Some of the brightest engineers in the world are racing to make science fiction-esque flying taxis a reality. None are ready to fly you over Manhattan, but the more optimistic companies say they’re getting very close. While we wait to take our first sky shuttle, we’re taking a look at the companies tussling for a piece of this burgeoning segment.
Slovakia-based AeroMobil remains committed to releasing a functioning flying car it calls “a supercar with superpowers.” It’s on its fourth prototype, so you know it’s not joking.
The company has plenty of concept art to show the car in its final form. It’s one of the more notable hybrid models in the works, and we’re not talking about a gasoline-electric powertrain. Unlike true VTOLs, hybrid flying cars are designed to take off from a runway, like a plane, but also have the ability to morph into a car-like vehicle to drive on the road. This system requires retractable wheels and wings, along with a very efficient drivetrain.
AeroMobil is funneling time and money into the development of an electric powertrain. It notably joined forces with organizations like Starburst, an aerospace accelerator, to help it reach its goal.
Project Vahana, from Airbus, seeks to create an electric VTOL aircraft that is entirely self-piloted. There are a lot of advantages to the self-piloting model. It can save costs when it comes to hiring and training pilots (who typically expect a higher salary than a taxi driver), and software engineers already have plenty of experience creating autopilot systems for larger planes that can be applied to these VTOLs. It’s also an ideal way to run a taxi service since the vehicles automatically return to centers for maintenance or take a different route based on current orders.
In early 2018, the Vahana prototype had its first successful full-scale flight test. It wasn’t much — the 20-foot aircraft simply rose 16 feet into the air and stayed there for 53 seconds. However, it did this entirely with the autopilot technology. Airbus has flown about 50 test flights since, and it said it was on track for a 2020 debut, but its plans might have changed — we’re still waiting for an update on this project.
Kitty Hawk’s flying prototype
We were looking forward to Kitty Hawk’s Flyer, and CEO Sebastian Thrun said it was “as easy to use as playing Minecraft,” but the project was axed in June 2020 because the company learned what it needed from it. The company is now focusing on a larger, winged aircraft named Heaviside with a 100-mile range and a 180mph top speed. It will be able to fly over cities, according to TechCrunch, but there’s no telling when we’ll see it in action.
The Volocopter 2X’s design is ambitious — and it looks really cool. Developed in Germany, it features 18 battery-powered rotors controlled via a single joystick. We’d say that the whole thing isn’t very practical, but the firm made a full-sized test model and ran it across the stage at CES 2018, thanks to a little sponsorship by Intel.
The 2X can carry two passengers. It has a flight time of 30 minutes and a range of 17 miles between charge centers. Intel’s work on the project includes complex tech, such as four independent sensor units to control positioning, nine different electric battery packs with built-in redundancies, and even a parachute stowed on top of the vehicle in case something goes wrong. It’s no wonder Volocopter is Dubai’s latest pick for its upcoming air taxi fleet (although city officials have dumped other prototypes in the past, so it’s not a guaranteed deal).
Volocopter showed off the 2X by taking it on a two-minute flight above Singapore in October 2019.
The SureFly is a robust VTOL aimed at commercial operators and consumers looking for a durable, self-controlled flying experience — and who don’t mind paying around $200,000 per unit. It was developed by Workhorse, but the company sold its aviation division to Moog for $4 million in November 2019 after multimillion-dollar losses.
Digital Trends understands the SureFly’s development continues. It has eight propellers and a top speed of 75mph. While, unlike other VTOLs, it operates on gasoline, and a battery pack will provide an extra 10 minutes of flying time, if necessary. The initial version will be able to carry about 400 pounds of cargo, although a more heavy-duty version capable of carrying up to 650 pounds is currently in development. Both have captured the American military’s attention.
The SureFly needs to be easy to operate. Just two controls are in the aircraft: A joystick to control direction and a throttle control on the pilot’s door.
Coming from Canadian firm Opener, the BlackFly is a highly-distinctive VTOL that combines personal piloting with a wealth of automatic features, including auto-landing and automated return home functions, thus enabling flight without the need for formal licensing (a popular trend, as you may have noticed). Despite the design, BlackFly flies via a familiar method. Eight drone-like rotors are positioned across two wings. Taking off, however, is a bit more unique, as the VTOL is made to rock back and forth to literally pick up momentum to launch upward. Specs allow for a lengthy 40-mile range at 72mph, although regulations limit those numbers substantially for those who want to fly their own aerial vehicles.
With retractable wings and wheels, the Transition is another hybrid model designed to be equally at home on the ground and in the skies. That’s not the only way that the Transition is a true hybrid model, however. It’s powered by a gasoline-electric hybrid drivetrain that features a boost mode for an extra burst of speed when flying. In the past, the Transition was expected to eventually sell at $280,000, but these days, the company is refraining from providing a list price.
