Beneath a gray, rainy sky, the normally vibrant business district of Singapore looked listless. The glass skyscrapers didn’t glitter and no sunlight dappled across the waves in the bay. But that didn’t matter much because the crowd gathered amid the tall buildings today had come to gawk at something else.
At the stroke of noon, from a promontory across the bay, a speck of white rose into the air. With a lawnmower-like hum, a flying taxi that looked like the love child of a helicopter and a drone approached, drawing a swell of cheers from the crowd.
The launch pad and its surrounding area right before the three-minute flight. Photo: Sandy Ong
Volocopter’s three-minute test flight was not the first time the German aircraft manufacturer has flown its full-scale prototype publicly. But today’s demonstration was momentous in other ways. It marks the first official test flight in Asia, and the first time the aircraft was put through its paces in an urban environment. That’s big news because big cities are the places where the company hopes its air taxis will ultimately find a niche.
“In the next 10 years, we hope to see Volocopter integrated as an addition to existing mobility methods in mega cities,” says Christian Bauer, who is in charge of the firm’s business development. Volocopter is aiming to be the first company in the world to offer commercial air taxi services to the masses.
Air taxis, part of a category called electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, form a rapidly growing market—one that is expected to reach $1.5 trillion by 2040. More than 215 such aircraft are being developed worldwide, and with varying designs. Volocopter operates on drone technology with 18 motors, while others such as Lilium Jet have fixed wings. But only a handful of Volocopter’s competitors have actually built flying prototypes.
Volocopter, which was founded in 2011 and counts Intel, Daimler AG, and the Geely Holding Group (which owns automaker Volvo) among its investors, has raised close to US $95 million to date. That cash and access to a broad array of expertise have allowed Volocopter to present its third generation of lithium battery–operated, two-seater air taxis. Its next prototype, VoloCity, to be launched by 2022, promises improved specs over the current 2x series. The VoloCity expected to debut with an estimated range of 35 kilometers and a top speed of close to 110 kilometers per hour.
“Volocopter is focused on serving the inner-city mission,” says CEO Florian Reuter. With fares expected to be in the “hundreds rather than thousands of dollars,” Reuter says the airborne taxi service’s expected customers fall into three categories: businessmen looking to get quickly from point A to B, commuters seeking ways to beat rush hour traffic, and tourists.
“I believe eVTOLs will play a significant part in the future of mobility,” says Roei Ganzarski, CEO of magniX, an Australian firm developing motors for electric planes. “I don’t think we will see thousands of these flying around each city as some companies would like the public to believe, but I do think we will see shuttle models, movement between nearby airports, movement of cargo between main depots and last mile distribution [hubs], corporate use between campuses, and more.”
However, it could take 10 to 15 years for this to become reality, says Ganzarski, because there are “many other things that need to be solved first.” Among the hurdles he cites are battery power, regulatory issues, and the ability of autonomous aircrafts to handle emergencies. Other experts, such as aviation professor Jason Middleton from the University of New South Wales, voice concerns about hardware and software safety, the need to build supporting infrastructure, the challenges of navigating in bad weather, and how to manage air traffic control.
Pilots act as a fail-safe in many respects, says Middleton, who has been flying for nearly 50 years. “In an urban environment with lots of skyscrapers, you’re going to have gusts and you can’t predict where they’re going to be. Weather is unpredictable; it can quickly develop from nothing into a raging thunderstorm,” he says. “Who’s going to predict where [air taxis] can or can’t fly? And what happens when they’re in the air and can’t go to their destination?”
He adds that, “At least if you have a pilot, they’re going to look out the front and see what's going on and take necessary action.”
One of the answers to those concerns is unmanned aircraft system traffic management platforms, or UTMs for short. Volocopter is looking to use them to govern its air taxis. “You can take most of the airspace management techniques we use in drones and apply it to air taxis,” says Pamir Sevincel, who leads urban air mobility strategy at AirMap, one of the UTM companies Volocopter is working with. Drones, which usually fly below 400 feet, are subject to different air traffic management protocols than those applied to helicopters and other aircraft.
AirMap has developed numerous UTM capabilities, all of which can theoretically be used for eVTOLs as well. These include the digital submission and approval of flight plans, surveilling an aircraft and sending alerts if it veers off track, monitoring traffic and sending real-time updates, as well as providing dynamic rerouting during emergencies. In the future, the California-based company wants to enable pilots or ground-based fleet managers of drones and air taxis to update flight trajectories based on an automated assessment of risk as a function of pedestrian and car densities, as well as other potential safety issues along planned routes. It also plans to equip flying craft with “sequencing, scheduling, and spacing” capabilities, which would allow the safe and efficient scheduling of operations in and out of vertiports and within the urban air mobility network as a whole.
“This capability is really going to enable scale in a safe way...because if you don’t, you won’t be able to integrate many flights into urban airspace” says Sevincel.
Building infrastructure to support air taxis—vertiports with passenger lounges, check-in and security facilities, as well as battery charging and aircraft maintenance stations—is another issue that must be addressed before air taxis can become a commercial reality. To that end, Volocopter has partnered with Skyports, a British infrastructure firm that has just unveiled the first prototype of its VoloPort— the air taxi equivalent of a helipad—in Singapore.
Volocopter’s Reuter says his firm is also working closely with global aviation authorities to ensure that its next-generation air taxi rises to “the same safety level airliners are built to.” He’s also well aware that gaining public acceptance is key when it comes to autonomous transport, which is why he says Volocopter’s first stage of commercial operations, scheduled within five years, will likely involve piloted flights, with the eventual aim of moving towards full autonomy.
“We, as a global society, have to feel our way into this technology...and try it out in a safe and secure environment,” says Reuter.
“Many people picture the skies becoming dark and aircraft whizzing around the city without any control or rules. That’s a very negative and chaotic image,” he says. “But let’s take it step by step and evaluate how it goes.”
An abridged version of this post appears in the December 2019 print issue as “Electric Air Taxi Flies Over Singapore.”
Sandy Ong is an independent science journalist based in Singapore. For IEEE Spectrum, she often writes about the quest for better batteries. Ong also covers stories about health, tech, and the environment in Asia and beyond. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Newsweek, WiredUK, and other publications. You may have even heard her on BBC Radio 5 Live’s “Up All Night” if you were listening at just the right time. Ong holds a bachelor’s degree in life sciences and a master’s degree in forensic science, and is a graduate of New York University’s Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program.