Date: 11/18/2019 – Author: Thomas Bott
Reading time: 4 minutes
Date: 11/18/2019 – Author: Thomas Bott
Flying taxis to solve mobility problems
Countless vehicles are on the roads of cities across the world. They create chaos and traffic jams during rush hour, and make commutes longer than they should. The problem: limited space. Underground roads could of course solve the problem, but that’s an undertaking both too expensive and time consuming. Already existing space may instead be the answer: airspace.
If traffic — or at least parts of it — moves to airspace, more space is created on the ground. This freed up space could be used for other things like cycle paths, long-distance pedestrian zones, or perhaps, even new buildings. However, air traffic is unsuitable as it’s highly pollutive, inflexible, and strictly regulated. But an alternative model to this is already in the works: air taxis. These small, fully electric flying objects are hardly larger than a helicopter and bring several passengers to their destination flexibly to numerous stations in the city.
EHang prepares for departure
The Chinese company EHang is planning to execute exactly such a concept. Its first flying taxi is a so-called Autonomous Aerial Vehicle (AAV) — which is able to fly from A to B without a pilot at the helm. The company presented its first model at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in 2016. The EHang 184 intends to show that flying taxis are not a vision of the future, but a reality for the near future. The company wants to achieve this with an octocopter design that is also used for drones. This doesn’t come as a surprise, as EHang also develops professional drones.
The transporter only weighs 240 kilograms (520 pounds) and can carry up to 100 kilograms of freight, which can include a person sitting on a seat in the interior. Two rotors, each with a motor, are attached to the four arms. In the system, the EHang 184 generates an output of 152 kW. The built-in rechargeable batteries can fly for up to 25 minutes at an average speed of 60 km/h (37.3 mp/h). At the maximum speed of 100 km/h (62.1 mp/h), of course, the flying time is less. Passengers are able to view their route and control the heating system via a console. To date, EHang has built more than 40 units and has completed more than 1000 test flights.
Of course an air taxi services that only transports one person isn’t enough. That’s why the company also created the EHang 216, which has enough space for two people with a combined weight no greater than 220 kilograms (485 pounds). To carry the additional load, EHang uses eight arms with a total of 16 propellers. The 216 has also completed more than 1000 test flights, and is recorded of having covered a maximum of 8.8 kilometres (5.5 miles) with one battery charge. In August 2019, EHang announced that it had chosen Guangzhou as the first city for a public pilot project to test regular operations. The aircraft used will be monitored from a designated command center to ensure that the aircraft are always safe in the air and can intervene in their routes in the event of an emergency. Nevertheless, EHang will continue to test consignment goods before passengers will be transported.
Volocopter: Chinese investment in a German company
As early as 2011, a company from Bruchsal, Germany, developed a prototype for an air taxi. The e-volo VC1 managed the first manned flight with purely electric drivers and secured the company a state subsidy of $2.18 million. In the meantime, the company has changed its name to Volocopter and introduced its first commercial flying taxi, the VoloCity, in August 2019. It is supposed to fly up to 110km/h (68mph) with a distance of up to 35 km. 18 rotors, each with its own electric motor, are mounted on a rim above the passenger cabin. The VoloCity flies autonomously, but can also be controlled manually by a pilot, and can accommodate up to two passengers.
The technology obviously impressed an investor from China greatly. The Geely group, which includes car brands such as Volvo, Lynk & Co, and Lotus, decided to invest a reported $55.3 million into Volocopter. The investment should help to establish a functioning infrastructure with air taxis within three years. Of course, Geely’s interest is primarily in the Chinese market. EHang may soon face competition in the Far East.
Why not connect two worlds?
A slightly different concept was created by Italdesign in cooperation with Audi and Airbus. At first glance, the Pop.Up Next looks like a simple flying taxi, but it transforms from flying taxi to autonomous vehicle — a passenger capsule is docked to a flight module. The Pop.Up Next should fly comfortably through the air as close as possible to its destination. A vehicle platform transports the capsule the last few meters. At Drone Week 2018 in Amsterdam, a working 1:4 scale model showed that this system has a future. Whether such a combination service makes sense in practice will be determined in the test phase, transporting passengers in helicopters and then in Audi vehicles in South America.