It sounds a little bit like a pipe dream, but keep in mind that Terrafugia is now owned by Geely, a Chinese firm whose growing portfolio of brands includes Volvo, Lotus, Polestar, the London Taxi Company, a roughly 10% stake in Mercedes-Benz parent company Daimler, and half of the Smart car brand. If anyone has pockets deep enough to build a flying car, it’s Geely.
When the Ehang 184 first showed up at CES, it seemed pretty impossible — a personal quadcopter VTOL that was fully automated, totally safe, completely comfortable, and powered via a basic touchscreen interface that anyone can use. Frankly, it all seemed like so much vaporware with a bunch of claims that couldn’t be substantiated. These days, Ehang is still making some pretty crazy claims. For example, it’s hard to believe the company has tested its model more than a thousand times in all types of situations (including gale-force winds, with 500 pounds of extra weight, and so on), as they claim — the only test footage available is decidedly more pedestrian. After all, this sort of thing has happened before.
However, other details give us reason to believe that some version of the Ehang 184 will go into operation. Ehang has specified that each taxi will have a command center that will automatically ground the flying car in poor weather conditions and that the models are primarily designed to fly in basic U-shapes from one port to another, which sounds much more in-line with what other prototypes are capable of.
On the other hand, Ehang filed for bankruptcy in May 2018. It called the move strategic, and the company is still in operation — it filed a $100 million IPO in November 2019 — but it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.
Joby Aviation air taxi
After spending years working on a personal aircraft, Joby Aviation recently received a massive cash infusion from the likes of Toyota and Intel that provides $100 million to create an electric air taxi. In December 2020, Joby announced it’s acquiring Uber Elevate, the ridesharing giant’s flying-taxi unit. Joby’s VTOL aircraft has a range of 150 miles and a top speed of 200 mph. Six electric motors power the flying machine, which can seat up to five people.
Jaunt Aviation’s helicopter-airplane hybrid
Newcomer Jaunt Aviation teamed up with the Triumph Group to develop a flying taxi that looks like a cross between a helicopter and a plane. The company plans to address one of the main concerns associated with helicopters: Noise. Using proprietary technology, the aircraft reduces the speed of its main rotor while flying to remain relatively quiet.
Jaunt might not be a household name, but it’s one we’re watching. It has forged partnerships with some of the biggest companies in the business. Aviation Today reported that Honeywell will provide a navigation software, flight control technology, and an electric propulsion system, among other pieces of the puzzle.
Porsche-Boeing flying taxi
Porsche and Boeing linked arms to explore whether there’s a market for flying taxis. The partners have their work cut out — they first need to figure out what luxury looks like in this burgeoning sector, and then determine how to deliver it profitably. International teams of engineers from both companies have started fine-tuning a concept previewed by a sketch of a sleek winged vehicle with a wrap-around windshield. The project is still in the embryonic stage, so the final design could very well change, but the firms imagine a vertical takeoff and landing vehicle that’s fully electric, stylish, and innovative. They’re working on a prototype that will be tested in 2020, Digital Trends learned.
Hyundai created a flying taxi division in September 2019. The company hasn’t released a prototype yet, but it hired NASA veteran Dr. Jaiwon Shin to spearhead its entry into the segment. His expertise in the fields of electrification and advanced air traffic control could give the South Korean company an edge as it tries to leap ahead of rivals.
“The new team at Hyundai will develop core technologies that will establish the company as a driving force in urban air mobility, a sector that is expected to grow into a market worth $1.5 trillion within the next 20 years,” the company wrote in a statement.
Aston Martin Volante Vision
Even Aston Martin wants in. In 2018, the British sports car manufacturer introduced a design study named Volante Vision that offered space for three passengers arranged in a triangular configuration. The company noted Rolls-Royce (the plane-maker, not the carmaker) provided the Volante Vision’s powertrain. Aston Martin also partnered with Cranfield University and Cranfield Aerospace Solutions to develop this concept. So far, Aston Martin has released some computer-generated images of the conceptual vehicle and mentioned a vertical take-off feature for this autonomous hybrid vehicle.
We all know that Rolls-Royce has a strong reputation for building fine automobiles. In addition to building luxury autos, Rolls-Royce has an aeronautics division that has been designing airplane engines since before the First World War.
While the automotive side of the business hasn’t expressed any interest in the VTOL market, the aeronautics division has, and released a concept design in 2018. The concept craft is capable of carrying people, cargo, or both, with an impressive range of over 500 miles. The craft uses electric motors, powered by gas turbines, that give the vehicle a top speed of 250 mph.
As exciting as the Rolls-Royce VTOL is, it’s going to be a while before we see a working model. The company has partnered with several other aeronautical companies to make the concept a reality, but several key components are still in the design phase.
Rolls-Royce teamed up with Bell in March of 2019 to develop VTOL powertrains for two vertical take-off vehicles. The updated designs are safer and more affordable than previous engines, helping expand the VTOL market even further.
Rolls-Royce also worked with Airbus to develop the propulsion system for the CityAirbus, which had its maiden flight in December 2019. The CityAirbus, which could represent the beginning of a new era for the VTOL market, is an electric multicopter that can carry up to four passengers.
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