Flying vehicles, could it be a reality?

  • Flying vehicles and potential advantages
  • Companies involved in the manufacturing of flying vehicles
  • Challenges faced by developers in the development and adoption of flying vehicles

The combined worldwide productive man-hours are lost due to seemingly increasing road congestion, which are coupled with pollution. This has made governments and enterprises to seek innovative and sustainable solutions. Although solutions like car or bike sharing services and ride-sharing services owing to improved digitisation, customer acceptability and continuous improvement in public transport have provided some relief to the aforementioned perils, these cannot be coined as sustainable long-term mobility solutions. Hence, the sky is being considered for a pursuit of next-generation mobility solution, in form of flying vehicles (ranging from drones to helicopters). This would not only reduce traffic woes, but will also provide access to rural areas and promote tourism, besides solving the issue of constrained parking space up to an extent. If successful, flying can potentially replace driving and in turn, save a significant amount of time, thereby improving quality of life and boosting productivity.

The concept of aerial vehicles is not new, it has been toyed since the ~1980s, with prototypes already in existence since then, however, the commercial viability now seems plausible in the near future. Several companies like Uber, Kitty Hawk (backed by Google), Airbus, Boeing, AeroMobil, Ehang, Geely among others are exploring the feasibility and have already moved to a testing phase and are pursuing it aggressively. Similarly, several countries and regions including the US, Japan, China, Israel and Dubai are experimenting to get their aerial vehicles off the ground with plans of full-fledged commercial operations by 2025.

A majority of these manufactured vehicles are capable of vertical take-off and landing. For instance, a VTOL (Vertical Take-Off and Landing) vehicle is capable of taking off, hovering, and landing vertically, thereby, negating the need of a runway. Helicopters have the same capability, but consume more fuel and are louder in comparison to the present adopted electric/hybrid-electric VTOL technology. Currently, there are several categories under this broad group of proposed aerial vehicles with fairly distinct potential use and characteristics.

Several companies and countries alike are testing prototypes with equal enthusiasm. The world’s first flying taxi was tested in Dubai (September 2017). UAE began testing of flying taxi drones or autonomous aerial vehicle (AAV) prototypes and the country expects to launch these in 2020. Dubai is largely in favour of becoming an autonomous society and aims to automate 25% of the total transport by 2030. This quest to enhance automation led Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority and Uber (one of the frontrunners for the introduction of flying vehicles) to get into negotiations for the launch of flying taxis in the country. But Dubai’s Uber dream did not take off and thereafter, Vimana Global; the firm responsible for integrating of blockchain for management of aerial flight routes decided to make Dubai as its major hub. The company chose Dubai as its pilot destination due to the heavy investment in technology and already established smart city resourcefulness. Similarly, Japan joined the bandwagon, with the focus of making flying taxis work, Japan’s Ministry of Economy allocated $40.4 million to private-sector for the development of high-performance batteries, motors and other equipment for flying cars. Besides solving the issue of traffic jams in big cities, Japan is also aiming to use a flying taxi to light the 2020 Olympic flame in Tokyo. In line with this goal, the government has enlisted 21 organisations and businesses, including Airbus and Boeing (aircraft manufacturers), ANA Holdings and Japan Airlines (aviation companies), NEC Corporation (IT specialist) and Cartivator (Japan-based start-up).

Moreover, Uber has not limited itself to just AV (Autonomous Vehicles) testing and has already shortlisted Dallas and Los Angeles as its first two launch cities (the US being its biggest market) for commercial air operations to take off in 2023 and demonstrations to begin as soon as 2020. After Dubai was dropped from Ubers initial list, the company is now contemplating its third city for a launch in any of the five countries namely, Japan, Australia, Brazil, France and India. Each country has been picked strategically keeping in mind the factors like the adoption of advanced technology, Uber's market penetration, the density of population and heavy traffic and the airport being at least one hour away from the city center. For instance, In India, Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore are few of the most congested cities in the world. Brazil already has a large fleet of helicopters and Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo are among Uber's busiest hubs. Australia leads the world in commercial drone manufacturing and has been constantly involved in innovations in aviation. Uber is establishing its latest technology hub in France. Japan's superlative public transportation, technology and innovations are the reasons for it to make to the list.

Furthermore, one can thank for the emergence of several significant technological advancements, which has made flying vehicles a possibility. For example, composite materials like carbon fibre, allow for stronger yet lighter aircraft. Similarly, technological advancement in lithium battery, which makes vehicles electrically powered, instead of gasoline, has significantly aided in this field. Further, the advanced computing algorithms have aided in flying of vehicles on their own.  However, in spite of several advancements with respect to the technology required for flying of vehicles and their potential benefits and applications arising from this technological advancement, developers are dealing with myriad issues to put aerial taxies in motion.

The infrastructure to support aerial vehicles is a key, developing take-off and landing sites, an electrical charging grid as well as a strong communications infrastructure is a prerequisite. Additionally, these require a real-time detailed map to enable navigation in a rather complicated urban landscape, including power lines, buildings, birds and other flying taxis. In addition, technical challenges in the form of enhanced battery and motor performance several times its current levels, development and compliance of safety standards, certifications, regulations and air traffic management are a must. While the list of challenges is long, consumer mindset and regulatory approvals seem two of the biggest obstacles for industry players. Consumer acceptability and scaled adoption will stem from a proven flawless safety track record spanning across both safe operations as well as mechanical integrity. As has been witnessed in the past with AVs, any mishap garners significant negative attention and stalls or slows down the pace of adoption by consumers. While developed nations provide the requisite infrastructure for testing of the technology, even a miniscule accident could potentially have an adverse influence on the opinions of regulators, lawmakers and potential customers. On the contrary, while the tolerance for potential fatalities during the testing phase could be higher in developing countries, but these would be incapable to provide the requisite infrastructure.

Although there are several obstacles associated with aerial vehicles, their potential benefits are tremendous, if the technology proves to be a success. The commercial take-off of this technology is taking place at a time when the industry is already facing a substantial amount of disruption with innovative mobility solutions. The human mind is much more receptive for such disruptions, investments in AI and related technology is at all time high and governments like that of Japan and Dubai are on its own steering the flying taxi evolution in their regions. Thus, what was once a part of sci-fi movies is now becoming a reality.

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