In recent years, the concept of flying taxis has evolved from science fiction to a potentially transformative reality. But why don’t we have them yet? Back in 2016, Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted: ‘Sometimes I wonder if we’d have flying cars by now had civilisation spent a little less brain energy contemplating football.’ Sports obsession aside, he would later go on to say that we already have flying cars – they’re called helicopters.
But where exactly are we when it comes to flying cars and flying taxis? What are the key projects around the world, and what role is the UAE playing in this futuristic endeavour?
What is a flying taxi?
A flying taxi, often referred to as an eVTOL (electric vertical take-off and landing) aircraft, is a compact, autonomous or piloted vehicle designed to transport passengers through short, urban or suburban air routes, offering a quicker and more direct alternative to traditional ground transportation.
They come in a variety of configurations – some are helicopter-like, while others combine rotors and wings. While the idea of flying vehicles has been around for a long time – Henry Ford unveiled plans for a flying car back in the 1920s – today, it’s estimated that developing one through to the point of certification costs around USD 1bn.
The realism of flying taxis
Flying taxis are no longer just a figment of our imaginations. Advancements in electric propulsion, autonomous technology, and urban air mobility have brought the dream of flying cars closer to reality. While several challenges remain, such as regulatory approvals and infrastructure development, the potential benefits are substantial. These include reducing traffic congestion, lowering emissions, and providing faster and more efficient transportation in crowded urban areas.
The challenges of flying taxis
The first obstacle is designing a vehicle with the power to hover and the ability to mimic the forward propulsion we associate with winged flight. While helicopters have bridged that gap to some extent, it’s a problem that bedevils the development of workable (and potentially profitable) eVTOLs.
The second issue is funding. While huge sums of money have poured into startups working on eVTOLs, confidence can drop easily – and the recent economic downturn has certainly played a role in the slowdown of flying vehicle development.
Then there is safety. Currently, no major regulator has certified an eVTOL, although EASA (the European Union Aviation Safety Agency) has published guidelines for what it would expect. One of the key issues will be the batteries these vehicles use, and how potential fire risks can be mitigated.
There are also questions about how exactly these flying vehicles can be integrated into existing cities and infrastructure. It’s here that a forward-thinking country like the UAE may have a distinct advantage – and we’ll look at the Emirates in more detail later.
Key projects around the world
The model most often adopted is of a startup backed by a major player. So, for example, Stellantis (which owns several well-known automobile companies, including Peugeot) has purchased USD 150m worth of Archer Aviation stock. Archer has also partnered with United Airlines. Toyota has put USD 400m into Joby Aviation, while Daimler has invested in Volocopter.
There has also been a move to attract public investors by listing on the stock market – both Joby and Lilium have successfully raised over one billion dollars each through this method.
So, let’s now break down some of the most notable projects.
Joby Aviation (USA): Founded in 2009, Joby Aviation is developing an eVTOL aircraft for urban air mobility. They’ve received significant investments to fund their project, and in 2020 they acquired Uber Elevate.
Volocopter (Germany): Founded in 2011, Volocopter is known for its distinctive multicopter design. They have conducted public demonstrations and are working towards commercial operations. The company hopes to get its VoloCity vehicle certified next year.
Lilium (Germany): Founded in 2015, Lilium is working on a sleek, five-passenger eVTOL jet and has secured partnerships with infrastructure providers and investors. What sets Lilium apart is its use of electric jet engines (rather than propellers) fixed to the wings and has set its certification date to 2025.
EHang (China): Founded in 2014, EHang has developed autonomous passenger drones and conducted successful test flights. They are working on integrating their eVTOL technology into urban transportation systems and are almost through the Chinese certification process.
The UAE’s pioneering role in flying taxis
With its forward-thinking approach and commitment to cutting-edge technology, the UAE has positioned itself at the forefront of the flying taxi revolution. Dubai, in particular, stands out as a global leader in adopting futuristic transportation solutions, and its ambitious plans for flying taxis are a testament to its commitment to innovation and progress.
Dubai’s vision for flying taxis
Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) has been a driving force behind the introduction of flying taxis. Their vision involves integrating flying taxis into the city’s existing transportation network, providing residents and visitors with a unique and efficient mode of transport. The RTA has partnered with pioneering companies like EHang to conduct test flights and explore the feasibility of flying taxis.
Dubai’s commitment to smart mobility
Dubai’s interest in flying taxis aligns with its broader strategy to become a smart city and a hub for innovation that started back in 2013. The city has consistently demonstrated its commitment to adopting advanced technologies to enhance the quality of life for its residents and to attract businesses and tourists from around the world.
To support the deployment of flying taxis, Dubai is investing in the development of specialised infrastructure. This includes the construction of vertiports, which are take-off and landing pads for eVTOLs. These vertiports will be strategically located throughout the city, making it convenient for passengers to access flying taxi services.
Economic and tourism benefits
The introduction of flying taxis in Dubai could have significant economic and tourism benefits. It will not only reduce congestion on the city’s roads but also provide a novel and futuristic experience for tourists. Dubai’s commitment to innovation in transportation further enhances its appeal as a global tourist destination.
The emerging flying taxi industry presents a range of business opportunities:
- Manufacturing: Companies that produce eVTOL aircraft, batteries, and propulsion systems are poised for growth.
- Infrastructure development: Building the necessary take-off and landing pads, known as vertiports, will be crucial for urban air mobility.
- Service providers: Operators of flying taxi services, maintenance, and charging infrastructure will play a pivotal role.
- Software and technology: Developing the sophisticated software required for autonomous flying taxis will be a lucrative field.
- Urban planning and consultation: Experts in urban planning and airspace management will be in high demand.
Flying taxis are no longer confined to science fiction – they are on the cusp of transforming urban mobility. There’s still a long way to go, but key projects worldwide are pushing the boundaries of technology and regulation.
The emerging industry offers numerous business opportunities, and the UAE, particularly Dubai, is at the forefront of this exciting revolution in transportation. As the skies open up to flying taxis, the future of urban mobility is poised to reach new heights.