Flying taxis: Castle in the sky or closer than you think? † General

Electric flying taxis seem like a golden idea. They can carry us through traffic jams without destroying the air and climate. Prototypes fly all over the world. But why can we not order them yet?

On November 11, 1922, the very first quadcopter in France took off. On board was engineer and biologist Étienne Œhmichen. When the computer was not yet invented, he controlled the device by hand. With an improved version of the machine, Œhmichen won a prize of 10,000 francs by completing a circular route of one kilometer. But in the absence of commercial success, he continued his career as a professor of biology at the Collège de France, where he studied the goldsmith’s wingbeat.

The man would have happily seen that the quadcopter has made a comeback. This time with an artificial brain in that coordinates the movements. For it is certainly not easy to control a plane that can take off and land vertically (VTOL). Ordinary aircraft become stable as they gain speed on the runway. In calm weather you can fly them without hands. However, helicopters (both real and model helicopters) react extremely nervously when hovering. The slightest steering error can be fatal. Controlling a drone, on the other hand, is child’s play. In fact, the operator on the ground just tells the drone where to go. The control itself is handled by the unit itself.

It is no wonder that many people got the idea to further develop the unmanned drone into an air taxi. The idea is attractive. In a metropolis, areas and platforms are reserved for drones to land on. It can be former industrial plots, but also roofs on buildings. The customer orders a flight via his phone and is notified of the departure time. This is followed by a fast flight over the traffic jams. This scenario shows that air taxis are particularly attractive in congested areas with poor public transport. But there are many of them in the world.

The image shows an electric VTOL from Joby Aviation, which NASA is testing for future commercial passenger services. But why has hardly anyone ever observed such an air taxi in free flight? Why is the City Airbus Passenger drone, Volocopter 2X, Lilium Jet, Ehang 216, Workhorse Surefly, Boeing / AFS Passenger Air Vehicle, Kitty Hawk Cora, Uber Elevate and Astro Aerospace Passenger Drone, but not commercially available?

Flying cars have been promised to us since 1917, when Glenn Curtis presented his Autoplane at an exhibition in New York. The thing would never fly. That not a single flying car has broken through since then is due to the fact that the differences between cars and planes have proved insurmountable. A car can bump into anything, so it needs to be sturdy. An airplane must be light and is therefore by definition fragile. A car can – although not recommended – be an old barrel, because there is always the hard shoulder.

Flying around in a poorly maintained plane is a form of suicide; the slightest defects can lead to a crash. A car is compact, a plane is not. In addition, an aircraft that takes off or lands puts a lot of strain on its surroundings, even if done vertically. Anyone who has ever seen a trauma helicopter land in the city knows what I mean. Another big difference is that you do not have to be so smart to drive a car. Managing an aircraft can be particularly complicated, especially in bad weather, and therefore requires a great deal of knowledge and skills.

The latter can now be solved with automation, as it is called. With drone technology, an air taxi does not need to have a pilot on board. But could it really? The only forms of driverless transport are moving on a rail or hanging from a cable. The American spaceship Crew Dragon is completely autonomous, yet the astronauts receive thorough training in manual piloting of the aircraft. To my knowledge, there has never been anyone who could not even fly, flying around in a remote or computer-controlled aircraft.

And that’s exactly what proponents of air taxis are advocating. The reason is that these devices offer low capacity. In a normal taxi, three large people plus their carriages can easily fit next to the driver. Most of the above air taxis have a smaller capacity. So it seems like a good idea to remove the pilot.

The idea that such a plane equipped with swinging blades emergency lands in public is far from appealing

But no matter what potential customers think about this, the question is how the regulators will look at this. Air taxis will often move low over populated areas. The idea that such a machine equipped with many oscillating blades emergency lands in public is far from appealing.

And that small flying machines crash is a given. They are much more sensitive to the whims of the weather than the intercontinental giants. An aircraft computer can also be attacked by gusts of wind, a sudden wind change associated with thunderstorms. Modern passenger planes can also fly autonomously, but it is essential that pilots almost always perform take-off and landing themselves.

You can also ask questions about the way air taxis are operated. This is almost always done by batteries that drive electric motors. The result is a very short flight time – often twenty minutes or so. Then it takes a long time before the batteries are recharged. All the while, nothing is earned. It is also a major drawback, especially because airplanes are never cheap. The four-seater Cessna 172, the most produced aircraft ever, still costs 325,000 euros in its heaviest version.

Electrical VTOLs will be best used. But it is unlikely that they will fill the air over cities galore. Partly because air taxis are being connected to rich people, citizens will soon start complaining about noise and safety. A few accidents subsequently kill the concept. But if you want to experience what it is like to fly over traffic jams, I recommend ordering a helicopter. This is even possible in the strictly regulated Netherlands. It’s a little more expensive than an Uber.

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