On January 31st, on an overcast day at a runway in eastern Oregon, a vehicle called Vahana, which at first glance resembled a helicopter, climbed with a wobble to a height of five metres and managed to remain aloft for a whole 53 seconds. “While it was in the air, my heartbeat must have been twice what it was normally,” says Zach Lovering, the engineer who oversees the project at A3, a division of Airbus, an aviation manufacturer. “At some point I had to remind myself to breathe.”
Such palpitations may seem unwarranted for a trip that, in raw numbers, was considerably less impressive than the first flight in 1903 by the Wright brothers. Their plane travelled 852ft in 59 seconds along a freezing beach in North Carolina. But the Vahana, whose name derives from a Hindu spirit animal that ferries deities on its back, is a different sort of beast. It’s an electrically powered, vertical-take-off-and-landing craft – a flying taxi, in other words.
After take off, the eight sets of blades rotate 90 degrees from the horizontal to the vertical, turning something that works like a helicopter into something that works like a plane. The technology is in its infancy, but if the machines don’t crash and burn, urban skylines could one day be humming with pilotless craft, flying around cities safely and cheaply.
Personal air transport has been one of society’s fever dreams since the early days of flight itself. Norman Bel Geddes, a visionary industrial designer, stoked imaginations in the 1940s with his book “Magic Motorways”, which anticipated autonomous vehicles with designs for flying cars that he called “roadable” aeroplanes.
Science fiction could soon become reality. A seductive vision of the future has been depicted in a video from Uber Elevate, the ride-sharing company’s aerial division. A woman is shown opening the Uber app on her smartphone as she walks out of a meeting. She selects “Uber Air”, then enters a tall building, pressing an elevator button marked “Uber Port”. We next see her walking out onto a rooftop arrayed with sleek taxis ready to take off. She grabs a seat in one and is whisked away over the city. As she flies, she casts a glance that is hard to read – is it pity or derision? – at the cars hopelessly locked in traffic below. Dara Khosrowshahi, the company’s CEO, says he hopes Uber’s service will be up and running within five years.
Over a dozen companies are working on similar projects. Kitty Hawk, which is backed by Larry Page, co-founder of Google, will shortly begin testing its autonomous vehicle in New Zealand, where the technology can be tried out away from prying eyes. Others looking to open up the skies include Boeing’s Aurora, German startups Volocopter and Lilium, and Ehang, a Chinese drone manufacturer. In September 2017, Volocopter began to test its taxis over Dubai. The GoFly prize, sponsored by Boeing, offers $2m to anyone who can “design and build a safe, quiet, ultra-compact…personal flying device capable of flying 20 miles while carrying a single person”. It has received thousands of entrants, from university research labs to garage experimentalists.
Gwen Lighter, CEO of the prize, suggests the competition has stirred such interest because a convergence of several technologies make this “a moment of achievable innovation”. The energy density of batteries is increasing by between 5% and 8% each year, enabling longer flights. 3D printing allows improved models to be rapidly mocked up. “What you have is this golden moment,” she says. The dream of an aircraft of one’s own is becoming a reality.
Of course personal air mobility already exists for those rich enough to hire helicopters or private jets. In 1942, Igor Sikorsky, a Russian-American aeronautical engineer, predicted in an article in the Atlantic that in just over a decade commuters would be carried across New York in helicopters. A limited service did operate in the city in the 1960s and 1970s, but it was scuppered by a fatal crash in 1977.
These days, apps such as Voom allow well-heeled customers to summon helicopters to whisk them over traffic in sprawling cities such as São Paolo. Just a few years ago Uber toyed with the idea of “Uber chopper”. But Justin Erlich, the company’s policy head for advanced mobility initiatives, said that it soon became clear this wouldn’t work. They are too noisy for cities to welcome by the hundreds. And vehicles that can plummet from the sky if a single rotor fails make urbanites twitchy.
The question is no longer whether flying cars are possible, but whether they can become a form of mass transit. Though a taxi such as Vahana looks like a helicopter, it is fundamentally a different form of transport. “We’re talking about a new way to move people,” Lovering says. The craft’s electric propulsion makes it far cheaper than gas-powered helicopters, allowing much lower prices for passengers and lower emissions. Multiple rotors increase safety and reduce noise. Upon landing and take-off, Vahana is currently 20 decibels quieter than a helicopter. At 250 feet in the air, the craft is no louder than a Prius 100 feet away. Most importantly, Vahana does not need a trained pilot.
The sky remains a distant frontier. Ehrlich says that Uber aims to “leverage height in the way that skyscrapers and elevators together totally changed cities”. But there are good reasons why it will be hard to accommodate flying taxis, says Parimal Kopardekar, who leads NASA’s experiments on air transportation. You may be able to solve the noise and safety issues – the tall buildings, the cranes, the low-visibility conditions that ground helicopters. But in a city like New York the existing airports already struggle with capacity, and the airspace is buzzing with growing numbers of unpiloted commercial drones. Those drones – and the expectation that unmanned flying taxis will travel beyond the line of sight of operators on the ground – have compelled NASA to start work on an automated air-traffic control system. This will allow vehicles to communicate directly with one another rather than wait for instructions from a human controller. The skies will soon be filled with machines talking to machines.
Yet flying taxis will face the same challenges as earth-bound vehicles. Transportation systems rapidly become clogged: expanding road space tends to increase congestion because it encourages more people to drive. The same is likely to be true in the sky, even though it is more expansive than roads (aircraft can manoeuvre in three dimensions, unlike automobiles). And as anyone who’s suffered a flight delay knows, bottlenecks most often occur at the airports at either end. Uber Elevate’s vertiports will have a capacity of only around 12 taxis, in order to prevent queuing. Then there is the “last mile problem” which all forms of mass transport face: passengers have to travel to departure points, often along congested roads.
Uber estimates that its taxis will have a range of 50 miles and a top speed of 200mph. That will make weaving between skyscraper canyons downtown in one of these vehicles hairy. Intercity travel, however, will largely remain out of reach. These vehicles may find their sweet spot in carrying workers across low-built metro areas, such as Silicon Valley, where commuters currently face lengthy car drives.
If successful, air commuting will change our attitudes to our habitats. We will live above cities, not merely within and below them. The distance as the crow flies will no longer be theoretical. The quickest route between two points could finally be a straight line.
But urban mobility verges on being a “wicked problem” – one where the requirements keep changing and the possible answers often pose other challenges. There are many competing interests and technological fixes often kick problems further down the road. The car was originally posited as a solution to traffic but cities in the 20th century have learned that they cannot tarmac their way out of congestion. When you’re hurriedly checking your watch as you’re stuck in tailbacks at a vertiport, you may think the same thing about flight.