There seems little that robots can’t do these days. In our high-tech world, no one seems surprised when the bots serve restaurant meals, manage warehouse storage, even perform surgery.
But that’s all on the ground. The next horizon is above the horizon. Airborne wonders are just a neck crick away.
In June, the Federal Aviation Administration okayed flight testing of Joby Aviation’s electric air taxi, initially with an onboard pilot and later without one. The California company hopes to begin commercial operations in 2025.
Similar test approval was given to Alef Aeronautics’ “Model A” flying car in July. The “Model A” will need permission from the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration as well, since it will travel on roads as well as in the sky. Combined driving and flight range is over 300 miles.
Such approvals, even limited ones, are well overdue. Development of electric flying machines that can transport people has been going on for nearly ten years. Dozens of companies in some 10-12 countries have invested billions in futuristic flight, over $7 billion in just the last two years, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Players include Volocopter (Germany) and Archer Aviation (California), both displaying prototypes at the Paris Air Show and both hoping to ferry passengers at the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics. Archer expects to get FAA certification in 2024 and deploy 6,000 aircraft by 2030.
China is also in the mix, with its EHang 184 and XPeng X2 models.
Heavy hitters like Airbus, Boeing, Delta, American Airlines, United and Stellantis have underwritten much of the early development cost.
What do the electric flying machines look like? Different designs for different uses.
All are lightweight, seating from 2 to 6 passengers. Most use conventional batteries, but a few are rolling the dice with lithium ion cells. Some of the flying machines rest on skids, while others have wheels. Most deploy multiple rotors mounted atop wings, a kind of horizontal candelabra.
What about traveling range? Depends on the business model. Archer plans on offering commuter services – initially flying between downtown Manhattan and Newark airport, cutting a one-hour taxi or train ride to under 10 minutes. Joby is targeting intercity trips such as Belfast-Glasgow. Germany’s Lilium is planning for longer hauls, 150 miles or more.
Things are moving at breakneck speed, but the euphoria of progress is being tempered by facts. Take-off and landing sites must be leased and recharging stations built. Air management will be complicated by drones cluttering up the sky. New regulations must be developed and tested. Costs are still out of sight. Wisk Aero’s Gary Gysin says, “It’s like the early days of the auto industry.”
But the incentive is strong. Morgan Stanley analysts estimate the global industry could be worth $1 trillion by 2040 and $9 trillion by 2050 with advances in battery and propulsion technology.
The future looks limitless. Heavy batteries will be replaced by lightweight hydrogen fuel cells, extending range and increasing passenger capacity. Next-generation taxis will use AI-developed technology for pilotless land- and air-based transportation. We’ll be taken everywhere by all-purpose robots.
Here’s what we have to look forward to. We hail a taxi with our smart phone and are greeted by a flying car that carries us along city streets. When it runs into congestion, it takes off and flies above the traffic until it can return to a congestion-free highway and bring us to our preset destination. Pretty cool.
In the Broadway musical Where’s Charley ? Frank Loesser wrote, “Someday there’ll be horseless carriages that fly.”
That someday is almost here.
Dr. Trecker is a chemist and retired Pfizer executive living in Naples.