus A3, which looks like something straight out of Back to the Future.

Most prototypes currently take off and land vertically, similar to delivery drones currently in circulation, travelling up to distances of up to 200km. They run using environmentally friendly methods like batteries and electric propulsion. If you’re not afraid of heights, what’s not to love?

Though the models mentioned here have been put to the test on several occasions already, getting a radical new mode of transport such as this off the ground isn’t as simple as creating 50 ridesharing cabs and unleashing them onto city skies. I mean, autonomous road vehicles have still yet to become a mainstay of transport even now, let alone helicopters.

The European Aviation Society is current thrashing out regulations for VTOLs to ensure what it describes as complete ‘air trustworthiness,’ obviously concerning the reliability of the build, as well as details like emergency exits, lightning protection, landing gear systems, and pressurised cabins.

Classifying models of VTOL is proving particularly tricky too. In plenty of cases the EVS seems undecided on exactly what separates a flying car from a fixed-wing commercial jet or helicopter, and the discrepancies are still being figured out in cahoots with public sectors including government, transportation, urban planning, and public outreach.

Beyond this, a sustainable flying service would need dedicated places to take off, land, receive maintenance, charge their batteries, and depot in off periods. Considering the extent to which helicopter journeys are limited in most regions, what with dedicated flight paths, and brief windows for peak travel times, you can only imagine the level of infrastructure required to start dotting rideshare VTOLs all across major cities.

Mckinsey experts have revealed that a single ‘Vertipad’ (landing and take-off space) in a suburban area with just two parking spaces would cost around $400 USD to build and $900 USD per year to operate. If it were even possible right now, I dread to think what a ride share across town would cost.

Make no mistake though, despite all the uncertainty and piles of legislation, there is an industrywide determination to make VTOL travel accessible.

If you need proof, Orlando has just revealed its plan to build a 56,000-square-foot ‘Vertiport’ to allow passengers to bypass Florida’s notoriously congested highways. Check the video renderings here, the place looks as though it’s pulled straight from a videogame.

So there we have it, at some point in the next 5 to 10 years you may be able to press a button and order an air taxi straight to your office rooftop. Just watch your step if you’ve had a drink or two.

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