A science fiction backdrop. Silicon Valley hopes to introduce artificially-powered small electric planes in the coming years. These devices will cross over cities to transport their passengers from one “vertiport” to another. “We will see the emergence of electric, peripheral or long-distance air taxi networks”predicts Marc Piette, founder of Xwing, a startup that specializes in autonomous aviation technologies.
“The landscape is going to change a lot.”Marc Piette, founder of Xwing
Several companies in California are actively preparing for this future of mobility, a cure for congestion and pollution. At a Concorde San Francisco Bay Area hangar, Xwing focuses on the most confusing factor of the equation: making every vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) of an aircraft, airplane or airplane, with fossil or electric fuel, can be removed, fly and land on its own.
Devices will also be able to chat with passengers. “Autopilot participation” says a female voice to Ryan Olson as he sits at the controls, ready for a journey where he will not touch the dashboard or joystick, like an instructor with a well-advanced apprentice.
“The plane is a good student, unlike people who behave differently every time”, says the pilot. Equipped with cameras, servers, radar and other sensors, the Cessna Caravan is already autonomous when the weather is nice and Xwing is working to make it capable of dealing with bad weather on its own.
In February, a VTOL (eVTOL) Joby’s electrician crashed during a remote-controlled flight while the startup was testing speeds above its limits. “It’s bad for the whole industry when there is an accident (…) But that’s what the tests are for”says Louise Bristow, vice president of Archer, another company.
Archer and Joby eVTOLs look like helicopters but with a wing and multiple propellers. They hope to start their first air taxi services by the end of 2024, with pilots. Wisk Aero, a co-founder of Boeing and Google, Larry Page, is working on a standalone eVTOL. Archer has received a pre-order from United Airlines for 200 vehicles and is targeting Los Angeles and Miami to get started.
“We are building the Uber of the sky”, assures Louise Bristow. Calculates in ten years the necessary time “so that there are enough devices in operation, people get used to moving around like this and we feel the difference” in the cities. According to Scott Drennan, a new aviation mobility consultant, these visions are shaped by the convergence of three technologies: electricity, computing capabilities, and autonomy systems.
But while technology is on the right track, companies face two major challenges: certification and infrastructure. The authorities are not reluctant but get their consent “it will take longer than you think”, emphasizes the expert. You will also need to build “vertiports” (vertical airports), and “a digital interface for air traffic management and vehicle communication”.