Flying taxis in 2023? Aircraft manufacturers say, “Not so fast.”
Not since the 1940s and 1950s have so many companies been working so feverishly on new ways to fly from one place to another.
Around 70 years ago, dozens and dozens of companies—from well-established manufacturers to thinly financed entrepreneurs working out of their barns and tool sheds—were rushing to bring to market workable and economically viable vehicles called “helicopters.” What that new aircraft would look like and how it would operate was still very much in flux. (You can read more about that period in helicopter history—when a collective might be a repurposed motorcycle grip or resemble bicycle handlebars suspended from the roof of the cockpit—in the ,)
Now, a similarly large contingent of companies—more than 150 at last count—is seeking to build what will be the first successful “flying taxis,” or urban air mobility (UAM) vehicles. These efforts range from shoestring attempts mounted by experienced but cash-poor engineers to the self-financed passion projects of billionaires to high-visibility programs mounted by Fortune 500 public companies.
Not all of these would-be makers of flying taxis will succeed. But perhaps a half dozen or more may introduce vehicles capable of flying one or two people, or some relatively light cargo, around major metropolitan areas. Other companies now toiling on potential UAM aircraft almost certainly will be able to sell some of their expertise, research findings, and technical innovations to better-financed, more experienced companies that eventually will become serious competitors in the fledgling market.
There’s also substantial likelihood that long-respected and deep-pocketed aviation manufacturers—particularly those with considerable experience building helicopters—will take over development of UAM aircraft or otherwise acquire the technologies necessary to mass-produce them. In any case, however the market sorts itself out, it inevitably will take a few years longer than was originally forecast.
OEMs Look Past the Hype
Most notably, Uber, which in 2017 began drawing attention to its plans to offer rides via Uber Elevate the way it does now through its ground ride-sharing service, started off by predicting service launch in 2021. More recently, it subtly has shifted that target to 2023.
But even that forecast is viewed as unrealistically ambitious by people who know full well how hard it is to design, test, certificate, mass-produce, and support new aircraft.
Indeed, folks at three of the four companies that mass-produce big helicopters in the United States—Bell, Sikorsky, and Airbus Helicopters—all agree that the earliest, most rudimentary UAM vehicles won’t be certificated in this country until the middle of the next decade at the earliest. They likely won’t be common sights over the heads of US city dwellers until the tail end of the 2020s or early 2030s.
Scott Drennan, vice president of innovation at Bell, under whose aegis that company’s Nexus and other advanced development programs fall, says he and his colleagues “appreciate the push” coming from their counterparts at Uber (Bell signed on as one of the original Uber Elevate development partners in April 2017). Bell executives understand that Uber officials are trying to stoke investors’ interest and inventors’ excitement about the concept of urban air mobility and the kind of electric-powered aircraft Uber wants to see.
“As long as everybody is thinking about safety, it’s a good thing for engineers and investors to be working hard and feverishly toward what everyone agrees will be a challenging target date like 2023,” he says. But, Drennan adds, “[Bell has] cordially, and in the context of a partnership, disagreed with Uber on that target. We believe it’s more like the late 2020s or maybe 2030” before the many hurdles to operating successful UAM vehicles for profit can be cleared.
Joerg-Peter Mueller, head of UAM strategy at Airbus, says essentially the same thing. Mueller oversees both of Airbus’s efforts to design UAM vehicles. The first is the shrouded quad-fan concept known as CityAirbus; the second, called Vahana, is a straight-winged craft featuring eight electric propellers that tilt up for vertical takeoff and landing like a helicopter and straight ahead for faster, conventional, airplane-like flight.
While Vahana is nearing the end of its test-flight program and CityAirbus is just beginning test flights, Mueller is quick to note that both are meant to serve as only technology demonstrators and research vehicles. While versions of one or both may eventually make it to market, he says, everything technically necessary must first come together for either to succeed.
“We’re moving forward, but obviously not straight forward,” Mueller says. “On top of the questions regarding propulsion and the energy source (batteries or some dual-source battery/liquid-fueled hybrid), we have to find new ways of using airspace in a way that will make flying these types of aircraft in the urban environment safe—new ways of using and controlling airspace.
“We think it will be sometime in the mid-’20s before you begin to see the first of these vehicles flying in that airspace transporting passengers,” Mueller continues. “Then we think the whole thing will begin to ramp up for us in terms of using these vehicles in full commercial service toward the end of that decade.”
Sikorsky, another US maker of commercial helicopters, isn’t currently developing an entrant in the UAM vehicle market. But with the deep pockets of its parent, Lockheed Martin, Sikorsky easily could acquire a successful design created by a start-up or a small company, especially one in need of manufacturing capabilities plus distribution, product support, and certification expertise.
Meanwhile, Jonathan Hartman, who leads what Sikorsky calls its “Disruptive Technologies” operation, is focused on how its expertise not only in vehicle production but also in advanced materials and manufacturing, systems diagnostics and fleet management technologies, flight controls, communications, air traffic control systems, and other “enabling technologies” can be applied to the UAM market. Any manufacturer that hopes to succeed in this new aviation sector will need to master all of these complex subjects and sets of knowledge.
