Aircraft

8 flying taxis that are so crazy, they just might work

8 flying taxis that are so cra...
We've been keeping a keen eye on the progress of the Workhorse SureFly since it emerged at the Paris Air Show in June
We've been keeping a keen eye on the progress of the Workhorse SureFly since it emerged at the Paris Air Show in June
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Uber first revealed plans for its flying taxi service, which it calls Uber Elevate in a 97-page white paper in 2016
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Uber first revealed plans for its flying taxi service, which it calls Uber Elevate in a 97-page white paper in 2016
Uber plans to publicly demonstrate its flying taxi service in 2020
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Uber plans to publicly demonstrate its flying taxi service in 2020
Uber imagines users of its flying taxi service traveling along fixed routes between hubs called Skyports
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Uber imagines users of its flying taxi service traveling along fixed routes between hubs called Skyports
Having announced plans to publicly demonstrate its flying car service in Dallas and Dubai earlier in the 2017, Uber has also added Los Angeles to that list
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Having announced plans to publicly demonstrate its flying car service in Dallas and Dubai earlier in the 2017, Uber has also added Los Angeles to that list
Uber imagines users of its flying taxi service traveling along fixed routes between hubs called Skyports
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Uber imagines users of its flying taxi service traveling along fixed routes between hubs called Skyports
Uber imagines users of its flying taxi service traveling along fixed routes between hubs called Skyports
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Uber imagines users of its flying taxi service traveling along fixed routes between hubs called Skyports
In late 2017, the Vahana team moved to this hangar at the Eastern Oregon Regional Airport
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In late 2017, the Vahana team moved to this hangar at the Eastern Oregon Regional Airport
The first sketch on a napkin two years ago that started everything for Vahana
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The first sketch on a napkin two years ago that started everything for Vahana
The test flights were initially scheduled for late 2017 but slight delays pushed them back to January 2018
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The test flights were initially scheduled for late 2017 but slight delays pushed them back to January 2018
Vahana, an all-electric VTOL self-piloting aircraft, is readied for its first test flight
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Vahana, an all-electric VTOL self-piloting aircraft, is readied for its first test flight
The test flights were initially scheduled for late 2017 but slight delays pushed them back to January 2018
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The test flights were initially scheduled for late 2017 but slight delays pushed them back to January 2018
Vahana during initial engine testing
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Vahana during initial engine testing
Early concept art of Vahana
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Early concept art of Vahana
Early concept art of Vahana
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Early concept art of Vahana
The test flights were initially scheduled for late 2017 but slight delays pushed them back to January 2018
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The test flights were initially scheduled for late 2017 but slight delays pushed them back to January 2018
The first successful full-scale test flights for Vahana, an all-electric VTOL self-piloting aircraft
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The first successful full-scale test flights for Vahana, an all-electric VTOL self-piloting aircraft
The Workhorse Surefly relies on a total of eight contra-rotating propellors fixed to four arms to lift a maximum of 400 lb (180 kg)
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The Workhorse Surefly relies on a total of eight contra-rotating propellors fixed to four arms to lift a maximum of 400 lb (180 kg)
We've been keeping a keen eye on the progress of the Workhorse SureFly since it emerged at the Paris Air Show in June
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We've been keeping a keen eye on the progress of the Workhorse SureFly since it emerged at the Paris Air Show in June
The Workhorse Surefly relies on a total of eight contra-rotating propellors fixed to four arms to lift a maximum of 400 lb (180 kg)
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The Workhorse Surefly relies on a total of eight contra-rotating propellors fixed to four arms to lift a maximum of 400 lb (180 kg)
The Workhorse Surefly has a range of approximately 70 mi (112 km)
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The Workhorse Surefly has a range of approximately 70 mi (112 km)
The Workhorse Surefly has a range of approximately 70 mi (112 km)
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The Workhorse Surefly has a range of approximately 70 mi (112 km)
We've been keeping a keen eye on the progress of the Workhorse SureFly since it emerged at the Paris Air Show in June
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We've been keeping a keen eye on the progress of the Workhorse SureFly since it emerged at the Paris Air Show in June
The Workhorse Surefly relies on a total of eight contra-rotating propellors fixed to four arms to lift a maximum of 400 lb (180 kg)
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The Workhorse Surefly relies on a total of eight contra-rotating propellors fixed to four arms to lift a maximum of 400 lb (180 kg)
Workhorse has received an Experimental Airworthiness Certificate for SureFly from the Federal Aviation Administration
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Workhorse has received an Experimental Airworthiness Certificate for SureFly from the Federal Aviation Administration
Inside the Workhorse Surefly flying taxi
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Inside the Workhorse Surefly flying taxi
