Governments are clearing the way for drones to take to the skies as air taxis to reduce the strain on busy roads.
In Europe, research shows 83 per cent of voters feel optimistic about drone air transport for passengers and light cargo – and 43 per cent are willing to try drones as an alternative to cars.
The goal is to reduce the congestion and pollution choking many towns and cities.
Air taxis are already in the skies above Europe and the USA as many entrepreneurs race to develop prototype drones to carry passengers and the infrastructure to manage flights.
The first objective is to build drone transport hubs, plan flight corridors between major hubs and ramp up production of safe and reliable drones.
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The first step in developing air taxis is to provide flight corridors between taxi ranks on the ground.
The corridors put safety and low emissions first, so the risk of an in-flight incident is minimised. The flight paths will likely follow rivers and lakes crossing the open country.
Regulators say drones must carry safety equipment like life jackets, and any pilot or passengers are briefed on what to do in a crash or in-flight emergency.
Drone hubs across Europe will be called vertiports to distinguish them from airports and heliports.
What’s A Vertiport?
Air taxi stands are dubbed vertiports because the drones will be vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) vehicles.
Vertiports are expected to access local transport networks like trains and buses easily. Planners are considering siting vertiports on high buildings in city centres. Taking off from buildings also solves the problem of where to site vertiports on the ground, as tall buildings surrounding a take-off and landing location limit flight trajectories.
For example, the drone with the green trajectory in the image has a clear path to and from a vertiport on the building’s roof. However, the other drone’s trajectory is blocked by a nearby building.
It’s fair to say air taxis need a shift in urban planning to keep flight corridors open.
Ready For Take-Off
Dozens of aerospace firms worldwide are racing to build the first air taxis.
Brazilian planemaker Embraer is building a factory near Sao Paulo to produce more than 3,000 orders for a small helicopter that can accommodate up to six passengers for short flights.
The fare is expected to be between £40 and £80 a person.
A prototype machine will take to the skies later this year, with the first air service expected in 2026.
In common with most firms developing air taxis, electric motors power the Embraer drone.
Most manufacturers expect to build fleets of air taxis for hire to private customers, with self-piloted versions to follow.
Some companies considered air taxi trailblazers are:
- Volocopter – a German company building helicopters and offering air taxi services. VoloCity is a nifty two-seater with 18 rotors attached to a rotor ring. VoloDrone is an unmanned drone that can lift up to 200kg of cargo for delivery within 40 kilometres.
- Joby Aviation – an air taxi builder based in California slated for supplying air taxis when drone travel takes off in Dubai. The prototype air taxi is cleared for pre-production flight testing
- Terrafugia – A Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) spin-off that has struggled. The company makes a flying car called TF-X. The vehicle has folding wings that enable flying and driving on the road and would become the first flying car with a range of 500 miles.
Who Will Fly In Air Taxis?
Air taxis and personal helicopters are aimed at the wealthy and business executives.
Many private charter flight firms operate worldwide and can offer a cheaper, more direct and faster way to travel, especially on short journeys.
Luxury is not the objective. Many firms pay less than standard scheduled flights to charter a small business jet or helicopter that can take six people.
Entrepreneurs see private drone flights following the same business model as many smartphone apps for taxis and food deliveries – the operators will take orders and manage the flight. Still, the air taxis will be owned by someone else.
Where Have Air Taxis Got A Flying Start?
The Middle East city of Dubai is an air taxi frontrunner. The government has already rubber-stamped several air taxi vertiports across the city and expects flying people and goods will start by 2026.
Dubai has tested several small air taxis and seems to be proceeding with Joby Aviation’s six-rotor electric drone, although contracts have not been signed.
The drone can carry a pilot and four passengers at a top speed of around 185 mph (300 kph) with a battery range of up to 155 miles (250 km).
Four vertiports are planned for Dubai – Dubai International Airport, Downtown, Palm Jumeirah and Dubai Marina.
The government says tariffs will settle around current prices for hiring a limo in the city. That puts the cost at a minimum £4 and 50p a mile thereafter, which is an extra 30 per cent on the price of a taxi.
The hope is that air taxis will add to the city’s travel options for business and tourists, and opening the skies will ease traffic jams.
Other frontrunners in the race to take to the air include Paris, Rome and Singapore.
Sky’s The Limit For Air Taxis FAQ
Below you’ll find answers to the most frequently asked questions about the burgeoning air taxi industry, offering insights into the technology, safety regulations, and city planning required for this transformative mode of transportation.
What is an air taxi?
Many air taxi makers try to set their products apart by calling them drones or helicopters to find a unique selling point.
An air taxi is a small, usually electrically powered flying vehicle resembling a cross between a helicopter and a drone, which carries up to six or seven passengers and a pilot.
Unlike larger air transport, air taxis typically have a short range and need recharging every 150 miles.
Which cities are planning air taxis?
Many cities worldwide are contemplating air taxi services between main travel hubs like airports, rail stations and bus interchanges. Dubai is set to start passenger flights in 2024, with Paris, Rome and Singapore to follow.
What is a vertiport?
A vertiport is an air taxi hub accommodating vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) vehicles such as drones and helicopters.
How will air taxis avoid each other in flight?
Experts say designing air taxi and drone technology is not as hard as integrating them into air traffic control so they become safe and easy to use. Just one market in Germany expects to service 126,000 commercial and 720,000 private drones by 2030. Of course, they won’t all fly at once but still present a huge logistics problem to air traffic control and regulators.
Air taxi and drone flights are shorter and at lower altitudes than current commercial flights, but air traffic control is not equipped to handle the volume of flights. Software designers expect air traffic control to become automated for new and old flight technology users.
How much does a flying car cost?
A flying car like the TerraFugia Transition costs around £230,000 ($300,000). That amount buys a four-seat flying car with foldable wings that can drive on the road or in the air. The Transition carries four passengers around 480 miles.
How safe are air taxis?
So far safety is not an issue as few accidents have been reported by air taxi and drone makers, but that’s to be expected in the testing phase. The problem for makers is drones and air taxis are not subject to global regulation, so each government decides which standards to apply. In turn, this makes design harder for manufacturers.