The past year was marked by incredible progress for the budding air taxi sector, capping off a decade of more rapid advancement toward on-demand electric air mobility than most observers thought possible.
Here are the top 10 most-viewed air taxi stories published by Avionics International this year, ranked by reader interest (page views).
Photo: FLUTR Motors
As a number of companies including Boeing, Bell Flight, Volocopter and Sabrewing (among others) continue to develop electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft for various cargo delivery and passenger carrying missions, we profiled two companies, Metro Hop and FLUTR Motors, that are taking disruptive approaches toward the future vision of urban air mobility (UAM) that has the aviation industry in a frenzy right now.
2019 was a challenging year for Uber. The rideshare giant faced scrutiny of its safety practices, is appealing the loss of its taxi license in London, and the company's stock has dropped about 25 percent from its IPO in May.
Despite it all, Uber continues to lead to the charge toward aerial ridesharing with its Elevate project and seven announced vehicle partners: Aurora, Bell, Embraer, Karem, Pipistrel, as well as Jaunt Air Mobility, announced at the Elevate summit in June, and Joby Aviation, announced in December. Uber also launched a helicopter-based mobility service in New York City to further its understanding of how to run a multi-modal aerial mobility service.
In this article, we examined some of the challenges Uber isn't considering and featured voices that push back on the company's vision and aggressive timeframe, including Itai Shoshani, CEO and chief pilot for New York-based helicopter charter Zip Aviation.
A depiction of NASA's Grand Challenge developmental test concept, subject to change. (NASA)
Beginning in 2020, NASA will conduct full field tests in urban environments with select participants, evaluating all elements of UAM operations under a variety of weather, traffic and contingency conditions. The goal of this program, called the UAM Grand Challenge, is to understand what will be required to achieve a mature UAM ecosystem capable of operating in dense urban environments, evaluating aircraft, air traffic management systems and infrastructure capabilities.
Vehicle developers and air traffic navigation service providers (ANSPs) are encouraged to participate, and data from the project will assist the FAA in determining aircraft certification requirements for air taxis.
The first stage of the Grand Challenge, called GC-Developmental Test or GC-DT, is slated to take place between July and November 2020 and will include both simulations and live flights. The results of GC-DT will help shape the scenarios to be undertaken throughout the rest of the project.
Jaunt Air Mobility is the first public partner for BAE Systems' entry in to the aircraft electrification space. (Jaunt Air Mobility)
A long-time supplier of electric propulsion systems to ground vehicles and flight controls for military aircraft, BAE Systems announced in August it will enter the aircraft electrification market, intending to offer a wide-ranging suite of products for use on regional jets as well as smaller aircraft intended for UAM.
Months later, BAE signed an MoU with Jaunt Air Mobility, one of Uber's six announced vehicle partners and the first public project by BAE in this space. The company will integrate hardware and software for the aircraft’s battery management system as well as managing the actuation and high-voltage power distribution around the aircraft, though the agreement could open the door to further BAE involvement in other elements of aircraft electrification and flight controls.
Will BAE announce its involvement in more air taxi development projects in 2020? Magic 8-ball says 'likely.'
A rendering of an Uber vertiport. (Uber)
At the beginning of the year, Uber's head of aviation engineering, Mark Moore, described how the new electric aircraft under development will achieve the mass-market utilization that helicopters failed to achieve due to fundamental advantages of the vehicles. Moore said eVTOLs have an edge over helicopters on cost, safety, noise and efficiency due to distributed propulsion and electric power, allowing Uber to create a ridesharing model that will expand the market past the elites-only price point helicopters have been confined to.
Porsche and Boeing have signed an MoU to develop a prototype electric vertical takeoff and landing vehicle. (Porsche)
In September, Porsche became the latest automaker to throw its hat in the UAM ring, announcing a joint aircraft development project with Boeing to explore what it called the 'premium' segment of the urban air mobility market, betting that initial access to this mode of transportation will be limited to very wealthy individuals and a brand like Porsche could command a powerful presence.
While few details have been revealed about the vehicle beyond that it will be an all-electric two-seater, the project is staffed by roughly 20 engineers, designers and business development professionals.
Porsche doesn't see the ride-sharing UAM concept, championed most notably by Uber, as likely to appeal to high-dollar travelers, instead seeking to offer a model where riders can hail an entire vehicle for themselves that is designed around a comfortable, luxurious experience.
The CityAirbus was presented on March 11 at the City of Ingolstadt to members of the German government and the public. On Friday May 3, 2019, the prototype urban air mobility vehicle took its first flight. Photo: Airbus
The second UAM-related vehicle project undertaken by Airbus took flight for the first time in May 2019. CityAirbus, designed to carry four passengers, has four sets of counter-rotating ducted props. Airbus has teamed with Siemens for this project.
Little has been heard from CityAirbus throughout 2019, though Airbus' other rapid aircraft development project, Vahana, wrapped its flight testing before the end of the year.
Lilium is reportedly looking to raise $400 to 500 million, almost a five-fold increase in the amount other air taxi developers have raised to date. (Photo: Lilium)
This Munich, Germany-based air taxi developer, with its striking five-seat design focused more on 'regional' air mobility than intra-urban flights, is reportedly seeking to raise a war chest of about $500 million, presumably to see its aircraft through to commercial certification and commercial use. Lilium is one of a few air taxi startups to have raised about $100 million in venture capital, along with Joby Aviation and Volocopter.
The Kitty hawk HVSD eVTOL aircraft, revealed after two years of stealth development. (Kitty Hawk)
In October, the Larry Page-funded outfit Kitty Hawk unveiled its third vehicle, following Flyer and Cora, named 'Heaviside,' after engineer and physicist Oliver Heaviside. It's a single-person aircraft that can travel 55 miles in 15 minutes, at a cruise speed exceeding 200 mph, but its most — or least — striking feature is its low acoustic signature. TechCrunch's Kirsten Korosec reported the vehicle registers below 40 decibels at a distance of 600 feet, which is exponentially quieter than an average helicopter at 80-85 decibels.
Though it's a much smaller aircraft than the designs expected to be used for urban aerial ridesharing, Heaviside's en-route acoustic signature represents a tremendous achievement for a sector deeply concerned with the public's reaction to more noise overhead.
CityAirbus is one of two UAM-focused vehicle projects undertaken by Airbus in 2019. Airbus and Bell are more focused on UAM than Sikorsky and Leonardo. (Airbus)
Based on conversations with the four major helicopter OEMs — Airbus, Bell, Leonardo and Sikorsky — we found that Airbus and Bell had made urban air mobility and the technologies that underpin it a significant part of their future strategy, while Leonardo and Sikorsky are mostly watching to see how the sector develops.
Soon after this piece was published, Leonardo announced it will partner with Falcon Aviation Services to display some examples of UAM infrastructure at Dubai Expo 2020, including a helipad, showroom and helicopter terminal concept alongside Leonardo’s upcoming commercial tiltrotor, the AW609. Sikorsky also promptly demonstrated some UAM vision at CoMotion LA in November, partnering with Otis Elevator Company and Helinet. The company has stated its focus is on the infrastructure side of UAM.
||Want more eVTOL and air taxi news? Sign up for our brand new e-letter, “The Skyport,” where every other week you’ll find the most important analysis and insider scoops from the urban air mobility world.