It sounds like science fiction but flying taxis, like those featured in the movie Blade Runner 2049, could be a reality in just five or six years. At least that’s what the manufacturers working on the technology claim.
Earlier this week, Airbus and Audi revealed an electric air taxi called CityAirbus. Unlike the ‘hover car’ designs in the movies, this electric aircraft looks like a cross between a helicopter and a drone. It has eight rotors and can take off and land vertically. It was developed in cooperation with the Siemens Group, which supplies the engines, and is expected to be commercially usable before 2025.
At first, the CityAirbus will be piloted, but the plan is that once assurance and trust has been sufficiently built, the air taxi would become autonomous. It all sounds remarkably futuristic for a vision that is supposed to be just six years away.
The autonomous electric flying taxi is much quieter than a normal helicopter because it runs on batteries. That means that you won’t need to wear ear protection when on board, which s great. The potential downside, from my personal perspective, would be battery life. Electric cars have shown issues with battery drain in cold weather, and the range is still one of the main hurdles the market has still to overcome. Would you take off in an autonomous electric flying vehicle that could run out of battery mid-flight? I didn’t think so!
Airbus presented the CityAirbus in Ingolstadt, Germany. A pilot project in the Bavarian city, which is supported by the Ingolstadt Technical University, the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt and various companies, including Audi, is penciled in for the near future. Other pilot projects are planned for a total of 14 European cities including Hamburg, Toulouse, Antwerp, Brussels and Geneva. However, a concrete start date is not yet known.
What we do know is that a maiden flight is planned, and will begin at the airport in the German city of Manching near Ingolstadt, about 60 km away from the development site at Airbus Helicopters in Donauwörth.
Flying taxis were also a hot topic this week at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. Experts at SXSW seem to be suggesting that this is going to happen sooner rather than later. We already know that Uber has plans to launch its own air taxis in Los Angeles and Dallas, with a time frame rumored to similar to that of the CityAirbus. Uber Elevate, as it’s called, is planned to launch in 2023.
Michael Thacker, executive vice-president for technology and innovation at Bell Helicopters, agrees with the timeline. He told colleagues at Tech Explore this week: “It's not going to replace ground transport, it will augment it in another dimension. And it's not going to jump overnight with thousands of aircraft. There will rather be a few dozens of them in a few cities... at first, using helipads and helicopter routes.”
In the same publication, Jaiwon Shin, associate administrator for the Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate at NASA, said that whilst 2025 was a realistic prediction, it could take another decade for the market to fully expand and mature.
This all seems to be moving very quickly. Of course, these projects are visions of the future, and we’ve all seen how those can turn out. But there seems to be a real push for flying taxis, and even autonomous ones at that. How long before we start seeing headlines like ‘London Cabbies Strike Over Flying Ubers’...? Ok, I am half-joking, but if we are to believe what we are being told by the experts, this is really happening. For many, however, seeing is believing.
What do you think about the predictions for flying taxis? Will you be hauling one in 2025?