Rules of the Sky: Are Taxis About to (Literally) Take Flight?

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A few weeks ago, the European Union Air Safety Agency (EASA) released new certification guidelines that included two new categories for operating small aircraft (nine people or fewer). These guidelines provide the first step toward a comprehensive regulatory framework for the commercial operation of hybrid and electric vertical take-off and landing craft — AKA flying taxis. 

NewtonX has previously investigated the future of transportation through qualitative consulatinos and large-scale surveys with aerial transportation experts, and in light of this recent regulatory development, we decided to revisit the subject. NewtonX conducted a survey with aerial transportation regulators, executives, and investors, in order to determine how soon flying taxis will take flight, and what steps need to be taken before this occurs. The data and insights in this article are informed by the results of the NewtonX survey. 

Air Mobility and the Rules that Govern It

The new EASA certification categories include a “basic” and an “enhanced” category for aircraft that carry nine people or fewer and weigh 7,000 pounds or less when fully loaded. Certification only requires that these craft be able to perform controlled emergency landings to protect passengers, and any aircraft operating commercially need both certifications (basic and enhanced). While these new certification categories are not sufficient for full-scale commercial operation, they are a first-step toward aerial taxi service. 

Currently, the regulations that are enforced do not account for modern electrical VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) aircraft. Regulations largely apply to fixed-wing aircraft, balloons, gliders, and rotary wing aircraft. Electric aircraft such as those being developed by Uber, use their rotors for take off and landing as well as for flight operations, and do not fall under the definitions in place. This meant that these aircraft needed special certification for take-off, until now. 

VTOL, which removes the need for runways, has become increasingly popular over the past half decade. From Airbus’ prototype of a hybrid car and flying aircraft that can disconnect from its wheels and fly via a set of rotors, to Nasa’s battery-powered GL-10, which takes off and lands vertically but flies like a conventional plane, many of the largest tech conglomerates are preparing for an aerial future with VTOLs.

VTOLs have myriad benefits, including their low emissions. Because they use electric propulsion, and are powered by battery, they provide a clean alternative to traditional, fuel-based cars. That said, the energy per unit weight provided by battery is still insufficient for long commutes, meaning that self-flying vehicles will have a mile cap on them and will likely be used primarily in densely populated urban centers where traffic is a huge problem

Flying Taxi Prototypes Are Ready for Take-Off

Just a few weeks ago, Boeing announced that it’s working with a flying taxi startup called Kitty Hawk, to “collaborate on future efforts to advance safe urban air mobility.” The startup has already developed an autonomous fully electric taxi that has performed well during test drives in New Zealand, but the company says it’s not ready for commercial deployment (yet). 

Boeing is one of many tech/mobility giants investing in the space. Uber, of course, has had plans for autonomous and flying taxis for years, and may roll the service out as early as 2020. A startup called Lilium based out of Munich says it will offer an on-demand flying taxi service that involves a two-seater aircraft shaped like a plane but with a VTOL system. American-Israeli startup Next Future Transportation has also developed a hybrid electric VTOL flying car that can be driven like a car with wings folded back, or take-off and fly.When these flying cars hit the market, they will carry price tags of $200,000 and up, with some companies such as NFT offering subscription services with monthly payments of several hundred dollars. 

As regulations tighten, test flights show more and more promising results, and city infrastructure opens up to aerial taxis, NewtonX experts predict that before individual ownership models occur we will see on-demand aerial taxi services being commercially deployed in densely populated urban areas. 

 

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