Are flying taxis ready to take off?

Walking through any investment-rich urban agglomeration today reveals that congestion in our cities is reaching unmanageable levels. It’s easy to see why people are tempted to take to the skies to avoid it, with the world’s elite already flying above Jakarta, Bangalore or Los Angeles aboard their helicopters. But what is the solution for everyone else, namely those who want to avoid being crammed into overcrowded metros on their daily commute?

 

Flying taxi: an alternative to overcrowded transport

For several months now, flying taxi projects have appeared as plausible alternatives to this everyday issue, not without bringing Luc Besson’s futuristic sci-fi film The Fifth Element to mind. Uber is a clear proponent of the idea, and is hoping to deliver an autonomous flying taxi service in the near future in cities like Dubai, Los Angeles and even Dallas by 2023. With the first tests scheduled for 2020, the company has come a long way from its beginnings in San Francisco in 2009, and is now expanding its network of tech partners across America. Along with the US Army and NASA, the idea is also attractive to universities, whose research labs’ financial backing could offer a solution to the major obstacles which the project is currently facing.

How does one go about managing an urban airspace

For example, how does one go about managing an urban airspace when even drones are currently prohibited from flying there? How would companies reduce the noise emitted from rotors and motors used by these vehicles of the future, themselves derived from helicopters (namely their vertical take-off/landing capabilities), to comply with acceptable urban noise pollution limits? When posed with the question of where these new taxis would be based, Uber has already expressed its intention to develop “hubs” built in to the roofs of certain suitable buildings. More than 1,000 take-offs per day are forecast from these hubs, leaving relatively little time to recharge batteries between journeys (perhaps less than five minutes?). The technical solutions still to be developed seem endless. Will the $180,000 invested by Texas University be enough?

 

Flight tests already conclusive for Airbus and Ehang

Airbus and the Chinese company Ehang have also expressed their interest in the idea, having carried out successful flight tests this year. Boeing and Volocopter also have similar projects in the pipeline. In the aptly-named conference entitled Uber Elevate, sophisticated mock-ups and renderings of future projects were presented by the American company in an attempt to sell the idea not only to potential investors, but current partners. The war of words has also extended to the aesthetic element of the taxis of the future, with manufacturers such as the Brazilian Embraer and their American rival helicopter specialist Bell emerging as rivals in the design process.

 

So, if we really do need to envisage a new approach to getting-around our towns, any proposals mustn’t be deceiving on neither a functional nor aesthetic level. Watching over cities from the sky (Uber has proposed flying at 600m altitudes) will undoubtedly be an unrivalled spectacle, and the drone-taxis providing these journeys will need to be as luxurious as the limos which pushed the taxis of the past out of the picture.

Will the 21st century city-dweller one day fly from roof-to-roof, just like the superheroes who filled their childhood television screens?

 

To read aslo: Autonomous car: the bi-cultural vision of Pony.ai and its raising funds