The 2019 Uber Elevate Summit in Washington DC, highlighted innovations in the emerging electric powered vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) and urban air mobility (UAM) markets.
The market for drone taxis is both technologically exciting and potentially useful. As a drone and monorail enthusiast, I wish the very best developmental and utilisation outcomes for both. However, we must caution against overenthusiasm. There are certain overtones of the excitement surrounding monorails and Maglev in the late 20th century. Monorails are an ideal solution to a very specific set of problems but were touted as panacea for inner city congestion and pollution. Overegged, the downsides for monorails were not appreciated leaving embarrassing reminders in over 50 towns and cities of failure.
For a good explanation of monorail pros and cons click here.
Equally, there is a definite place for cheaper, pollution-free aerial transport in congested cities and, apart from the requirements for some detailed air-traffic management and, perhaps, a little more awareness of roof strengths and clearances (think hoardings, cooling towers and phone masts), eVTOL taxis are the way to go. But it is quite a niche market. The number of reports coming out from firms such as Morgan Stanley, Deloitte, NASA, Booz Allen Hamilton suggest rather large potential theoretical markets. In its bottom tier forecasts, Morgan Stanley suggests a total addressable market of $1.5 trillion US by 2040. A more bullish forecast skyrockets the market at $2.9 trillion US.
There are quite a number of companies putting money into the development of eVTOL craft. Not all of these are in the position to consider an air taxi service but they are all starting out on the journey.
List of active or potential players – Uber Elevate Summit
Airbus A3 – A Silicon Valley offshoot of Airbus has produced the Vahana, an all-electric, self-piloted, VTOL aircraft with 8 motors mounted on four rotating wings
AIRSPACEX – based in Detroit, the company is planning MOBi-ONE which is a rotating wing four motor VTOL
Alauda – a group of Australian blokes who just want to race air cars. Their Airspeeder has four sets of counter-rotating props, a 10-minute flight time and top speed of up to 250 km/h. It looks a bit like a racing car frame. It is still some way from realising that they will need a business to support their racing desires but, if Australia joins the air taxi business, they already have a head start.
Aurora Flight Sciences (A Boeing Company) – A hybrid with one propulsion motor and 8 lift motors designed to carry 225 kg and can travel up to 180 km/h. It looks similar to something Lego might have invented. They also have the “Lightning Strike” developed with Rolls Royce and Honeywell – let’s not go there.
Bartini.aero – A Russian eVTOL with a 30-minute endurance and a 150 km range. It comes in two versions, 2-seater and 4-seater. It has a wing-style body. Mr Bartini was an Italian aircraft scientist whom resided in Russia. Renown for his involvement in ekranoplans; in effect, low flying planes, which roughly flew 20-30 metres above the ground. They are very fast and can carry significant cargo. The major challenge is they’re difficult to control. However, potentially this could not be a problem in today’s AI world.
Bell Nexus – From the Bell helicopter company, a six tilting ducted fans and a hybrid-electric power train, the Nexus is expected to carry 4 passengers plus a pilot up to distances of 240 km, speeds of up to 288 km/h.
Carter Aviation – A USA hybrid autogyro-plane with a petrol or diesel engine called the PAV – a four place Personal Air Vehicle. It appears to be better than a helicopter but not as good as a plane. Not exactly a Vertical Take-off as it needs some short forward momentum to achieve lift.
CityAirbus (Airbus Helicopters) – a multinational co-operative but producing in Donauwörth, Germany is an eight-motor ducted fan VTOL carrying 4 passengers for 15-minutes.
DeLorean Aerospace – You would have to have a heart of stone not to want to see an eVTOL called DeLorean. This is probably not what a taxi driver would use but certainly an item wealthy person would have locked in their toys department is a bygone certainty. It will have a range of up to 193km and a cruising speed of 241 km/h.