The Passenger Drone is built from carbon fiber composites and features a total of 16 rotors
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The Passenger Drone is built from carbon fiber composites and features a total of 16 rotors
The Passenger Drone comes equipped with a touchscreen that allows users to punch in their destination
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The Passenger Drone comes equipped with a touchscreen that allows users to punch in their destination
The Passenger Drone in action
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The Passenger Drone in action
The Passenger Drone in action
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The Passenger Drone in action
The Passenger Drone comes equipped with a touchscreen that allows users to punch in their destination
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The Passenger Drone comes equipped with a touchscreen that allows users to punch in their destination
The Passenger Drone
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The Passenger Drone
The Passenger Drone in action
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The Passenger Drone in action
The Passenger Drone is built from carbon fiber composites and features a total of 16 rotors
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The Passenger Drone is built from carbon fiber composites and features a total of 16 rotors
The Passenger Drone comes equipped with a touchscreen that allows users to punch in their destination
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The Passenger Drone comes equipped with a touchscreen that allows users to punch in their destination
The Passenger Drone
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The Passenger Drone
The Passenger Drone is built from carbon fiber composites and features a total of 16 rotors
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The Passenger Drone is built from carbon fiber composites and features a total of 16 rotors
Early prototype of the Ehang taxi drone
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Early prototype of the Ehang taxi drone
Crafted from a carbon fiber and epoxy composite with an aluminum alloy frame, the Ehang 184's top speed is listed as 130 km/h (80 mph)
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Crafted from a carbon fiber and epoxy composite with an aluminum alloy frame, the Ehang 184's top speed is listed as 130 km/h (80 mph)
Crafted from a carbon fiber and epoxy composite with an aluminum alloy frame, the Ehang 184's top speed is listed as 130 km/h (80 mph)
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Crafted from a carbon fiber and epoxy composite with an aluminum alloy frame, the Ehang 184's top speed is listed as 130 km/h (80 mph)
Concept of the Ehang taxi drone
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Concept of the Ehang taxi drone
The Ehang taxi drone in action
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The Ehang taxi drone in action
Render of Joby's 16-rotor in action
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Render of Joby's 16-rotor in action
Joby hopes to cut down on traffic and pollution in urban centers, and offer city folk a faster, cleaner and safer way to travel by way of an electric tilt-rotor flying taxi
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Joby hopes to cut down on traffic and pollution in urban centers, and offer city folk a faster, cleaner and safer way to travel by way of an electric tilt-rotor flying taxi
We first learned of Joby's electric tilt-rotor aircraft in 2015
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We first learned of Joby's electric tilt-rotor aircraft in 2015
Joby hopes to cut down on traffic and pollution in urban centers, and offer city folk a faster, cleaner and safer way to travel by way of an electric tilt-rotor flying taxi
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Joby hopes to cut down on traffic and pollution in urban centers, and offer city folk a faster, cleaner and safer way to travel by way of an electric tilt-rotor flying taxi
Render of Joby's 16-rotor aircraft
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Render of Joby's 16-rotor aircraft
Joby hopes to cut down on traffic and pollution in urban centers, and offer city folk a faster, cleaner and safer way to travel by way of an electric tilt-rotor flying taxi
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Joby hopes to cut down on traffic and pollution in urban centers, and offer city folk a faster, cleaner and safer way to travel by way of an electric tilt-rotor flying taxi
We first learned of Joby's electric tilt-rotor aircraft in 2015
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We first learned of Joby's electric tilt-rotor aircraft in 2015
The Lilium Jet is slated for its first manned flights in 2019
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The Lilium Jet is slated for its first manned flights in 2019
Render of the Lilium electric aircraft
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Render of the Lilium electric aircraft
The Lilium Jet is slated for its first manned flights in 2019
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The Lilium Jet is slated for its first manned flights in 2019
The Lilium electric aircraft
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The Lilium electric aircraft
Working on the prototype's wing
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Working on the prototype's wing
A two-seater version of the Lilium electric aircraft lifts off for the first time
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A two-seater version of the Lilium electric aircraft lifts off for the first time
A two-seater version of the Lilium electric aircraft lifts off for the first time
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A two-seater version of the Lilium electric aircraft lifts off for the first time
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We've been keeping a keen eye on the progress of the Workhorse SureFly since it emerged at the Paris Air Show in June
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We've been keeping a keen eye on the progress of the Workhorse SureFly since it emerged at the Paris Air Show in June
The Lilium Jet is slated for its first manned flights in 2019
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The Lilium Jet is slated for its first manned flights in 2019

