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Flying taxis…without a pilot. Is that the solution to the traffic chaos in Europe’s congested cities? ‘Yes it is.’ That’s the answer of more and more experts ever since this market started to become competitive. They are all convinced that the sales potential of this market is between 35 billion (Porsche Consulting) and several hundred billion euros. And it’s not just risk-taking startups who are engaged. Airbus and Siemens are also involved, as well as Audi and Uber. They are investing a lot of their money to make it a reality.

What are air-taxis?

In principle, they are oversized, electrically driven drones with no cameras mounted for aerial photography, but featuring a cabin with room for two to four people, depending on the manufacturers’ concepts. But they aren’t oversized toys – they are futuristic aircrafts designed to be used primarily in the inner city area. However, the problem of short ranges, which we know from electric cars, similarly applies to electric air-taxis. 30 kilometers are currently considered feasible. In many cities this corresponds with the distance from the city centre to the airport.

One of the companies building the first manned, fully electric and safe VTOL (vertical take-off and landing aircraft) is Volocopter from Bruchsal in Baden, Germany. The Volocopter 2X is reminiscent of a helicopter, but instead of a rotor, it has 18 propellers, each of which has a diameter of 1.80 meters. These propellers turn much slower than the rotor of a helicopter. As a result, no earsplitting noise occurs during takeoff and landing.

Alexander Zosel, Co-Founder of Volocopter, told Auto Futures: “We have repeatedly proven that the Volocopter really flies. Therefore it is no longer a question of technical feasibility, but a question of time, when air taxis will supplement the traffic in our cities.”

First manned flight with Alexander Zosel.

Steering and control are carried out by the different speeds of the individual propellers. Their interaction is governed by a computer that is as easy to use as a tablet. After the final development phase the Volocopter will be driving and flying autonomously, like its competitors at Airbus (France), Lilium (Germany), Aurora (USA) and Ehang (China).

Volocopter has already proven its functionality. It first flew in 2011 and in April 2016 the first manned first flight took place near Bruchsal. Since then, there have been more than 600 test flights. The flights in Dubai and Las Vegas were particularly spectacular.

There is still a lot of work to be done in terms of regulation and safety. The European Air Navigation Services has yet to develop a full set of rules specifically designed for these air taxis. The Federal Office of Civil Aeronautics in Germany and the corresponding authorities of other countries will certainly want to discuss the matter further before they grant a license to these aircrafts.

Rival German projects

The City-Airbus is a slightly different concept that’s being developed by Airbus in cooperation with Siemens in Donauwoerth, Bavaria. From the outside it looks quite similar to the Volocopter, but it relies on four large double propellers, each of which makes about 130 hp. This allows an air speed of 120 km/h. The City-Airbus will offer space for four passengers.

Slightly larger is the flying taxi of Lilium, a small startup founded by four students of the Technical University of Munich at Wessling, conveniently located near the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in Oberpfaffenhofen. The Lilium is a five-seats plane that  operates with 36 small propellers built into the wings with a span of ten meters. They can be swivelled in different directions, which allows a vertical start and speeds of up to 300 km/h.

Lilium’s air taxi landing pad – artist’s impression. Credit: Lilium

Since April 2017, the students have been testing a small, unmanned remote-controlled prototype. Next year the first flight with passengers will take place. However, the Lilium plane taxi is unlikely to hit the market before 2025.

Of course, the developers still have much to do. It’s all about perfecting the technology and proving that these aircrafts are safe. Future customers need to have confidence in this. A fatal crash would hit the whole industry and could set it back for years.

There is also a lack of infrastructure for take-off and landing areas. In any case, an exciting and potentially lucrative new market is emerging. Who knows, the electric powered aircraft may well prove even more successful than the electric car.

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