Uber’s VTOL taxis
Uber’s taxi project is one of the biggest in the VTOL industry. The company targets 2023 as the year its service will be available commercially, but we could see the first Uber Air taxis a little earlier via a pilot program.
Executives first turned their attention to air travel in 2016, and they accelerated the program during the second half of the 2020s. Uber plans to start testing its technology in cities like Dallas, Los Angeles, and Dubai by the end of 2020. The prototypes it plans to build look like futuristic, scaled-down turbo-prop planes with a big difference: They will take off and land from massive skyports scattered across the cities they serve. They won’t need a runway.
Each plane will be capable of reaching 150 mph, and it will have a range of about 60 miles on non-reserve power when carrying one pilot and four passengers. The prototypes will be electric, and they’ll fly themselves, though the pilot will be able to take back control in emergency situations.
If it sounds like this will transform crowded cities, you’re absolutely right. Uber expects up to 1,000 landings per hour, so it’s tapping top architects to design densely packed structures on plots of land as small as one acre.
Uber’s expansion is fascinating to watch because it sheds light on the challenges flying cars face before they take to the skies. For example, VTOLs don’t fly reliably in cities with extreme weather, so Uber will begin testing in regions with very mild conditions and little rains — sorry, Seattle. The company also needs to make friends in the real estate business and with decision-makers to set up skyports in places where space is a luxury. These requirements add up quickly, and they illustrate how much work the 21st-century sky pioneers have ahead of them.
Slovakia-based AeroMobil remains committed to releasing a functioning flying car it calls “a supercar with superpowers.” It’s on its fourth prototype, so you know it’s not joking.
The company has plenty of concept art to show the car in its final form. It’s one of the more notable hybrid models in the works, and we’re not talking about a gasoline-electric powertrain. Unlike true VTOLs, hybrid flying cars are designed to take off from a runway, like a plane, but also have the ability to morph into a car-like vehicle to drive on the road. This system requires retractable wheels and wings, along with a very efficient drivetrain.
AeroMobil is funneling time and money into the development of an electric powertrain. It notably joined forces with organizations like Starburst, an aerospace accelerator, to help it reach its goal.
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Project Vahana, from Airbus, seeks to create an electric VTOL aircraft that is entirely self-piloted. There are a lot of advantages to the self-piloting model. It can save costs when it comes to hiring and training pilots (who typically expect a higher salary than a taxi driver), and software engineers already have plenty of experience creating autopilot systems for larger planes that can be applied to these VTOLs. It’s also an ideal way to run a taxi service since the vehicles automatically return to centers for maintenance or take a different route based on current orders.
In early 2018, the Vahana prototype had its first successful full-scale flight test. It wasn’t much — the 20-foot aircraft simply rose 16 feet into the air and stayed there for 53 seconds. However, it did this entirely with the autopilot technology. Airbus has flown about 50 test flights since and says it’s on track for a 2020 debut.
Kitty Hawk’s flying prototype
Kitty Hawk CEO Sebastian Thrun claims that flying its latest prototype is “as easy to use as playing Minecraft,” so we’re already sold. This also means there’s currently no pilot’s license required to drive it. The latest prototype, appropriately called Flyer, is a 250-pound model created by the startup to show off its ultralight design. Kitty Hawk, started by Thrun and Google co-founder Larry Page, plans on creating both a personal flying machine that’s largely for “off-road” fun (ultralight vehicles like this can’t fly over urban areas by law), and an air taxi for more urban environments. The small, drone-like personal flyer holds a lot of promise for those who want a quick and dirty flying car experience, but so far it’s only available for test flights at a lakeside training center.
The Volocopter 2X’s design is ambitious — and it looks really cool. Developed in Germany, it features 18 battery-powered rotors controlled via a single joystick. We’d say that the whole thing isn’t very practical, but the firm made a full-sized test model and ran it across the stage at CES 2018 thanks to a little sponsorship by Intel.
The 2X can carry two passengers; it has a flight time of 30 minutes, and a range of 17 miles between charge centers. Intel’s work on the project includes complex tech, such as four independent sensor units to control positioning, nine different electric battery packs with built-in redundancies, and even a parachute stowed on top of the vehicle in case something goes wrong. It’s no wonder Volocopter is Dubai’s latest pick for its upcoming air taxi fleet (although city officials have dumped other prototypes in the past, so it’s not a guaranteed deal).
Volocopter showed off the 2X by taking it on a two-minute flight above Singapore in October 2019.
The SureFly is a robust VTOL aimed at commercial operators and consumers looking for a durable, self-controlled flying experience — and don’t mind paying around $200,000 per unit. It was developed by Workhorse, but the company sold its aviation division to Moog for $4 million in November 2019 after multimillion-dollar losses.
Digital Trends understands the SureFly’s development continues. It has eight propellers and a top speed of 75 mph. While, unlike other VTOLs, it operates on gasoline, a battery pack will provide an extra 10 minutes of flying time if necessary. The initial version will be able to carry about 400 pounds of cargo, although a more heavy-duty version capable of carrying up to 650 pounds is currently in development. Both have captured the American military’s attention.
The SureFly needs to be easy to operate, which is why it’s mostly operated. Just two controls are in the aircraft: A joystick to control direction and throttle control on the pilot’s door.
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