Flying taxis still seem very much like something pulled right out of science fiction, but when transport heavyweights like Boeing, Airbus and Uber start pumping millions of dollars into their development, it might be time to take all of this a bit more seriously.

Beyond the cool factor of personal flight, electric flying taxis would have a profound impact when it comes to society, the economy and the environment. By reshaping how people move around cities they have the potential to disrupt conventional transport systems like highways, trains and buses, put a dent in pollution around urban centers and make for much faster commutes, therefore making society more efficient and productive as a whole.

The examples we look at here all have their own unique designs, and are at different points in their development, but they all promise to essentially do the same thing, which is move passengers through the air from point A to point B at a push of the button. Thanks to electric propulsion and autonomous navigation systems, they would have no operating emissions and no pilot and would generate minimal noise.

Uber imagines users of its flying taxi service traveling along fixed routes between hubs called Skyports
Uber imagines users of its flying taxi service traveling along fixed routes between hubs called Skyports

If these kinds of aircraft were to become commonplace, it would be a fundamental shift in how cities function. Although plenty of skepticism still abounds, somebody who needs no convincing of either their potential or impending arrival is Vikas Prakash, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Case Western Reserve University.

"I don't have any doubt," he says. "In a few years, you will be able to call an air taxi from Uber or someone else to travel maybe 100 miles in a vehicle with two other people. I'm very excited about this."

Prakash recently received a US$1.3 million grant from NASA to develop advanced batteries capable of powering such electric air vehicles. We put a few questions to him about how, when and why we might see these things in action.

Why do you think we are on the precipice of a flying taxi revolution?

"Driven by concerns about climate change, governments and companies worldwide are making plans for a post-oil era. While there have been efforts to limit carbon emissions in the aviation industry by using alternative fuels, as with the car industry, electrical propulsion seems to be the way forward for air travel.

"However, electric air-vehicles have more challenges than their land-based counterparts in terms of their onboard space and weight limits, impacting performance. Today's batteries pack much less energy per unit weight and volume when compared to jet fuel. Accordingly, the required battery packs are simply too heavy to maintain efficient flight capabilities. These energy limitations become especially acute in smaller crafts.

"State-of-the-art electric motors partly compensate this disadvantage by being more efficient in converting energy into power, and major industry players, research organizations and entrepreneurs are working on several possible paths to make commercial electric flying a reality."

Can you explain some of the recent technological advances that have made flying taxis viable?

"For air-taxis to serve as on-demand urban transit, they need to be safe, quiet, clean, and efficient. All electric air vehicles, which utilize battery propulsion over jet propulsion, are expected to have zero operational emissions, and be quiet enough to operate in cities without disturbing the neighbors. At flying altitude, noise from advanced electric vehicles is expected to be barely audible.

