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Forget drone taxis. This startup is building a 40-seat drone bus

Braeden Kelekona is wedged on the New Jersey Transit train heading from Manhattan’s Penn Station into upstate New York, where he and his wife are going to visit friends for the Memorial Day weekend. “It’s quite a packed train,” he says, apologizing for the hubbub that, at times, threatens to drown out his voice on the call.

Although everyone around him is still wearing masks, the sight of a buzzing New York commuter train is one of those scenes of normalcy that hasn’t exactly been normal over the past year. As many parts of the world start to emerge, blinking, from 15 months of pandemic lockdown, so too can people lift their heads to the proverbial horizon to focus on the future. For many, that means once again getting on public transport, such as trains, and thinking about vacations and weekend getaways. For Kelekona, it means thinking about what’s going to replace the train.

Kelekona, the founder of a startup called, well, Kelekona, has an ambitious idea for the future of mass transportation: A lifting body electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft that resembles a flying saucer, a futuristic blimp or, for Gerry Anderson fans, a real-life Thunderbird 2. Its 3D-printed airframe promises to lift off the ground by way of eight thrust-vectoring fans with variable pitch propellers. These will enable each stage of flight, from vertical takeoff to forward flight and landing. “One hundred percent we are trying to compete with public transportation,” Kelekona told Digital Trends.

A different class of eVTOL

What differentiates this eVTOL aircraft from that of other companies building rival flying machines isn’t just the design, however: It’s the scale. While Uber Elevate, for instance, promises to launch its air taxi service as soon as 2023, it will carry just four passengers and a pilot. Kelekona, on the other hand, claims that its lifting body eVTOL will be capable of transporting a maximum of 40 passengers and a pilot — or 10,000 pounds of cargo — for a price comparable to an Amtrak ticket.

Would you like to supersize your eVTOL?

“We have a really small airspace in New York,” said Kelekona. “It never made sense to us to create a small aircraft that was only able to carry up to six people. You have to have the kind of mass transit we rely on here in the city. It makes sense to try to move as many people as possible in one aircraft, so that we’re not hogging airspace.”

According to Kelekona, the plan is to initially offer a route from Manhattan to the Hamptons. That flight, lasting around 30 minutes, will cost $85. Other planned routes will include Boston to New York; New York to Washington, D.C.; and Los Angeles to San Francisco.

Kelekona

To achieve these flights will, of course, take an impressive amount of battery power — which is exactly what Kelekona says the company has at its disposal. He describes the batteries as “similar to the batteries you would see in a Model S, Model 3 Tesla,” but strung together to create an enormous modular battery pack. “What we decided to build is a flying battery,” he noted. “What that allowed us to do is have greater endurance. Instead of building an interesting airframe and then trying to figure out how to put the battery into that aircraft, we started with the battery first and put things on top of it.” The battery pack the company says it will use has 3.6 megawatt hours of capacity, enough to power hundreds or thousands of homes. “That’s quite a lot of power,” Kelekona said.

To be clear, the company hasn’t actually built one of these enormous flying platforms just yet. All the work so far has been done in computer simulation, although he said that “we feel strongly that we have about plus or minus two percent read on all our performance data.”

Kelekona eVTOL passenger flying over city
Kelekona

The company sprang into being in 2019, and Kelekona said that, “I think you can expect to see our aircraft in the air next year.” Initially, however, this will be exclusively for cargo transportation. Passenger routes are planned for 2024, although, as Kelekona acknowledged, this depends on the certification process with the Federal Aviation Administration.

“That’s one of the trickier parts with passenger operation,” he said. “The FAA is still, to this day, creating the right protocols to test durability and reliability. They just want to make sure that the aircraft is [ready for whatever incident might] happen. They want to see the redundancy on your aircraft to mitigate that risk. In that regard, there’s a lot of overlap with the traditional aircraft certification, but at the same time with battery technology and electric motors, it has a different level of safety.”

Where we’re going, we don’t need roads

Like drone deliveries, eVTOL vehicles are one of the great Schrödinger’s cat technologies of our times: Both everywhere and nowhere simultaneously. There is no shortage of companies working on flying taxis right now (although perhaps none with the ambitious size promised by Kelekona), but so far, it’s very early days for this as a mode of mass transportation. However, for those who are in it to win it, it’s an exciting time.

Kelekona

“It’s a hot topic right now, not only because there’s a lot of capital being poured into the space, but being vertical takeoff and landing vehicles, you can do very interesting things as far as transporting passengers,” Kelekona said. “You don’t need a lot of new infrastructure. You’re able to do things very uniquely compared to how traditional aircraft engines operate, with their long runways and [other requirements.]”

In some ways, now is the worst time in the world to try and get into the business of flying machines. The pandemic has knocked the hell out of the established aviation industry. It’s not just the immediate effects of coronavirus-related policy, either: Consumer habits are likely to change as well. Who needs to catch a red-eye flight to attend a single meeting when a Zoom call can do 90 percent of the same thing without the hassle? But, as noted aviation analyst Sun Tzu once said, “In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.”

In other words, maybe this is the perfect time to bring the world flying trains.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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