Ehang – A Chinese company that produces two versions of its passenger drone. The Ehang 184 can reach speeds over 100 km/h. It started carrying passengers in 2015 and in the next three years made more than 1,000 test flights, including some in “violent” conditions with dummies – which include storm-force winds, low visibility conditions, at night, and greater than 300 metres above the ground. It has eight propellers on four arms. By July 2018, nearly 40 single pilot, single passenger EHang 184s had been built. The Ehang 216 is a two-seater with 16 propellers. It clocked over 1,000 manned flights by July 2018 and its maximum range flown was only 8.8 km. It can fly 25-minutes and roughly cover a range of between 30–40 km. This aircraft is autonomous flying, monitored from a command-and-control centre.
Embraer – A Brazilian company which is partnering with Uber to launch the EmbraerX. A straightforward VTOL air taxi with 8 lift fans and 2 propulsion propellers. As of yet, no specifications have been made available.
Esprit Aeronautics – the British firm is planning a one-man craft called the Lancer ePAV. This is not an air taxi yet but a one passenger VTOL aircraft which will have the option of being all-electric or a hybrid electric aircraft. A dual seater is in the planning stage. It claims a unique form of stability/control technology unseen in current eVTOL designs. It features four pairs of counter-rotating propellers mounted on an overhead wing. There are no aircraft specification available yet to the public.
Hepard AviaNovations – This is a delightful concept vehicle with foldable and rotating wings like a butterfly, but hepard means cheetah. Test flights were suggested last year but no notice has been seen. Each wing has 11 fans. It’s so beautiful and comes in a single seater or dual seater version. Control is by blockchain-like distributed computer system which is tolerant of up to 5 failures before a flight is compromised. It can carry 240 kg of weight up to 75km and has a battery flight time of 30-minutes. The wings fold up so it can fit in a standard garage. This is unlikely to be taxi material but it looks like lots of fun.
HopFlyt – Based in Maryland, the US, its product is still in the modelling stage. The Venturi A3 is a rather unique design which will, hopefully, allow inter-city hopping, reducing the time from commuting from Baltimore to Washington DC from nearly 2 hours to potentially 12-minutes.
Hoversurf – A Russian or Californian company planning a two or four-seater drone taxi. Working models have already been tested. It will provide a flight time over 1 hour and travel at speeds of up to 250 km/h. The company says its Hoverbikes are currently being used by the Dubai police force. A unique selling point is that it can use normal car parking spaces. On the plus side, it looks like something out of Star Wars.
Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) – Producer of the 2-seater JAXA Hornisse type 2B. This is not a Starfighter. No specifications yet.
Jaunt Air Mobility – A Florida-based aerospace company that plans to test its prototype “flying taxi” at the end of 2020. Its key technology is reduced rotor operating speed aircraft (ROSA), which allows its flying machine to hover and cruise at least 50 per cent quieter than helicopters (apart from an almost irresistible urge to play “Ride of the Valkyries” over loudspeakers).
Joby Aviation – A California company developing an air taxi that may have a small aeroplane fuselage with four swivelling motors on each wing and two swivelling motors on each tail fin. The company is a tad secretive so technical specifications are not known.
Karem Aircraft – The Butterfly is a quad tiltrotor aircraft that the Californian company said strikes the right balance between hover and cruise efficiency by using Optimum Speed Tiltrotor (OSTR) technology which combines the fast, inexpensive, safe operation of efficient fixed-wing airplanes with the robust hover capability of helicopters, a technology it has been working on for years for the US Army’s Future Vertical Lift programme.
Kitty Hawk / Zee Aero – This is the baby of Larry Page of Google. It is undergoing tests currently in New Zealand. It could have 12 lift fans mounted on the wings and one propulsion propeller at the rear of the fuselage.
Lilium Aviation – A Munich-based company producing a rotating wing 5-seater with 36 (yes 36) ducted fans. They have tested the 2-seater prototype and expect a 5-seater to be fully operational by the start of 2023
Napoleon Aero – A Russian offering which consists of a fat mini-plane with 46 fans embedded in its wings and canard. It’s a four-seater with a range of up to 100km.
Pipistrel – This Slovenian company is designing the Pipstrel 801 which has 8 lift fans in the wings and a single propulsion fan on the tail. Once at flying height the lift fans are shrouded leaving the wings to act normally and the craft acts as a plane. It’s a five person craft with a range of up to 100km and capable of speeds around 280 km/h.
