Innovation: Unmanned air taxis to take off in 10 years

In Silicon Valley, a number of companies are actively preparing for this future of mobility.

Equipped with cameras, servers, radars, lidars and other sensors, the Cessna Caravan is already autonomous in good weather.

AFP

Small electric planes, piloted by artificial intelligence, that crisscross cities, to take their passengers from one “vertiport” to another, this is the science fiction scenario that Silicon Valley promises just ten years from now. “We will see the emergence of electric, regional or long-haul air taxi networks. The landscape is going to change a lot,” says Marc Piette, Belgian founder of Xwing, a start-up specializing in autonomous technologies for aviation.

Several Californian companies are actively preparing for this future of mobility, a solution to traffic jams and pollution. In a hangar in Concord, San Francisco Bay, the Xwing is focused on the most confusing factor in the equation: making any vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft, plane or plane, powered by fossil or electric fuel, taxi, take off, fly and land on your own.

And talk to passengers at the same time. “Autopilot system activated,” a woman’s voice declares to Ryan Olson as he sits at the controls, ready for a journey where he won’t touch the dashboard or joystick, like an instructor with a well-advanced learner. “The plane is a good student, unlike humans who behave differently each time,” says the pilot.

Equipped with cameras, servers, radars, lidars and other sensors, the Cessna Caravan is already self-sufficient in good weather, and Xwing is working to make it capable of tackling bad weather on its own.

“Uber from Heaven”

In February, a Joby electric VTOL (eVTOL) crashed during a remotely piloted flight when the start-up was testing speeds above its limits. “It’s bad for the entire industry when there’s an accident … But that’s what testing is for,” says Louise Bristow, vice president of Archer, another company.

Archer and Joby’s eVTOLs look like helicopters, but with one wing and multiple propellers. They hope to launch their first air taxi services by the end of 2024, with pilots. Wisk Aero, a Boeing start-up and Larry Page – co-founder of Google – is working on an autonomous eVTOL.

Archer's eVTOL device.

Archer’s eVTOL device.

AFP

Archer has received a pre-order from United Airlines for 200 vehicles and is targeting Los Angeles and Miami for starters. “We are building the Uber of heaven,” says Louise Bristow. She estimates at 10 years the time it will take “for there to be enough devices in service, for people to get used to moving like this and for you to feel the difference” in cities.

According to Scott Drennan, a new air mobility consultant, these dreamlike visions are taking shape through the convergence of three technologies: electrical power, computing capabilities and autonomy systems. But while the technology is on the right track, companies face two major challenges: certification and infrastructure. The authorities are not reluctant, but getting their agreement “will take longer than you think”, stresses the expert.

It will also be necessary to build “vertiports” (vertical airports), and “a digital interface to manage air traffic and vehicle communication between them”.

like an elevator

So many reasons why Xwing chose to start autonomously. “We took an existing and known device. We make the minimum modifications to convert it into an autonomous aircraft and certify it, and then we can explore other applications”, summarizes Marc Piette. Running out of pilots should make it possible to reduce costs and meet demand in underserved regions, which do not need airports or planes, but a lot of manpower.

The start-up plans to first equip machines responsible for delivering goods, with a view to commercial operation in two years, before moving on to passengers. The boss knows that he will face resistance, but he is convinced that these flights will be safer.

“The vast majority of air accidents are caused by human error”, he notes, before recalling that, thanks to the autopilot, “people already fly largely on their own”. He also explains that autonomy is “easier” in the air, where the environment is under constant control, unlike on roads.

What if hackers took control remotely? “Our technology is designed so that the aircraft refuses to obey dangerous orders,” replies Marc Piette. When elevators were invented, “people were terrified of using them without an operator,” he laughs. “Today we press the button without asking questions. It will be the same for aviation.”

(AFP)

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