"Even during take-off and landing, the noise will be comparable to existing background noise. We also believe, successful air taxi design will not use the rotary-wing design of today's helicopters. Instead, it will be the vertical take-off and landing capabilities (VTOL) combined with distributed energy propulsion (DEP) that will make it possible for us to fly an air taxi from building to building.

"While rotary wing helicopters are the closest current-day proxy for the VTOLs, they are far too noisy, energy inefficient, and pollute too much to be economically viable for large-scale operations. Rather, we envision instead many smaller, electric motors distributed along the fuselage, as motor efficiency in this case does not benefit from a size increase, unlike todays large jet engines, positioned under the wings.

We first learned of Joby's electric tilt-rotor aircraft in 2015
We first learned of Joby's electric tilt-rotor aircraft in 2015

"Further, significant efficiency improvements are possible with DEP, since it enables fixed-wing VTOL aircraft to avoid the fundamental limitations of helicopter edgewise rotor flight during cruise, and provides lift with far greater efficiency than rotors. Also, these VTOL designs will also be markedly safer since VTOLs, unlike helicopters, do not need to be dependent on any single part to stay airborne and will ultimately use autonomy technology to significantly reduce operator error."

And which technological hurdles still stand in the way?

"Some of the biggest challenges in establishing a viable air-taxi industry are related to: (1) battery technology, including their energy and power densities, charge rate, and cycle life;(2) Successful development and FAA certification of VTOL and distributed energy propulsion (DEP) technology which is directly related to vehicle efficiency;(3) vehicle performance and reliability in varied weather conditions;(4) vehicle cost and affordability;(5) safety related to vehicle partial-autonomy navigating congested skies;(6) aircraft noise and air pollution, especially over populated areas;(7) landing and takeoff infrastructure including landing pads at key city locations to deploy a VTOL fleet."

What will the range of the first flying taxis be?

"An air taxi could be defined as a flying vehicle with a range of 50-120 miles (80 to 193 km), carrying two to four passengers and cruising at an altitude of 3,000 to 5,000 ft (914 to 1,524 m). In the near term, based on the current battery technology, the most-common commute might be a 50-mile (80-km) round trip with two short vertical takeoffs and a 30-minute energy reserve on a single battery charge."

How soon do you think we might see flying taxis in action?

"Urban airspace is open for business today, and with air-traffic control (ATC) systems exactly as they are, a VTOL service could be launched and even scaled to possibly hundreds of vehicles. However, a successful, optimized on-demand urban VTOL operation will necessitate a significantly higher frequency and airspace density of vehicles operating over metropolitan areas simultaneously.

The current air traffic control will have to evolve and new ATC systems will be needed to handle these extra crafts, especially if a city were to add multiple hubs and potentially hundreds of air taxis. It will be the government policy in the end that will dictate when we will see flying taxi fleets."

Uber imagines users of its flying taxi service traveling along fixed routes between hubs called Skyports
Uber imagines users of its flying taxi service traveling along fixed routes between hubs called Skyports

The contenders

The list of air taxi concepts presented here is by no means exhaustive, with plenty of projects from startups and aviation incumbents that promise to shake up the way folks move through urban centers. But these particular examples have caught our attention over the past couple of years for different reasons, be it through manned test flights, powerful partnerships or huge investments from notable parties.

UberAir

Uber imagines users of its flying taxi service traveling along fixed routes between hubs called Skyports
Uber imagines users of its flying taxi service traveling along fixed routes between hubs called Skyports

Uber first revealed plans for its flying taxi service in a 97-page white paper in 2016. It plans to use sets of small electric rotors to power aircraft with two or four seats. These would take off vertically but then convert to some sort of horizontal flight cruise mode with tilting wings or rotors, saving on energy in the process as they travel along fixed routes between "Skyports."

