Air Taxi — Is It the Future of Transportation?

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;

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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