Because that expertise isn’t quickly learned, Sikorsky and Lockheed expect to be, at the very least, suppliers to UAM vehicle makers, if not eventual owners of one or more start-ups or small companies now working on promising designs. “With our 99 years of aviation experience, we want to help the market to develop in an efficient way,” Hartman says.
“For now and the next several years, you’ll see prototype flying and demonstration flights—people exploring what that looks like,” he adds. “Given the commercial and regulatory environment we have now, I think you’ll see commercial operations dawning in the mid to late ’20s.”
AgustaWestland was an early player among the established helicopter makers in the embryonic eVTOL world. In 2011, the company first flew its Project Zero unmanned hybrid tiltrotor/fan-in-wing technology demonstrator on a tether at its Cascina Costa, Italy, facilities.
In 2013, when AgustaWestland introduced Project Zero publicly, it touted the vehicle’s lack of hydraulics, the fact that it burned no fossil fuels, and that it produced zero emissions. But since then the company, which took on parent company Leonardo’s name in 2016, has stepped back from the eVTOL chase, preferring to observe as others expend time, talent, and money on designing UAM vehicles.
For now, Leonardo is focusing on ways to use existing helicopters, or derivatives of existing helicopters, to perform at least a few of the UAM missions on which many eVTOL vehicle developers are focused. It’s also watching the UAM sector closely for opportunities to partner with, invest in, or even buy successful developers of whole UAM vehicles or key enabling UAM technologies, bringing all its manufacturing, sales, and support expertise to the party. Leonardo would have to determine whether it could finance such a move on its own or have to seek the outside financing that, as a $4 billion–plus company, it could access, unlike most of the current start-up and shoestring UAM developers.
“Urban air mobility … is a new business segment which Leonardo is looking at with great interest,” the company said in a statement, going on to say that it is “investigating a number of possible routes to market.… The challenge for Leonardo is to position itself successfully in a nascent segment that is poised between the worlds of automotive and aerospace engineering.”
Boeing officials declined to be interviewed on this subject. But the world’s largest aerospace company has created partnerships with several UAM start-ups and long-established nonaviation companies that are dipping a toe into the UAM world. That includes a deal Boeing cut this fall with renowned German automaker Porsche, which is interested in building a high-end UAM vehicle focused, not surprisingly, on luxury and performance.
Issues to Solve
Though it was first—publicly, at least—out of the starting gate when Uber announced its creation of Uber Elevate, Drennan says Bell isn’t interested in being the first UAM vehicle maker, Rather, Bell wants to become known as the best UAM vehicle manufacturer.
Bell and its rivals Sikorsky, Boeing, and Airbus are keenly aware they have the manufacturing prowess to manage the complex technical, certification, supply chain, and long-term aviation processes that must accompany any manned aircraft on its way to market. But even with their decades of experience in aviation, there are still substantial hurdles that must be overcome before the average person can ride Jetson-style above the city.
Battery Technology. A breakthrough in energy storage technology (that is, batteries) must occur that would allow UAM vehicles to lift profitable amounts of weight and fly that payload far enough and fast enough for the time savings from a UAM flight to be worth its higher cost versus driving. Current technology is maddeningly limited to lifting payloads of well less than 100 pounds off the ground for, at best, less than 12 minutes.
Airspace Management. An air traffic control system of some sort—manned or automated—must be created that would keep the dreamt-of hundreds of UAM aircraft operating in a market from slamming into one another just a few hundred feet above homes and businesses. The FAA’s work on that problem has yet to move much past the theoretical stage. Rather, the agency is waiting for the industry to provide some view of how it thinks such a system can or should work, even as some in the industry say they’re waiting for guidance from the FAA.
Manufacturing Processes. Designing one UAM aircraft that can efficiently and safely carry human passengers around a city will be a great
achievement. The creation of the manufacturing plants, tooling, supply chains, standards, and processes that will be needed to build, supply, and maintain hundreds of such aircraft will be another.
Safety and Certification Standards. Safety and certification standards must be developed for all-new vehicles, many of which utilize new technologies. In addition, industry and government must work to develop training, operations, and maintenance standards for the mechanics and pilots who will work on and fly UAM vehicles.
Most experts think UAM vehicles will eventually transition to an automated flying regime, but that technology is likely well more than a decade away from being operational. In the meantime, the development of an entirely new sector of aviation will only put additional pressure on the current pilot and maintenance technician shortage.
Public Acceptance. Cities—and their residents—that will host UAM operations will need to get legally and personally comfortable with low-flying aircraft buzzing over homes and businesses, or even between tall buildings in downtown areas. While UAM aircraft are being designed to use quieter electric or hybrid propulsion systems than today’s conventional helicopters, they won’t be silent. And there may be downwash issues, as well.
The Future Is Coming, It’s Just Delayed
Each helicopter OEM is investing precious capital, both human and financial, to support its UAM strategy. With their decades of experience in aircraft design, certification, and manufacturing, they provide a welcome reality check to the hype that sometimes surrounds the next wave of innovation in aviation technology.
On the other hand, the OEMs’ involvement in UAM vehicle development can be taken as confirmation that we will, eventually, see these aircraft become operational. Yes, substantial issues still remain to be solved, but your flying taxi ride is closer than ever—not today, not by 2023, but perhaps by the end of the 2020s.