In November last year, Uber formed an agreement with NASA to develop an unmanned traffic management system to deal with all the expected air traffic. It also announced plans to start testing flying taxis in Dubai and Dallas in 2020, and has recently added Los Angeles to the list. It is referring to the service as UberAir for now.

Airbus Vahana

The first successful full-scale test flights for Vahana, an all-electric VTOL self-piloting aircraft
The first successful full-scale test flights for Vahana, an all-electric VTOL self-piloting aircraft

Airbus launched its Vahana project around two years ago, and is making the sort of progress you might expect from some of aviation's more experienced heads. A full-scale version of the electric, autonomous VTOL aircraft completed its first ever test flight earlier in February, lifting into the air for 53 seconds and reaching an altitude of five meters (16 ft). With its first vertical takeoff and landing proving a success, the team is now planning tests where it transitions from vertical to horizontal flight.

Workhorse Surefly

We first caught wind of the Workhorse Surefly air taxi during the Paris Air Show last June, and last month it received an Experimental Airworthiness Certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to kick off test flights last month at CES. Workhorse also has a partnership with global shipping giant UPS, and the engines used in the Surefly are the same ones used in BMW's i3 and C600 super scooter. It hopes to receive full FAA approval in late 2019.

Volocopter

Of all the flying taxi concepts doing the rounds, the 18-rotor electric Volocopter is the one that seems to garner the most attention. In its current iteration, it can fly for 30 minutes at a time and hit a top speed of 100 km/h (62 mph). Since emerging as a pretty out-there project back in 2013, it has completed manned test flights in Germany, unmanned flights over Dubai and, last month at CES in Las Vegas, a short onstage test flight in front of a live audience. That marked its first flight in the US, and the city of Dubai is trialing it over the next five years as part of a service called the Autonomous Air Taxi.

Autonomous Passenger Drone

The Passenger Drone is built from carbon fiber composites and features a total of 16 rotors
The Passenger Drone is built from carbon fiber composites and features a total of 16 rotors

Just announced in September, the Autonomous Passenger Drone is built form carbon fiber composites and uses 16 electric rotors to get airborne. It can be flown manually with a joystick if need be and features two seats, one behind the other. Its makers released videos accompanying the announcement that show the craft already completing manned test flights. So, although it certainly wasn't the first flying taxi on the scene, it is certainly seems further along in its development than some competitors.

Ehang 184

The Ehang taxi drone in action
The Ehang taxi drone in action

Ehang burst onto the scene at CES in 2016 with a prototype of its 184 flying taxi, but has been relatively quiet since then. Like the Workhorse Surefly, it has received an Experimental Airworthiness Certificate from the FAA, but has done little to update us on its progress in the meantime.

It broke its silence this month by revealing footage showing people riding aboard the Ehang 184 for the first time. These test flights purport to show the aircraft being put through its paces in a force seven typhoon, navigating heavy fog, climbing to an altitude of 300 m (1,000 ft) and completing a long-range test flight of 8.8 km (5.5 mi). Like the Volocopter, the Ehang 184 is set to be trialed in Dubai over the coming years.

Joby

Joby hopes to cut down on traffic and pollution in urban centers, and offer city folk a faster, cleaner and safer way to travel by way of an electric tilt-rotor flying taxi
Joby hopes to cut down on traffic and pollution in urban centers, and offer city folk a faster, cleaner and safer way to travel by way of an electric tilt-rotor flying taxi

Joby Aviation's multirotor convertible aircraft might be the most eye-catching of the concepts outlined here, simply because it's the biggest departure from the conventional rotary-wing helicopter. The custom-designed tilt system sees the rotors spin horizontally during takeoff and landing, and then turn 90 degrees for low-energy forward flight just like a fixed-wing aircraft.

We have paid a visit to Joby Aviation's headquarters and left with the firm belief that this thing is absolutely happening. Intel and Toyota are also convinced, who along with other investors just handed the company $100 million to continue development of the aircraft.

