Air Taxi — Is It the Future of Transportation?

Copperpod IP
8 min readAug 10, 2022

Air taxi has come a huge way forward to address the issues offered by the land, and water taxis and the big guns are loaded to shoot the air taxi business to height, but it has to overcome various hurdles such as legal limitations put forward by Aviation Federation/ DGCA including infrastructure demand and cost optimization.

Introduction

The transportation industry has grown tremendously in the last 20 years. From taxi-hailing apps to IoT-enabled management of fleets, and from remote driving capabilities to OTA software updates for connected cars, technology has not left a single stone unturned to revolutionize the cross domains of transportation. Airborne vehicles are no exception to this, but it has already taken a lot of time for automotive businesses to percolate the benefits of space/air (as opposed to land and water) by scaling from huge aircraft to small commercial air taxis.

What is Air Taxi?

An air taxi is a small aircraft that is used to transport people or goods over short distances. This type of aircraft is typically flown by a single pilot and can take off and land at a variety of airports. Fundamentally, all airborne vehicles whether it is a full capacity aircraft, private jets, a helicopter or a drone, come under the category of air taxis. But as per Merriam-webster, an air taxi is a small commercial aircraft that makes short flights on demand. The concept of air taxis is not new. NASA and the aerospace industry study on the potential Small Aircraft Transportation System (SATS) promoted air taxi operations in the US in the year 2001. But a recent development in the field of drone/unmanned aerial vehicles has forced businesses to revisit the concept.

What are the Basic Legal Limitations of Air Taxi?

Drones have already seen huge investments in the delivery and surveillance sector, but the real world implementation is not justified due to legal limitations in context to maximum altitude and speed range. Different jurisdictions have different limitations. For example;

In India, a micro drone and a small drone may not fly higher than 60 and 120 meters, respectively, above ground level or faster than 25 meters per second. Drones that are medium or large must fly in compliance with the conditions outlined in the DGCA’s Operator Permit. Prohibited zones are completely off-limits, whereas restricted areas require prior approval from the DGCA. Micro, small, medium and large sized drones are categorized based on their weight within the range of 2, 25, and 150 Kg respectively.

In the US, similar drone flying limitations are policed. For commercial drones weighing below 25 Kg, the altitude and speed restrictions are 125 meters and 45 meters per second.

Along with legal limitations, drones also face issues in concern to low customer readiness to adapt to this non-conventional technology, loopholes concerning a unified platform for taxi hailing and low budget trip availability. But amidst all the issues, still, a long list of market players including Uber, Boeing, Volocopter, Joby Aviation, EHang and Lilium is adamant to put risk aside and gamble in this field of passenger drones.

Air Taxi — Patent Perspective

Before going further deep into this feasibility analysis of air taxis, it is important to take into consideration, the relevant facts of the said domain from patent analytics. Based on an analysis of 814 patents extracted in relation to “air taxi”, Honeywell, Skygrid, Boeing, Textron, Amadeus, Bell Helicopter, Alakai, Toyota Motor, Volkswagen, Zunum Aero, Goodrich, Gatelink, Robert Bosch, NASA and Wi Sky were identified as top 15 patent fillers with Honeywell and Skygrid alone having more than 50 patents. Surprisingly, huge investors like Uber and Volocopter jointly does not have more than 5 patents in relation to air taxi.

With the United States, China and Europe being accountable for 56% of total patent filing, jurisdictions like Germany, Great Britain and India are not far behind with 12% of total patent filings. An interesting takeaway from the analysis is that even when Korea is evidencing a huge implementation of air taxi concept from automotive giants like Hyundai, US based Joby Aviation in collaboration with SK Telecom and Korea’s $1.3 Billion UAM project, it is still at par with India in the patent filing.

Air taxi-related patents date as far back as 1968. “The vehicle might be used as a short-haul VTOC air-taxi or air-bus for transporting passengers from the middle of cities to intercontinental air terminals”, according to this first air-taxi patent by NASA. 2016 was the next significant year for IP investment as drone use for videography and surveillance spread around the globe. Another interesting fact is that the last 10 years of patent fillings account for 75% of total patents filed in the last 70 years.

Do We Have Enough Runways and Ports to Support Mass Air Taxis?

Moving ahead from legal and IP facts, one more fact that this concept of air taxis needs serious consideration is the huge physical infrastructure demand and high boarding durations. Even private jets need proper consumer boarding time and huge runways to land and take off. Envisaging the air taxi industry with helicopters still seems feasible considering the fact that it does not require runways. But helicopter has a good share of loopholes. For example, helicopters are too loud and intrusive to operate at any real volume in less populous areas.

What is VTOL? Can it Resolve the Issues of Missing Infrastructure?

