Preparing for Takeoff

Once the stuff of science fiction, new advances in electric motors, batteries, carbon fiber, and communication platforms are giving a lift to aerial taxi services.
Uber Elevate air taxi
travelways in the sky Uber envisions an aerial taxi service it calls Uber Elevate that will transport passengers above dense cities and rural areas to destinations like major airports. // Courtesy of Uber

Veteran pilot and entrepreneur Jon Rimanelli had some lofty ideas when he launched his latest company, Detroit-based Airspace Experience Technologies, in 2018. Also known as ASX, the startup quite literally aims to take to the air by developing a battery-powered, drone-like craft that could be put into service as an airborne taxi.

Flying cars and cabs have been the stuff of dreams for more than a century. Automotive pioneer Henry Ford, who in 1925 brought rigidity and safety to the fledgling aviation industry with his all-metal Tri-Motor aircraft, pumped a significant sum of money into the ultimately failed effort to build what was affectionately known as the “Flying Flivver,” a play on the nickname for his earthbound Model T.

His small aircraft project was grounded when the test pilot, a personal friend of the automotive pioneer, died in a crash (a full-scale model of the Flivver can be seen at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn). Since then, a number of entrepreneurs like Rimanelli have tried to make similar dreams take wing.

Until recently, these might have seemed like little more than flights of fancy, but suddenly there’s a sense that personal mobility really could take off, as several critical factors have started coming together. These include the development of new and more capable battery drive systems and electric motors, autonomous vehicle technology, advances in carbon fiber, and the emergence of ride-sharing companies like Uber, which has launched the air taxi service Uber Elevate.

In addition, five-seat aerial taxis — with room for a pilot and four passengers — can easily be converted to transfer cargo and medical supplies. The latter offering, for example, can retrieve blood samples from remote locations where a virus is spreading, deliver them to a hospital or a lab, and make the return trip loaded with a vaccine or other medicines. Aerial taxis also can evacuate people from dangerous settings.

Even a few months ago, it seemed, flying cabs could become a very real part of the transportation infrastructure — and perhaps quite soon, as Uber promised to begin service within just a couple years. That, however, was before the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic, which has hammered the global economy, especially the transportation industry.

Air travel was all but grounded through mid-May, and the ride-sharing business has seen its business drop off a precipice — to the point that after giants Uber and Lyft posted combined losses of more than $3 billion for the first quarter alone, there are questions about whether they can survive.

Proponents remain confident the pandemic will pose just a temporary setback. They continue to paint a rosy picture of a world where people can tap a button on a smartphone to summon an ASX or Uber Elevate flying taxi — whether in a large, dedicated parking lot, atop a parking deck, or from a network of decentralized hubs — within a matter of minutes. The cost for a one-way trip would be comparable to a luxury sedan service.

The emergence of smaller, unmanned drones used by hobbyists, law enforcement, and commercial operators has set the stage for this promising new concept. Like the devices one can get at a local Best Buy, flying taxis rely on electric propulsion, rather than engines powered by aviation fuel. Advances in electric motors, as well as ongoing improvements in battery technology, promise to lower both production and operating costs while also improving range, speed, and performance over traditional aircraft.

An array of prototypes already have been built, and a handful are now being tested in the air. These include startups like Slovakia’s Aeromobil, which began taking orders for private ownership at the annual Top Marques Monaco luxury goods show in 2019. Company officials hope to begin deliveries of their five-seater to private owners within the next year or two at a price of somewhere between $1.3 million and $1.6 million.

Hyundai air taxi model
Hub Of Innovation:
At the CES show in January, Hyundai showed off a scale model mock-up of its air taxi S-A1 and hub, complete with autonomous buses that look like rolling toasters. // Courtesy of Hyundai

Considering the size of the private aircraft market, a number of companies have entered the fray, including Britain’s Aston Martin, best known for the various luxury sedans, coupes, and sports cars used by cinematic superspy James Bond. The automaker has now teamed up with aerospace giant Rolls-Royce, Cranfield University, and Cranfield Aerospace Solutions to develop the Volante Vision Concept, which, it explains, “aims to bring luxury personal transportation to the sky.” Aston Martin estimates a production version of the concept could make the run from London to Paris, a bit over 200 miles, in 30 minutes.

“Air travel will be a crucial part in the future of transportation,” says Andy Palmer, former president and CEO of Aston Martin, adding the company’s goal is to develop “the ultimate luxury mobility solution.”

Whether the skies eventually come to resemble what we’ve seen in sci-fi flicks like “Blade Runner” remains uncertain. Driving the new transportation service will be companies like Uber Elevate. Indeed, since its first aerial concept was unveiled in 2016, it’s drawn an assortment of potential aircraft providers to the fore.

These include startups like ASX, as well as familiar aerospace names like Boeing and Airbus — the latter recently released an animation of a concept it calls Vahana. Developed in cooperation with Italdesign, it relies on modular components including a four-rotor drone unit that would attach to the top of a passenger car’s cabin. The vehicle’s wheels and chassis would be left behind as the aircraft flew to its destination. Upon arrival, the cabin would be set on a new chassis before the drone separates itself, leaving for the next mission. The passengers, meanwhile, drive away in a now-wheeled vehicle to reach their final destination.

