Can air taxis become a democratic and sustainable means of transportation?
By Margaux Cervatius - 24 November 2021
Air taxis have long been the stuff of science fiction. But they could become part of our daily lives within a few years. The first flying taxis are expected to start operating in Europe by 2024, according to the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). A report by Frost & Sullivan estimates that the number of air taxis could reach 430,000 worldwide by 2040.
However, this technology is not yet mature and air taxis require a rethink of urban infrastructure and flow management. Can air taxis really become a democratic means of transportation? Where do they fit in the smart mobility initiatives launched throughout the world?
The innovations behind flying taxis
The idea of air taxis was made possible by the development of vertical take-off and landing aircraft (often referred to as VTOLs). These military aircraft were originally designed to eliminate the need for runways for take-off and landing. Today, the technology is being extended to civil applications, and more specifically to urban mobility. These VTOLs combine the advantages of the helicopter for take-off and landing, with the flying efficiency of planes.
Addressing environmental challenges
Current projects aim to develop more sustainable aircraft. Some, like the German company Volocopter, are focusing on electric engines. Its VoloCity aircraft is equipped with 18 rotors and nine batteries. It flies at 110 km/h, at an altitude of 400 to 500 metres and has a range of 35 km. It can carry two people, including a pilot.
French startup Ascendance Technologies, which was rated by Early Metrics, is developing a hybrid engine. The Atea aircraft will emit 80% less CO2 than helicopters. Eventually, the startup wants to make its propulsion technology compatible with many energy sources, including sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) and hydrogen fuel cells. The aircraft will have 4-5 seats and a range of 400 km.
CAPS, another French startup rated by Early Metrics, is developing a single-seat autonomous passenger drone. This electric drone, which is still under development, will allow a passenger to fly over short distances.
All these air taxis have the double advantage of relieving congestion in cities and reducing journey times. For example, it is estimated that a journey between La Défense and Paris-Charles-de-Gaulle airport would take no more than 15 minutes by air taxi, compared with 40 minutes by car.
Most of the flying taxi projects currently in development plan to have a pilot on board. However, in the long term, air taxis could be flown remotely. Indeed, air travel supposedly entails a lower risk of accidents (no pedestrians or cyclists, no construction works, etc.).
Key conditions for the deployment of air taxis
However, since they are highly innovative, air taxis cannot be integrated into cities that easily. Indeed, their deployment requires new specific infrastructure.
First, take-off and landing platforms need to be built in city centres. Skyports, a startup rated by Early Metrics, develops landing structures for drones and VTOLs. The startup has partnered with key players in the market, including Volocopter. It has also attracted the interest of ADP, which participated in its £5.35m fundraising round in 2019.
Urban-Air Port (a registered trademark) is developing the same type of infrastructure with a focus on carbon neutrality. It is due to start building its first site in Coventry this year, with the support of the UK government and in partnership with Hyundai Motor Group. Its platforms can be set up in a matter of days, even off-grid. Among other things, they will include facilities for charging air taxis.
Indeed, as several manufacturers have opted for electric engines, it will be necessary to provide charging facilities. With this in mind, the German startup Lilium partnered with Swiss industrial giant ABB. ABB’s expertise will enable the integration of a new system capable of fully charging a Lilium Jet in just 30 minutes. In fact, the battery can be charged to 80% in just 15 minutes thanks to this system.
Integrating air taxis in mobility networks and tools
In addition to physical infrastructure, air taxis will need to be fully integrated into urban mobility networks. Air lanes and specific stops will need to be created. In France, the RATP has already positioned itself in this segment and would like to integrate flying taxis into its network within a few years. However, the first use cases seem to be limited to travel routes between the city centre and the airport.
Several air travel players are already bringing in their expertise to develop these networks of the future. Nice airport recently announced the launch of a new company called Urban Blue in collaboration with its counterparts in Rome, Venice and Bologna. Its objective will be to design, build and manage the infrastructure required for flying taxis. It will rely on an industrial partnership with Volocopter to position itself as a leader in the ‘vertiport’ segment.
Air taxis will also need to be integrated within existing mobility software and applications. On the one hand, network operators need a complete view of all means of transportation to manage flows in the best possible way. On the other hand, users are increasingly interested in multi-modality to find the fastest itinerary, i.e. using different modes of transport to get to their final destination faster.
Ground challenges before take-off
As we mentioned above, these innovative aircraft are still undergoing testing and development, while the required infrastructure is currently lacking. However, air taxis face other obstacles.
First of all, startups need significant funding for the research and development of flying taxis. These aircraft combine multiple cutting-edge technologies and are very expensive to produce. This is reflected in the flight price, which is currently too high to make it a democratic means of transportation. Moreover, they can only carry two to six people (including the pilot) for the time being.
Air taxis also face stringent regulation. Several urban air mobility startups have already applied to EASA for certification, but this process is expected to take four to five years for each aircraft. Flying taxis are likely to be subject to the same safety standards as conventional aircraft.
Are flying taxis over-promising on sustainability?
Finally, one of the main obstacles is the environmental footprint of air taxis. Although most of them will be powered by electric engines, the production of the required batteries will entail highly polluting processes. The construction of new infrastructure to operate air taxis also raises doubts about their environmental benefits.
Consumers are concerned about the impact of air taxis on the environment. In a survey conducted by the EASA among 600 residents of six cities (Barcelona, Budapest, Hamburg, Milan, Öresund and Paris), the top two concerns were biodiversity and noise pollution. Indeed, flying taxis could have a negative impact on insects and birds, which already suffer from growing urbanisation.
Now that the first experiments have begun, the excitement around air taxis is growing. Investors are following this trend closely and are not hesitating to put their money up: in 2021, we have seen Vertical Aerospace raise $205m and Volocopter raise €200m. Consumers also seem to be open to this new way of commuting. According to an EASA study, 83% of respondents have a positive view of urban air mobility and 71% are willing to try such services. However, manufacturers still have to overcome several obstacles, including regulation. Air taxis will not be able to take off without the support of public authorities.