Uber, the company that has already disrupted taxi services around the world, recently published a white paper called Fast Forwarding to a Future of On-Demand Urban Air Transportation. It states: “Just as skyscrapers allowed cities to use limited land more efficiently, urban air transportation will use three-dimensional airspace to alleviate transportation congestion on the ground.”
And congestion is set to rise. 2016 was another record-breaking year for global car sales. A report from Australia’s Macquarie Bank says 88.1m cars and light commercial vehicles were sold worldwide in 2016, 4.8 per cent more than the previous year and the fastest rate of growth since 2013. That growth came not only from the developing world, but also the European Union where sales were up 7 per cent.
Uber’s white paper backs small electric vehicles that can take off and land vertically to provide affordable and safe on-demand aviation “between suburbs and cities and, ultimately, within cities”. It says such a system “will ultimately use autonomy technology to significantly reduce operator error”. So not all Uber flying cabs will end up being driven by Bruce Willis wannabees acting out fantasies sparked by 1997 movie The Fifth Element.
Cleared for takeoff
Airbus, the European aviation conglomerate, has also joined the fray. The builder of airliners, helicopters and spacecraft revealed last year that it was working on an autonomous flying taxi for a single occupant or freight that is scheduled for flight tests before the end of this year.
And in March Airbus, in partnership with Italdesign, the design and engineering company owned by Volkswagen, launched Pop.Up – a concept for a modular transport system consisting of a pod for passengers that combines two transport options. For the road, it sits on top of a chassis with four wheels. For flying, a set of four shrouded rotors attaches to the roof.
“Right now the urban sky is quite under-utilised,” says Mathias Thomsen, general manager of Airbus Urban Air Mobility.
Ignoring any similarities between the Pop.Up demountable flight module and the ill-fated Mizar’s all-too-easily-detachable flying structure, the concept could, with the backing of Airbus, go places. One important limiting technology is batteries, but their capacity and energy density are improving, on average, by about 8 per cent a year, so Airbus’s claim of a flying prototype in five to 10 years is plausible.