For an industry based entirely on the arrival of a new kind of aircraft, many technological and logistical hurdles must be cleared.
Those include battery tech, business plans, and the role drones must play before flying cars can take off.
The good news is that heaps of startups are working on these problems — and we’ve rounded up the best contenders to deliver the future of flight.
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Though investment opportunities abound in the world of aerial mobility — for those patient enough to play the long game — staying abreast of the key technological challenges still standing in the way of viable, widespread electric air taxi service is important. It helps to temper expectations and filter out the hype.This is especially true because the industry is having a bit of an early reckoning, with instigator and cheerleader Uber offloading the Elevate program that helped spawn the movement back in 2016. Whether you think this is merely the first domino to fall in an effort that’s already incomprehensibly ambitious, or merely an inevitable hiccup — likely one of many — the move reinforces the lesson that nothing in aviation is a foregone conclusion. Supporters may waver, companies may fail, and necessary innovations may not materialize.For an industry based entirely on the arrival of a new kind of aircraft, using new propulsion technologies and powered by the same batteries that have so far required massive innovation just to push a car 200 miles, many challenges remain—and yes, batteries are a big part of it. “The low energy density of batteries continues to force eVTOL makers to make significant design tradeoffs, resulting in performance that can only marginally meet customer mission requirements,” warns Ben Marcus, co-founder of venture-capital firm UP.Partners, which formed this year to invest in the necessary building blocks of the flying car business.
“The industry must also develop autonomy systems that significantly improve the safety of vertical-lift aircraft relative to human-piloted helicopters before they will make a significant difference in the daily commutes of millions of people.”Furthermore, the new technologies will have to be certifiable to safety standards that are much higher than for terrestrial transport systems — mostly given the fact that if something fails on the ground, the solution is often as simple as pulling over and stopping, something not easily done in aircraft. They must be practical for commercial applications, with adequate passenger space and flight range, and appealing to potential passengers. The flight experience needs to be comfortable and secure, or nobody will want to fly in the new aircraft.Fortunately, Marcus adds, there are a lot of cooks in the kitchen — commercial R&D labs, government agencies, university engineering departments — and plenty of beneficiaries beyond commuters looking to coast over gridlock. The same technologies that will lift those folks will also deliver pizzas, execute search-and-rescue missions, inspect power lines, shuttle emergency supplies, and more.
Drones need to light the wayThe technological pipelines for all this needed innovation are already very active, with pilot projects and commercial deployment of drone-based systems, which use a lot of similar technologies to those needed for passenger-carrying aircraft, being initiated around the globe. Marcus cites Zipline and Matternet as companies already delivering medical supplies in many parts of the world, while UPS, Amazon, Google Wing, and others are working with the FAA to establish drone delivery systems in the U.S. These companies will operate in clearly defined geographic areas and under strict rules for how high and in what conditions their aircraft can fly.Once the early delivery systems prove they can successfully complete their missions, they’ll need to graduate to wider geographic areas and be able to operate in the presence of other aircraft, whether human-piloted or autonomous. Marcus’ own initiative, AirMap, a drone-management software company, is working to help devise a system that will be needed to define paths through communities, factoring in winds and weather at low altitudes, electronic noise that might interfere with navigation or communications to local air traffic networks, and risk areas, such as those with dense pedestrian traffic.
The idea is that eventually the drones will be able to function with full awareness of other aircraft in the area, map out their own routes to their destinations while avoiding conflicts, and generally be able to keep themselves out of trouble. These are the same capabilities — collectively known as autonomy — that will be required of larger electric aircraft capable of carrying actual passengers.Autonomy in reachThat ultimate goal, fully autonomous flight, is being tackled by companies such as Reliable Robotics, Merlin Labs, X-Wing, Near Earth Autonomy, Daedalean, Skydio, and others. Skydio founder Adam Bry is consciously taking a walk-then-run approach to artificial intelligence-based systems controlling aviation. This begins with consumer drones that can safely and reliably follow people and vehicles while avoiding obstacles, followed by industrial and commercial applications. Skydio just signed the largest-ever commercial drone contract, for 5,000 Skydio 2 drones to be used in residential roof inspections. It will then move to drones that can operate independently in public airspace, and then, ultimately, those passenger-carrying aircraft. “That’s the big flywheel that we’re trying to spin up,” Bry says. “Over time, as the core algorithms get better based on the validation of the data, I think we get more and more confident in scaling them up to bigger and bigger and higher-consequence vehicles and systems.”
Skydio founder Adam Bry is consciously taking a walk-then-run approach to artificial intelligence-based systems controlling aviation.
Bry says that while the air taxi future will take a long time to come to fruition, due to the multitude of new technologies that need to converge, there are many paths for innovation that can be exploited to develop the capabilities safely. For instance, he notes that simply keeping autonomous drones low to the ground and within 50 feet of structures will keep out of the way of other aircraft, while enabling the devices to be widely deployed. “That’s where we’re going to see the most progress in the short term,” he says. “There’s so much value in terms of data collection that you can get by flying 30 to 50 feet from the ground.”
Building the businessUntil that evolution gains significant traction, human-occupied systems, like drones, will also be constrained to very specific corridors and flight conditions. But even there, the technology is advancing surprisingly quickly. EHang, based in China, has been working to launch an air taxi pilot program for Dubai. German startup Volocopter has been doing the same in Singapore. Munich-based Lilium just announced plans for an air taxi service that will launch in 2025 near Orlando. The latter will shuttle passengers between Lake Nona and destinations within the anticipated 186-mile range of its aircraft, the Lilium Jet.
Munich-based Lilium just announced plans for an air taxi service that will launch in 2025 near Orlando.
Lilium and Lake Nona
Lilium COO Remo Gerber says such a system, which would be privately funded though potentially with backing from the city of Orlando, could test solutions for multiple technological challenges at once—the logistics of reserving and booking flights, the infrastructure required for its $25 million “vertiport,” the specific capabilities of the aircraft itself, and the whole development process itself. Yet he is optimistic that a minimal ground presence will mean greater economic viability. “If we were to ever think about putting a high-speed ground transportation system anywhere in the world, you wouldn’t even get through the permitting stage alone in four years,” he says. “But we believe we could have a very large, significant network up and running across the whole state of Florida—while giving people a beautiful view, too.”Batteries are the linchpinIt’s possible, however, that absolutely none of this will happen—at real scale, anyway—without a significant breakthrough in power technology. While early system battery-electric air taxi systems will likely be able to get away with short-range aircraft that will need to be charged before every flight, eventually the aircraft will need to be able to deliver on the 180-plus mile ranges and the hyper-fast recharging that have been promised but not yet validated. Companies leading the charge here, so to speak, include Cuberg, MagniX, Ampaire, and Verdego Aero.
Alaka’i Technologies unveils a model of a working prototype of Skai, a hydrogen fuel cell powered multi-rotor aircraft the company designed to carry up to five passengers.
However, just because air taxis will be electric, that doesn’t mean they necessarily have to be powered by batteries. Alaka’I Technologies and ZeroAvia are both developing hydrogen-powered propulsion systems for electric aircraft. Alaka’I was selected for a series of flight tests and assessments in NASA’s Advanced Air Mobility National Campaign, and ZeroAvia executed its first flight test, in September, of a conventional six-seat aircraft converted to its hydrogen-based electric system.
According to Marcus, hydrogen power just might find a home in aviation much more readily than it has in automotive applications. If so, it could prove to be a significant piece to the air taxi technology puzzle—but one of many pieces nonetheless.