At nine-thirty in the evening, one otherwise nondescript day in November 1954, a Belgian man named Roelants was riding his bicycle in the village of Dudzele, West Flanders. As he passed a dairy, he witnessed a bright light rapidly descend from the sky. As he cycled closer, the light — which he now realized was some kind of flying object — rose vertically into the sky and then, suddenly, transitioned to a horizontal flight mode and took off at high speed like a jet plane. The entire incident, which played out in seconds, was entirely silent.
Roelants’ story — one of many, many similar reports described over the years — contained lots of the hallmarks of the unidentified flying saucer sighting. These much speculated-upon vehicles were usually assumed to be otherworldly for the primary reason that, put simply, real terrestrial aircraft don’t fly that way.
At least, they didn’t.
In January 2022, in China’s JiangSu province, a team of R&D engineers, assorted executives, and others from the air taxi company AutoFlight gathered to witness the ascension of the Prosperity I drone. (No, it’s not saucer-shaped, but its unusual movement is still likely enough to spook the odd 1950s cyclist.)
On command, the remote-operated electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft — resembling a combination helicopter, light airplane, and eight-rotor drone — lifted vertically into the air until it was around 500 feet up. When it reached this altitude, it switched into a mode of flight akin to an airplane; the rotors on the top ceased to spin and locked into position, while the rear propellers began to push the aircraft forward like a traditional fixed wing plane. It then started to travel horizontally at speeds of up to 123mph, before landing smoothly, once more in vertical mode. The proof-of-concept test — showing this unusual form of locomotion in action — was considered a rousing success.
“For our cruise flights, we’re not flying like a drone — which you would expect — with propellers,” Mark Henning, AutoFlight’s European Managing Director, formerly of Airbus, told Digital Trends. “We have a real wing, which is necessary for an efficient flight. It means that [our craft flies] aerodynamically. The transition between vertical flights and what we call the fixed wing phase is, from a flight mechanical point of view, something extremely interesting. That’s something that not too many companies have mastered. … We think it’s worthwhile to tell the world.”
It is, of course, one thing to tell the world about some big potential breakthrough in air transportation. It’s another to deliver on it. The JiangSu test was a delivery — at least partially.
The evolution of transport
As with everything else on our planet, transportation is in a constant state of evolution. In under three centuries, our most sophisticated modes of everyday transport have shifted from the horse and cart to the steamboat and steam locomotive to the first cars and bikes. Today, the pace of change has continued, whether through the advent of electric cars and self-driving vehicles or the rise of ride-hailing platforms like Uber and Lyft.
However, the problem with any ground-based transportation is, put simply, space — and not the kind that Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are obsessed with. This is where Prosperity I (and assorted other air taxi companies) want to clean up.
“In mega cities where we have very congested traffic situations, where most probably the public transportation system is already overloaded, you cannot grow any more to transport people,” Henning said. “But the need is still there to transport more and more people because cities are only going to [become more heavily populated] in the future. So what do you do? You go into the third dimension. You fly.”
This is the same trajectory architects followed when they began to create skyscrapers in the late 1800s, and in earnest, during the twentieth century. It’s also the same trajectory being followed today by some chip designers, who believe that the key to keeping Moore’s Law going is to use chips’ z-axis to pack in more transistors as though they were multistory buildings.
The idea of offering air taxis isn’t a wholly new idea. There are other companies exploring this idea when it comes to electric drones. And for years now, private helicopters have been used to ferry one-percenters to their marble-clad offices while the rest of us sit in traffic. But this isn’t an accessible mode of transportation for the majority of people.
Helicopters are expensive to run, complex to operate, and make a lot of noise. A Goldman Sachs executive might use one to get to the office more quickly, but they’re probably not enjoying a particularly zen journey with quiet thinking time on the way. Prosperity I, on the other hand, promises to be quiet. Henning, who is based in Germany, says it will be “as quiet as an automobile traveling on the Autobahn.”
While he wouldn’t offer a precise noise level in terms of decibels, he said, “The idea is that you can sit in the aircraft and you can speak as we’re speaking now.” (Note: We weren’t yelling at one another at the time.)
“Flying with this kind of aircraft, like Prosperity I, is also going to be [very] cost effective,” he said. “We have a simple design, and we’re using electricity, not combustion engines or complex gears or drive-trains as we have in helicopters. All of that adds up to very low operating costs, and low operating costs translate into low prices for end customers.”
Again, pricing has yet to be announced, but the company says it expects a trip that takes hours by car can be reduced to about 10 minutes “without being any less safe or more expensive than a car taxi ride.”
The vehicle itself can transport up to four people, including a safety pilot. Fully laden, it will reportedly weigh just over 3,300 pounds and offer speeds of a maximum of 200 mph over a 155 mile range.
Coming soon to an airspace near you?
AutoFlight is currently targeting commercial flights for 2025. Whether it can hit this ambitious target is the real “wait and see” bit, though. The JiangSu province demo is extremely promising, but there’s still a long way to go.
Henning points to three pillars which must be completed in order for this goal to be delivered. One is the technological issue of building a fully certified, completed Prosperity I. The second is the development of the necessary ground-based infrastructure. This is the equivalent of creating a robust network of charging ports for electric cars — but, in this case, being the construction of enough takeoff and landing ports to accommodate the proposed fleet.
The third is the legislation regarding traffic management. “We will have a lot of aircraft – and a lot needs to be quantified, of course – but you will have a lot of aircraft in a small airspace,” Henning said. “They have to be managed in an agile and very, very safe manner so that we can fly them over cities within urban environments.”
If all three pillars can be erected concurrently, then the future looks bright for Prosperity I.
“Of course, you need innovative government agencies which say, ‘Yes, I want to allow and I want to enable these kinds of operations — especially over congested areas over cities, because that’s where we have the need,” he continued. “And yes, we’re going to allow [the construction of] VertiPorts.”
He noted that he expects Singapore to be an early adopter of the technology, while London in the UK will likely serve as a proof-of-concept for the rest of Europe.
“I hope that in the U.S. we will have some acceleration, because also there we have awful traffic situations,” he said. “We don’t have a proper public transportation system, nothing at all.”
AutoFlight is, as mentioned, far from the only company throwing its hat into the eVTOL ring. In fact, it’s a relative newcomer, but it’s got plenty going in its favor. For one thing, it’s evidently done enough to attract talent like Henning (“This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, honestly.”), and it’s also got some impressive funding behind it, including a recent $100 million investment from next-generation mobility investor Team Global. If it can continue building on its innovative flight transition mode approach, it could have a bright future ahead of it.
The big winners in this next-gen travel field have yet to be revealed. However, AutoFlight is certainly doing a good job of creating a buzz. And based on the fact that it called its air taxi Prosperity, it clearly believes it’s onto a winner.
If you don’t want long gridlocked traffic commutes to return any time soon, it may just be a company worth rooting for.
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