Skip to main content

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.


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

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.


“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.

Editors' Recommendations

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…
DJI Mini Pro 4 leak appears to reveal the drone’s specs
A retail box apparently showing DJI's upcoming Mini Pro 4 drone.

DJI appears close to unveiling the Mini 4 Pro, the successor to the Mini 3 Pro that launched in May last year.

First, as a reminder, DJI’s smallest and lightest “Pro” drone tips the scales at just 249 grams, a carefully considered move as it’s just 1 gram below the drone weight category that involves having to register it with the authorities. Sure, that’s no great hardship for most folks, but the fewer hoops you have to jump through to get your bird in the sky, the better.

Read more
GoPro unveils its latest action camera, the Hero 12 Black
GoPro's Hero 12 Black action camera.

GoPro: Introducing HERO12 Black | Everything You Need to Know

GoPro is back with the latest iteration of its popular action camera. The new GoPro Hero 12 Black is the kind of solid piece of kit we’ve come to expect from a company that’s been in the game for years. That’s actually created a bit of a problem for GoPro, with many customers happy to hang onto their current model rather than upgrade. So it'll be hoping the latest version will be attractive enough to prompt a wave of purchases among current owners, while at the same time attracting a bunch of first-time buyers, too.

Read more
How to hide photos on your Android phone or tablet
Google Photos

While modern smartphones are quite secure as long as they remain locked with a passcode or biometrics like a fingerprint, by default those features only protect the front door. If someone picks up your phone while it's unlocked, there aren't typically any barriers that will keep them out of exploring everything from your contacts and emails to your photos.

This can be particularly challenging when it comes to photos, since those are the things we like to show off the most from our phones. We've likely all had those moments when we want to show a friend or co-worker a funny cat meme, so we hand over our phone and trust that they won't swipe right and see the photo of the hairy mole that we sent to our doctor that morning.

Read more