TAKE THE BODY of a small plane with stubby wings. Replace the wheels with heavy-duty helicopter skids, add four buzzing dronelike electric fans to each one, and you’ll have something like Boeing’s prototype flying taxi. It's a slightly ungainly-looking setup for a flying machine, which are usually sleek and streamlined, but it has just completed a short first test flight, and it has the lofty goal of being the sort of machine you could hail to get a traffic-skipping ride across town in a few years’ time.
Yesterday, engineers in Manassas, Virginia, wheeled the mishmash aircraft out of a hangar. The blue and white wave paint job contrasted nicely with the gray skies, as the engineers spun up the rotors and watched it lift vertically into the air, hover for less than a minute, and land, allowing techs to begin testing the on-board autonomous systems. It was short but sweet for the team, and they celebrated with hugs and high-fives.
This is just step one of a very long flight test program, though. "In one year, we have progressed from a conceptual design to a flying prototype," said Boeing’s chief technology officer, Greg Hyslop, in a statement. That's great, but the next stages are going to be trickier—particularly managing the transition from hover to forward flight. That’s key to making electric aircraft like this practical. To get any sort of usable range, they can’t just fly like a quadcopter drone; they need to combine the vertical takeoff or landing style of a helicopter with the more energy-efficient flight of a plane, which uses wings for lift. Using electric propulsion means flight should be quieter and cleaner, making these flying taxis less annoying overhead than the police, news, and sightseeing choppers that already bug city-dwellers.
The 30 feet long PAV, which stands for Passenger Air Vehicle, will get a claimed range of 50 miles from its electric drivetrain. That doesn’t sound like much, but it’s plenty to get from one side of a large city to the other, and back, between charges. The machine was developed by Aurora Flight Sciences, which makes electric and autonomous flying machines (Boeing bought the company in November 2017).
Aurora is one of the partners in Uber’s Elevate program, which has a fanciful-sounding goal: air taxis operating in Dallas, Texas, and Los Angeles by 2023. Uber is determined to be a leader in the growing field of air mobility, and it’s promising flight demonstrations by 2020. That’s next year.
Uber’s Elevate plan is to operate a commercial network of vehicles, developed by its partners, and provide service from the tops of tall buildings. To get a ride across LA, you’d pull up the app, choose an air taxi instead of a pool, or black car, and then take an elevator in whatever nearby building has a landing pad. There you’d board with other passengers going to the same destination (plans call for 4 passengers per vehicle), and be whisked over traffic at 150 mph to another tall building close to your destination. Uber says flights will eventually be autonomous and pricing will be equivalent to an UberX ride.
In the shorter term, aircraft builders, like Bell, another Uber Elevate partner, and famous for helicopters, are working on machines that can be human piloted, which may help ease FAA concerns.
Bell used this year’s CES in Las Vegas to showcase its own flying machine prototype, an imposing, glossy black machine with six tilting ducted fans mounted on top. Nexus weighs 6,000 pounds, has a range of 150 miles, and can seat five, including the pilot. Although the concept it showed hasn’t taken to the air, Bell has a long history in developing VTOL flying machines, which means it has thought through the details to make something similar a reality, and says it’s entirely possible.
And Boeing’s competitor, Airbus, is playing in this space too. A year ago its flying car prototype, Vahana, spent 53 seconds in the air under its own power. The team from Airbus’ Silicon Valley outpost, A3, has spent the last 12 months refining its aerodynamic modeling (a challenge with a machine covered in fans), and working on its autonomous system, which it sees as crucial to safe and reliable flight.
None of these projects is at, or even close to, the stage where you could experience a trip. But they do demonstrate that some big players are taking the idea of flying taxis very seriously. A combination of electric propulsion, lightweight materials, autonomous control, and a ride-sharing business model, mean this fanciful vision of flying cars for everyone could finally become a reality.