Apart from aircraft companies, the race to take to the skies has attracted name-brand automakers like Toyota and Hyundai; the Korean-based automaker recently partnered with Uber Elevate.

“Our vision of urban air mobility will transform the concept of urban transportation,” proclaimed Jaiwon Shin, executive vice president and head of Hyundai’s Urban Air Mobility (UAM) Division, during a presentation of its S-A1 “personal air vehicle,” or PAV, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last January. “We expect UAM to revitalize urban communities and provide more quality time to people. We are confident that Uber Elevate is the right partner to make this innovative product readily available to as many customers as possible.”

Hyundai envisions a network of hubs — combination terminals and landing pads — that would be built in cities and suburbs around the world, or set up on existing infrastructure such as parking decks. The S-A1 would operate at altitudes of between 1,000 feet and 2,000 feet, and handle trips of up to 60 miles at speeds reaching 180 mph.

For its part, Toyota began the year by investing nearly $400 million in Joby Aviation, a startup that’s developing a vertical takeoff and landing, or VTOL, aircraft targeting commercial air taxi services like Uber Elevate. With its six propellers, the aircraft is intended for relatively short flights of up to 150 miles at speeds approaching 200 mph.

“Air transportation has been a long-term goal for Toyota, and while we continue our work in the automobile business, this agreement (with Joby Aviation) sets our sights to the sky,” says Akio Toyoda, president and CEO of Toyota Motor Corp. “We hope to deliver freedom of movement and enjoyment to customers everywhere on land, and now in the sky.”

While traditional aerospace companies like Boeing and Airbus might seem like logical leaders in the field, automakers such as Hyundai and Toyota think they can bring a unique advantage to the nascent air taxi industry: their ability to turn out product in assembly line fashion, rather than the slow, plodding process that’s the norm in today’s aircraft environment. That would be critical for Uber Elevate and other air taxi services that hope to field hundreds of aircraft in relatively short order.

ASX air taxi
Welcome Aboard:
ASX in Detroit may have the most advanced design for a vertical takeoff and landing, or VTOL, aircraft. Once airborne, the wing transitions for horizontal flight. // Courtesy of ASX

Although the big budgets available to Boeing, Airbus, Hyundai, or Toyota might seem an insurmountable obstacle, the fact that Uber, in particular, hopes to sign up several aircraft vendors has given hope to startups like ASX, a sister company to Detroit Aircraft that’s based at the Coleman A. Young International Airport (Detroit City Airport). Rimanelli, founder and CEO of both companies, says his team’s expertise would bring an even greater level of nimbleness to the game.

So far, ASX has developed several concepts, and all of its subscale model test flights have performed as designed. The company’s approach, like Hyundai’s SA-1, is a hybrid of drone and conventional aircraft design. It uses a number of individual motors and propellers to allow it to take off and land vertically, but when airborne, its wing swings forward — an approach that creates greater lift and lower drag, enabling faster travel speeds and greater range.

“It’s basically a modernized redesign of the XC-142, an experimental Navy tilt-wing aircraft from the 1960s,” Rimanelli says. The military craft eventually was grounded, and the challenge of developing rotating wings proved seemingly insurmountable until the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey came along in 2007.

By using electric motors rather than complex gas engine and transmission systems, manned drones like the one ASX is developing are expected to be considerably cheaper than the Osprey. The use of as many as eight different rotors, meanwhile, would enhance safety by providing redundancy if one of the motors should fail, Rimanelli explains.

The project seemed poised for take-off as recently as March, when ASX established a preliminary partnership with both Eaton, a well-known automotive supplier, and Spirit AeroSystems — the Wichita-based company that’s the world’s largest manufacturer of aerospace components for companies like Boeing. Then COVID-19 hit.

With the pandemic draining finances, some companies have put the brakes on developing aerial taxis. ASX, however, has cash on hand to refine its aircraft, called MOBi-ONE, for the foreseeable future.

Americans, it’s often said, have surprisingly short memories, and it’s quite possible that such virus-related setbacks could be temporary, especially considering the country’s inherent love of travel. Even then, skeptics question just how soon air taxi services could take to the air.

Slovakia’s AeroMobil has repeatedly set back its first delivery date, as have other startups. And ASX’s Rimanelli doesn’t see getting anything airborne and certified by the FAA for commercial flight until 2023 at the earliest. He adds the regulatory agency has been highly supportive of integrating aerial taxis into the national airspace.

Gavin Brown, executive director of the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association in Sterling Heights, is among the skeptics. He sees the financial strains coming out of the coronavirus pandemic as raising potentially insurmountable challenges for aerial taxis.

With advances in communication systems like 5G and GPS, he “could see prototypes” in the next few years going through limited flight testing, “but any commercial operation is years away. It’s not going to happen until 2026 or beyond … and more likely 10 years out.”

That said, even skeptics admit there’s an unmistakable lure to the idea of adding the third dimension to urban and suburban travel, especially as roads in the U.S. and abroad become increasingly crowded. With a wing and a prayer, perhaps, the era of the aerial taxi car, cargo hauler, and emergency response vehicle is finally approaching.