Originally published July 2018 at BBC Storyworks (requires non-UK server / VPN)
In busy cities, a mode of transport is veering from science-fiction towards reality: the self-flying vehicle, booked by app and boarded on the nearest rooftop.
Self-piloted electric vehicles that vertically take off and land (eVTOL) are in development from startups and established companies in aerospace and technology, as governments and corporations explore new forms of transit for fast-growing cities.
Airbus’ Vahana, a single-passenger eVTOL aircraft, and the two-person Volocopter 2X recently flew their first flights. Airbus’ four-seater eVTOL demonstrator, CityAirbus, will take its first test flight this year and debut commercially in 2023, while the five-seater Lilium Jet is set for commercial launch in 2025.
eVTOL designs comprise relatively small electric rotors distributed around a central cabin. This streamlined build is ideal for efficient take-off and landing in constricted city spaces, while electric power makes these next-generation urban aircraft a quieter, eco-friendly alternative to carbon-emitting fuel vehicles.
By 2030, 43 cities will be home to over 10 million people. In congested Los Angeles and Moscow, commuters spend nearly 100 hours a year in traffic jams, while the ongoing boom in online shopping is increasing congestion in city centres across Britain and the US as delivery trucks shuttle orders to homes and offices.
Autonomous flying vehicles could defuse road traffic by opening a new dimension for transport above city streets, carrying passengers as well as parcels. Trips that might take hours by road would take 15 minutes as the crow flies.
Digitising the airspace
Self-flying vehicles will navigate via a plethora of sensors, with image processors that can detect birds and other vehicles, and a laser-based lidar system to scan for obstructions in landing zones. Powered by artificial intelligence, these autonomous systems are trained to avoid obstacles by processing hundreds of thousands of data points ranging from birds in the sky to images of aircraft.
As with autonomous cars navigating by complex, constantly updating road maps, self-flying vehicles would share real-time travel data with live sky maps, improving the efficiency of routing. Airspace mapping platforms such as Unifly are already available for smaller autonomous flying vehicles designed for parcel delivery. These could lay the foundations for universal flight maps that identify all aerial vehicles, obstacles in the sky, and city landmarks to help eVTOLs navigate to specific destinations.
Delivery eVTOLs could be the first autonomous vehicles to cross digitised urban skies, with companies such as Amazon, UPS and Google already testing self-piloted delivery of small items. Sea ports in particular could be the earliest adopters, with Airbus developing an autonomous electric drone for companies to fly parcels between shores and anchored ships, which would speed up deliveries while reducing costs and carbon emissions compared to traditional delivery vessels.
Hailing the aerial taxi
While enthusiasts may park their own self-flying vehicles on their estate roofs, most eVTOLs will be hailed via on-demand apps, with passengers hopping aboard at the nearest launch-pad.
In the traffic-clogged metropolises of Bangalore, New York City and Jakarta, on-demand apps for helicopter services are taking off as an alternative to congested ground transport. Commuters in gridlocked Sao Paolo and Mexico City hail helicopter rides via the Voom service, which will soon expand to include Audi cars that shuttle passengers to and from heli-pads for a multi-modal, point-to-point journey booked on a single app. These networks of landing pads and software infrastructure could pave the way for on-demand air taxis that will one day become as affordable as on-demand car rides.
Multi-passenger eVTOLs such as Lilium Jet and CityAirbus would facilitate flight-pooling, with route-planning algorithms improving the efficiency of the aerial commute.
Designed for urban flights around an hour long, eVTOLs such as Vahana and Ehang E-184 (set to trial this year) would probably be the easiest way to travel from city centres to airports – and they could become integral to emergency services in gridlocked cities and remote regions.
Eventually, modular eVTOL such as the Pop.Up Next concept, which can dock into a helicopter component for flight, might offer the ultimate convenience, driving commuters from the outer city before swooping them over congested central streets.
Because eVTOLs would significantly decrease travel times, people could live further away from workplaces yet shorten their journey time, affording more freedom to workers in global cities such as London and San Francisco, where congested commutes have high costs in lost economic productivity.
Much like the Voom app that connects commuters with helicopters and urban helipads, services for people to hail aerial as well as ground-based transport will be a vital aspect of future transit.
Airbus is developing a ride-sharing app and platform for its Vahana and CityAirbus fleets where travellers can book a seat by smartphone exactly when needed, while Lilium Jet will similarly offer urban commuters flights on-demand. As such flying taxi services expanded, city rooftops and inaccessible spaces would be repurposed as charging pads and departure lounges, breathing new life into underused urban areas
The rise of autonomous airliners?
By the middle of next decade, the first autonomous flying vehicles may be ferrying passengers around town. Dubai is set to trial a flying taxi service in 2020, potentially to launch around 2025, while Singapore’s Ministry of Transport has said aerial taxis will be part of the city’s transit system by 2030.
For now, the critical hurdle for autonomous flight is the regulatory framework that would allow such vehicles to be mass-produced, including a robust traffic system that can manage thousands of self-flying vehicles around urban centres.
Airbus’ Altiscope project aims to create this fundamental infrastructure for all aerial traffic, including a platform for city and aviation authorities to collaborate on policy making and models of operation for self-flying vehicles.
Bringing together traffic networks for autonomous and piloted aircraft, this richly connected air transport platform could be the key to handling the predicted doubling of commercial flights by 2036 – and intelligent automation in traditional airliners is the next frontier.
High-definition cameras, radars and sophisticated image algorithms are enabling richer computer vision for these aircraft to assess flight and ground situations for safe flying. While human creativity is unlikely to be replaced anytime soon, taxi, take-off and landing could be automated, freeing up pilots for overall mission control.
These semi-autonomous aircraft would share real-time flying data for training in new situations, and with their self-piloted counterparts, contribute to rich sky maps that optimise flight planning. The vast and diverse range of data generated about how aircraft fly would transform the efficiency of air transport – and the sustainability of flying to work.