Lilium

The Lilium electric aircraft
The Lilium electric aircraft

Lilium Aviation completed its first unmanned test flights of a two-seater version of its electric VTOL jet in early 2017, and promptly turned its attention to a larger five-seat production version. It says this will have a massive range of over 300 km (186 mi) and a top speed of 300 km/h (186 mph). In September last year, it raised US$90 million in fresh funding to forge ahead with its work, and is targeting 2019 for its first manned flights.

6 comments
WilliamSager
Bear in mind we don't even have a bureaucracy dedicated to regulating self flying electric taxies yet. It might be easier to first deliver packages or light freight.
Towerman
"no operating emissions and no pilot and would generate minimal noise" You will get only a limited few climbing into an air taxi without a certified person to take control manually should something go wrong. It does not matter how safe the aircraft is advertised and it does not matter how safe it really is, the majority will NOT climb into it if there is no person that is there to take charge should manual flying be required. There will Always need to be a physical person in control should the need arise, and arise it will. As is the case with normal aviation, planes can fly themselves and have been able to for many years, but no one will climb in unless they can see and hear their Captain. A certified drone pilot is what is required for flying taxi's, it must not be a conventional airplane or helicopter pilot. A ceritfied drone pilot will have much more experience in flying an air taxi than a conventional pilot. I'm all for the technology and i know exactly how redundantly they are built, there is room for even more redundency and it should be pursued in full force, however they are quite reliable already, and i cannot wait for this technology to explode because i believe in it and have seen with my own eyes what they are capable of as i work with it everyday. I would know because i work with these things on a daily basis, Navigation equipment is never 100% reliable,
Towerman
William i agree, the infrastructure i believe will grow proportionally, but grow it will into a revolutionary change. You for instance add infrastructure (tower atc controllers) landing pads for say 10 taxi's to begin with, integrate them on this small scale into existing ATC and test say 3 taxi's for some time, then from there you add an extra taxi every month until you have reached the 10 taxi limit. After that review the lessons learned and look at the small changes or improvements that needs to be made in the system, and grow your air taxi operation to 30 taxi's, add the infrastructure and additional ATC integration, add more taxi's quicker until you get to 30 and so it goes on. It's a snowball effect that will grow to a scale of great magnitude that awaits us right now in the coming years of human existance.
Nik
Count the number of accidents per year in cars on the roads, world wide, and the deaths. Then consider, these are with vehicles where the road is visible. The ''road'' in the air is invisible, and in cities can harbour any number of invisible air turbulence's, crosswinds, and other unexpected hazards. Helicopter crashes world wide are quite numerous, even with experienced pilots, although not widely publicised. So, as the number of craft rises, so will the death toll. I will have no intention of adding myself to those statistics, thank you.
Towerman
Air taxi's cannot be compared to cars on the ground whatsoever, they will be much safer by a big order of magnitude compared to cars, yes cars have roads they drive on and that's exactly the problem. They need to follow the road, and their ability to evade danger is limited, there is only side to side movement to work with. and cars are so close together spaced it's ludicrous compared to how air taxi's will be spaced from one another. Moreover. Air taxi's will be spaced apart so that there will be enough room to move in horizontally, and vertically should a dangerous scenario play out. Cars don't have this advantage, it lives in a primitive "2d world" Moreover cars tip when you hit something on the road at speed or turn the wheel too quickly at speed, not so with air taxi's. Furthermore you cannot compare a helicopter to an air taxi, it's an oranges with apples comparison. An air taxi by default is built to counter turbulance almost instantly, as the smaller rotors can be sped up much quicker than a slow moving 1 disc lagging turbine engined helicopter rotor, and the reflexes of the flight controller system of an electric multirotor is superior to any human reflex when encountering turbulance or crosswinds. The statistics on the road is what everyone should be worried about not that of in the air, especiallly not air taxi's.
Jean Lamb
Too many people have watched Fifth Element and thought this was a good idea. Hey, let's have Los Angeles traffic in 3-D! But it would still be cool. <G>