Another terminology that has seen a lot of citations in the context to air taxis and is important to understand is VTOL. It stands for vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) and it promises to overcome the issues faced with helicopter based air taxi. Although helicopters fall in the category of VTOL only, besides these, there are currently two types of VTOL aircraft in military service that can make sense from a commercial angle. Tiltrotor aircraft, such as the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey, and thrust-vectoring airplanes, such as the Harrier family and new F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). In the commercial sector, right now only helicopters are in general use. Generally speaking, VTOL aircraft capable of STOVL (short take-off and vertical landing) use it wherever possible, since it significantly increases take-off weight, range or payload compared to pure VTOL.

Possible implementations of VTOL in the commercial sector in the foreseeable future are Lillium Aircraft, Bell 525 Relentless, Joby Aviation S4, CityAirbus (developed jointly by Audi, Uber, Airbus and Iraldesign), Leonardo AW609 AC4, Hill HX50, Opener Blackfly and Samad Aerospace Starling.

What is eVTOL?

Some recent developments in VTOL involve the implementation of an electric powertrain to decrease the overall weight and subsequently optimize the aircraft’s size and range. Termed as eVTOL, this technology relies more on motors and propellers rather than wing design. These typically use radial arms to host the motor/propellers. For example, Volocopter, Jetson Aero and Joby S2.

To explain the brief behind the technology of eVTOL, Joby S2 has been considered as an exemplary product. Joby S2 work on the concept of tilt-rotor aircraft. It comprises a total of 12 individual motors out of which 8 motors are mounted on the fixed wings (4 on each side wing) and 4 motors are mounted near the tail of the aircraft. Each drives a single fixed-pitch propeller. These motors are mounted on linkages that tilt the motors and propellers between vertical and horizontal orientations during the transition between vertical and horizontal flight. The use of multiple individual tilt linkages eliminates the single point of failure present in tilt-wing designs. These propellers are only used during take-off and landing, and their blades are able to fold such that, when folded, they lie flat against nacelles, minimizing their drag impact on a cruise. The folding hinges also act as flapping hinges to react to unsteady blade loads and reduce structural demands on the blades and the hubs.

Cost/Benefit Analysis — Do We Have Enough Licensed Pilots to Drive These Costly Aircraft?

Putting aside the infrastructure issues, which will possibly be answered by VTOL aircraft, another issue that may pertain is the limited number of trained and licensed pilots to drive these aircraft. The land taxi concept was sustained because, with time, the land vehicle, either a car, a bus or a motorbike, became a travel necessity for individuals; particularly, every individual is trained to drive by the age of 18. Driving a land vehicle compared to an air taxi is easier and less complex. This constraint concerning trained and licensed pilots is also subject to affordability. The average cost of a basic four-wheeler vehicle which can carry at max 5 passengers, including driver cost, can range up to $20,000. On the other hand, according to Wall Street Journal, the initial sale price for Volocopter is around $250,000, which is around 10 times the cost of a basic four-wheeler. Apart from the initial investment, the maintenance is also expected to be on the higher side. Until the air taxi becomes a travel necessity based on factors of affordability and useability, the business model of the air taxi will be a company or brand-oriented similar to a huge aircraft business.

The loopholes in the context of the high requirement for trained pilots can be filled using the concept of unmanned air taxis. But the question remains the same for this. Will consumers readily accept it?

Speculating the Future of Mass Air taxi

Right now, a boy in his adolescence is free to throw a ball in space and wait for it to land back. Who knows, the right of freely throw anything into space above your head may become a luxury in the future with thousands of small drones and aircraft hovering over the terrace of our homes? According to current limitations, a small drone has to fly between 60 to 120 meters. Hopefully, the legal limitations put forth by Aviation Federation will think of that boy, and by any chance will allow a baseball player to hit the ball as high as possible.

Most business analysts are counting only on the initial investment and maintenance costs related to air taxis. One more cost factor that can be perceived once air taxis become normal is based on traveling priorities. The space may soon be segmented into levels based on altitude. There will be higher prices for low crowded levels and lower prices for high crowded altitude levels. A similar traffic light system may be used to regulate the traffic of air taxis.

Conclusion

Air taxi has come a huge way forward to address the issues offered by the land, and water taxis and the big guns are loaded to shoot the air taxi business to height, but it has to overcome various hurdles such as legal limitations put forward by Aviation Federation/ DGCA including infrastructure demand and cost optimization.

References

1. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/air%20taxi

2. https://blog.ipleaders.in/drone-laws-in-india/

3. https://uavcoach.com/drone-laws-in-united-states-of-america/

4. https://techcrunch.com/2022/06/05/unlikely-players-team-up-to-lead-south-koreas-air-taxi-industry/

5. https://techcrunch.com/2022/02/06/joby-aviation-to-launch-air-taxi-service-in-south-korea/

6. https://www.aerospacemanufacturinganddesign.com/article/bell-boeing-delivers-400th-v-22-osprey/

7. https://www.flightglobal.com/first-operational-f-35-squadron-declared-ready-for-combat/117812.article

8. https://www.jobyaviation.com/S2ConceptualDesign(AIAA).pdf

9. https://www.wsj.com/articles/BL-TEB-5964

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