Air taxis: Taking off with plug & fly

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Public transport of the future will also take to the skies. But there is one missing ingredient standing in the way of this mass-transit mission: light, economical air transport technology. A palm-sized device developed for the automotive industry could save the day.

The first air taxis should be crisscrossing the skies of major cities by 2023 at the very latest. Testing is already scheduled to begin next year in Dubai, Singapore and Los Angeles. The plan is for human pilots to be on board at first. By 2025, the aircraft should be flying all by themselves. The business consulting firm Roland Berger expects about 3,000 air taxis to be in operation around the world by then. The total should reach 12,000 by 2030. The 100,000 barrier is expected to be shattered by no later than 2050.

The result will be a market that analysts from Morgan Stanley expect to be worth about $1.5 trillion by 2040. Companies in the United States and southeast Asia will not be the only ones to profit from this development. Air taxis will also significantly speed up short and middle-distance trips in Germany, including in the Ruhr region, the Rhine-Main region of central Germany and the Munich-Augsburg-Ingolstadt triangle. Landing zones are already being planned at the central train station in Munich and the Pasing train station in the western part of the city.

The aircraft will be built not far from there, in Wessling. The jets made by a company called Lilium recently had their maiden flight. The electric aircraft flown by a pilot can accommodate five passengers. Lilium plans to launch daily commercial service in at least two cities starting in 2025. The series model will be designed to fly for an hour and reach a speed of up to 300 kilometers an hour.

The Volocopter made by a Karlsruhe-based start-up of the same name is focusing on drone technology, much like Airbus with its “CityAirbus”. The two-seat, electric air taxi received airworthiness certification in Germany in 2016. The first “autonomous” tests were conducted a year later in Dubai. The start-up is currently working with Fraport AG, the company that operates the Frankfurt International Airport, to develop concepts for a ground infrastructure and operation of air taxis at the airport.

Air taxis with automotive technology

A few barriers still have to be cleared before mass transit will be able to take to the skies on a wide-scale basis. One of these barriers is the fact that conventional aircraft technology is too expensive, large and heavy for mass-transit air taxis. A solution to this problem could come from Bosch in Stuttgart. The company’s MEMS sensors, series-tested devices that are dependably doing their jobs in autonomous driving systems and in the skid-prevention system ESP, can take over flying responsibilities a few stories up in the air. For this purpose, developers have packed dozens of sensors into a universal control unit that continuously determines the aircraft’s position and dynamics.

Unlike current sensor solutions used in aviation, technology that costs anywhere from several tens of thousands of euros to €100,000, the Bosch solution generates a fraction of the costs. Bosch’s sensors are particularly small and light. The makers of air taxis can easily install the company’s sensor box in their aircraft. It basically boils down to plug & play.

Depending on the concept and number of passengers, an air taxi will cost about €500,000, a level that is considerably lower than the price of a helicopter based on today’s technology. This benefit really enhances the appeal of automated and electric aircraft to sharing solutions. In terms of travel time, the aircraft begin to outclass traditional means of transport starting at 10 kilometers. Their maximum range is up to 300 kilometers.

 

 

 

 

Lilium (Image: Lilium).

Autonomous urban aircraft may no longer be the stuff of science fiction. (Image: Lilium).