The daily commutes of city dwellers may take a drastic evolution with the development of electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft or, more simply put, “flying taxis”. A multitude of startups are investing heavily in zero-emission flight, using electric power, as conventional air travel methods struggle to operate on a more eco-friendly level.
Similar to helicopters, eVTOLs are intended for short distance travel and also don’t require runaways or swaths of space to takeoff and land. Most of these electric aircraft have batteries that can allow them to fly for about a half an hour. However, eVTOLs differ notably with their lower costs, increased safety, and quietness. These advantages can explain why dozens of firms are throwing their hats in the “flying taxi” ring. According to The Guardian, analysts at UBS predict the eVTOL industry will be worth almost 200 billion dollars by 2040.
Two firms in particular, the England-based, Vertical Aerospace, and Germany-based, Lilium, have revealed significant breakthroughs recently. According to The Guardian, Vertical Aerospace flew its Seraph prototype around an airfield in Wales, which carried a 250kg load. And, its German counterpart released footage of its electric jet taking forward flight, a major milestone for eVTOL technology.
Lilium and Vertical Aerospace expect their aircraft to have a flying range of 185 miles and 100 miles, respectively. Further advancements in battery technology would see these numbers grow, making eVTOLs much more dependable. Nonetheless, seeing greater investment and expansion, both companies claim the introduction of this new form of domestic transport could be only three to five years away.
This estimate, however, is massively dependent on the presence of adequate physical infrastructure for eVTOLs, aviation regulations, proper monitoring systems, and affordability. The industry’s first answer to these requirements comes in the form of vertiports, which is where the aircraft would take off, land, and charge or swap batteries. The biggest challenge in implementing this is the lack of space in already densely packed cities. And, according to the BBC, if sites are identified, they would need to comply with planning regulations, which don’t exist yet.
Currently, aviation regulators in the US and Europe are crafting the standards for eVTOLs to meet. Once agreed, though, the aircraft will need to go through years of testing before it meets these standards, which could cost millions. When it comes to monitoring these aircraft, new airspace management systems will need to be put in place in order to cope with potentially thousands of flying vehicles.
Finally, according to the BBC, the business model of a flying taxi service is yet to be formulated, but they will likely serve short, well-defined routes in and out of cities. The possibility of eVTOLs becoming a form of mass transit is dependent on fares being comparable to trains or regular taxi rides. This is a major source of skepticism, as the use of eVTOLs may only be fashioned towards wealthy customers, prepared to pay a premium for its services.
The prospect of being flown across the city in the matter of minutes in a miniature, electric aircraft is fascinating. Whether eVTOLs simply become a luxury “toy”, enjoyed only by thrill seeking, wealthy individuals or a new form of mass transportation is yet to be seen. The investment, however, is present and work is being done to make these a reality. So, who knows, you might look up sometime soon and see a flying taxi zoom above your head.