Flying taxis, once the purview of science-fiction films such as The Fifth Element, might soon be a staple of urban transport, as better batteries and innovative designs make it cheaper, cleaner, and quieter to travel short distances by air. Citigroup thinks sales of air taxis could reach $5 billion a year by the end of the next decade.
Two companies came to Singapore to share their vision during the Intelligent Transport Systems World Congress. UK-based Skyports Ltd built a model flying taxi station, while Germany’s Volocopter GmbH gave a demonstration flight of its electric vehicle.
Engineers from the two companies walked reporters through how it might work. A traveller opens an app and chooses among a handful of stations in a given city—flying between the posh Marina Bay Sands hotel and the luxury resort island of Sentosa was one option. The traveller picks the departure time and gets a confirmation showing who the pilot will be.
When travellers show up at the station, a biometric scanner uses facial recognition software to confirm the booking and weighs them to make sure the vehicle will remain balanced in the air. Passengers then slip in to be whisked across the sky to their destination. When they land, workers will slip a new battery into the back of the taxi to ready it for the next passage.
Of course, that’s still off in the future, and the present offers challenges. The companies are trying to win over regulator support and public acceptance, which is where this week’s demonstration comes into play.
The station, called the Voloport, was sleek and futuristic. Video screens showed how much time you’d save in flying taxis vs. the wheeled kind. (A four-minute ride to Sentosa, compared with 21 minutes on the ground.) An engineer explained that when the stations are operational, helipads could be hydraulically raised and lowered between the roof and ground floor of the station to make boarding and taking off more seamless.
The Volocopter itself looks like a toy come to life. Instead of one giant rotor in the middle, it has more than a dozen smaller ones arrayed above its cab. The demonstration models were relatively small; there was room for just two people to sit very snugly, side-by-side.
One of the supposed benefits of electric aircraft such as the Volocopter over petroleum-powered helicopters is the noise—or lack of it.
Electric motors are thought to be less likely of a nuisance to people living near stations, but it was hard to tell exactly how quiet the aircraft was; the demonstration flight never got closer than a few hundred meters to a throng of media members.