Dozens of companies, from large players such as Airbus, Boeing and Uber, to small startups that are designing vertical-lift air taxis and other types of planes, are targeting the market.
Airbus has established a flying taxi testing ground in Oregon, and its CityAirbus project could demonstrate flight for its urban mobility system this year, with a fully electric 2.2-tonne aircraft. Bell has also developed an electronic vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) using a hybrid fuel-electric approach. Boeing acquired eVTOL company Aurora and has also created an autonomous air vehicle research center in Cambridge, MA.
In January, Boeing completed its first successful test flight of an autonomous passenger air vehicle prototype in Virginia. Aurora Flight Sciences designed and developed the eVTOL (part of the Boeing NeXt division), which was able to complete a controlled takeoff, hover and landing. Planned future tests will evaluate forward flight, and the transition phase between vertical and forward-flight modes.
The current prototype has an electric propulsion system and can achieve fully autonomous flight with a range of 50 miles, according to the company. The NeXt division also oversees Boeing’s heavy-duty drone prototype, which can lift a 500-lb. cargo payload.
Dassault Systèmes is specifically targeting electric aircraft and sustainable air mobility through its Sky initiative. Dassault is already working with a number of aerospace companies, including air taxi startup Joby Aviation and electric passenger jet designer EViation.
“There’s a lot of consumer interest, and we’ve seen a lot of startups investigate this air taxi space,” says Eric Seiberling, geo marketing leader for North America at Dassault. “We’re creating a solution that helps them cut time and development effort, and helps them get through conceptual testing and early prototyping.”
To be financially viable, air taxis almost have to be pilot-less—having a pilot in the craft eats up 25% to 50% of the possible passenger load, not to mention the worldwide pilot shortage. Most of these projects involve small, two-to-four-seater aircraft with electric or hybrid power sources that are designed for short-hop flights.
German company Volocopter, for example, is working with Fraport, the management entity in charge of the Frankfurt Airport, to develop plans for a potential air taxi port and hub that can link commuters to various transportation points across the city, and then to the airport.
Although consumers are not quite ready for autonomous aircraft, there is already a degree of autonomy in modern passenger and military aircraft that has helped reduce pilot workloads.
“The level of automation we have already reached is very high,” says Paolo Colombo, global industry director, Aerospace and Defense at ANSYS. “In a typical commercial flight, pilots pull the data into the flight computer and then spend most of the time monitoring the aircraft systems, letting the autopilot manage the flight. Manual controls are used usually just during takeoff, landing or if an anomaly is detected, and even in these phases the inputs pilots give to flight controls and engines through stick and throttle are processed by the fly-by-wire or the FADEC (Full Authority Digital Engine Control) to keep the aircraft safely into its flight envelope.”
Image courtesy of Volocopter.
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