Terrafugia – This is a Chinese-owned company based in the USA. They produce two versions of air taxis. One called the Transition which converts from car to plane and would be personally approved by Nick Nack (evil henchman in The Man with The Golden Gun), were he still with us. The other, and likely more serious offering, is the TF-2. This is an airframe with six lift fans and two propulsion fans which can be docked with either ca cargo pod or a 4-passenger pod. It has a provisional range of 300km and could carry up to 544kg.
VerdeGo Aero – Based in Daytona Beach Florida, the company has proposed a hybrid eVTOL called PAT200. It has two sets of tilting wings each with two propellors (so 8 in all) and independently powered. It can carry a 227kg load and travel at speeds of around 240 km/h. One assumes when not fully loaded
Vimana – A California-based enterprise offering a VTOL air taxi featuring fore and aft tilting wings with eight 60kW motors attached. Its range is estimated at roughly 900 km and could carry up 408 kg.
Volocopter – a German company with a rather unique design in air taxi. The VC2X is a two-seater fuselage mounted below a ring of 18 lift fans. It can carry up to 165kg and cover 27 km in roughly 27 minutes. It looks a little bit like Medusa on a bad hair day.
VRCO – In Derby, England, the company is promoting the NeoXCraft, a short lift-body fuselage/cockpit with electric ducted propellers fore and aft on each side. The ducts and propellers can go from vertical lift to horizontal flight mode. Its flight time is at least a 60-minutes and could fly up to 120 km and carry a maximum of 180 kg payload, roughly two passengers and can fly autonomously.
Workhorse – Workhorse is a USA truck manufacturer. This air taxi is a hybrid petrol-electric helicopter fuselage with four arms each with two electric contra-rotating propellers. This air taxi is called the Surefly. It can carry 180kg for a flight time of 1-hour and cover roughly 113 km.
XTI Aircraft – A private Denver, USA-based company that proposes the hybrid-electric Trifan 600. There is already an order book of nearly 80 craft. It is a 5 passenger + pilot craft which is capable of speeds around 300km/h and cover a range of 2,200 km. Probably suited to long-distance taxi fares.
There are several many others too.
The technological barriers that must be addressed
- Landing platforms are fairly easily solved by elevated (above masts hoardings and towers) platforms on roofs
- Landing priority may be a problem but logistically simple to solve
- Safety is always an issue and there will be catastrophes but they will be significantly lower than motorway and road casualties (although the publicity may not indicate that)
- Flight path permission may hinder some routes but there are ways round that
- Mid-air collisions in this day and age of acute sensors and AI management should never occur
- Weather will always be a problem for air traffic but, in the UK, at least, there is a certain philosophical acceptance of that
- Regulation and Traffic management are quite simple but it will doubtless take many legislators, many greybeards and tons of bureaucracy before we arrive at an accepted outcome
There will be a portion of the wealthy, CEOs, super spies and politicians who might move from helicopters and there will be a portion of the limousine taxi riders who will move up. The problems are not the technology but the perception of risk and the laws of supply and demand.
One of the main advantages of the air-taxi model, given the limitations of power (battery energy) density and range, is the redundancy of the pilot/driver. Strangely humans appreciate a driver because they assume, rightly or wrongly, that a human driver will avoid risk as he/she would suffer the same consequences as his/her passengers. This is absurd as most risk events are caused by human-error, but it is not the way humans’ think.
In addition, people, in general, don’t like flying and don’t like flying in helicopters (or similar) even more so. The writer, having spent a large portion of his adult life in helicopters crossing the open seas to and from oilrigs, can attest that this is a nearly-universal truth. Overcoming this aversion may take longer than the funds to sustain the business model can last.
When money runs tight, economies must be made. Accountants and FCOs are especially vulnerable to cutting the cost of things they don’t understand. In the writer’s experience there is a special place in hell for bean-counters who try and save money by reducing maintenance.
This market will evolve slowly and steadily and not increase exponentially as many marketing companies envisage. It may well become a $2.9 trillion market US but it will take a generation at least.