The start-up Volocopter from Bruchsal has been working on an autonomous flying taxi since 2011, designed to be used in congested cities and on set routes. In 2017, the company completed its first test flight over a populated area, with the flying taxi spending eight minutes in the air above Dubai City. More than 1,000 test flight have now been conducted and licenses have been granted for unmanned test flights in Germany, Dubai, Helsinki, and Singapore, according to the company’s website.
In mid-September the test flight in Germany was conducted – albeit under somewhat different conditions. The Volocopter completed a four-minute test flight above a soccer pitch outside the Mercedes Museum in Stuttgart. The test was a success – which wasn’t that surprising given that the test flight that lasted twice as long two years previously was also a success. However, the flying taxi still doesn’t fly one hundred percent autonomously: The Velocopter was controlled remotely by a pilot on the ground during the test.
Incidentally, the Volocopter – which looks like a cross between a drone and a helicopter – has not been designed for transporting the masses: The aircraft can transport a maximum of two passengers and their hand luggage with a total weight of 200 kilograms. Its range is 35 kilometers, which is more than enough to handle the flights across city centers for which the Volocopter has been designed. The speed of 110 km/h by far exceeds the driving speed in city centers, so the passengers will save a great deal of time.
The aircraft is kept in the air by 18 rotors, driven by brushless DC electric motors. Each rotor has a diameter of 2.30 meters. Nine rechargeable lithium-ion battery packs, which can be replaced within five minutes, supply the Volocopter with power. As a result, the flying taxis are carbon-neutral – another advantage in cities that are already polluted by sooty particulates and other exhaust fumes. Thanks to the helicopters’ ability to take off vertically, no runways are necessary. As such, the flying taxis need little space – yet another positive aspect of this concept.
The explicit aim of the Velocopter is also to make this kind of mobility accessible to all classes of society so that not only VIPs, but also mere mortals can quickly get from one location in the city to another. The concept has clearly also convinced large companies: Daimler has had a stake in the company since 2017. More recently, China’s Geely, Daimler’s largest shareholder, also got involved. Both companies are planning a joint venture aimed at establishing the taxis in China’s megacities. In view of the much larger scale of the cities in China, this is a logical step for the start-up. All of this means that Velocopter is now valued at 85 million euros, with another round of financing due in the near future.
From a technical and financial perspective, things are clearly going well for Velocopter. The flying taxi is likely to make the transition to mass production in the coming years. Yet do people trust the technology? After all, autonomous flying is a different ball game to autonomous driving, where the driver can still intervene in an emergency. A snap survey in our office revealed that two thirds of those asked (still) do not trust the technology and would rather sit in a traffic jam than potentially fall out of the sky in a flying taxi. If the technology has been operating accident-free for a while, half of the sceptics would then take a flight.
Until the day comes when flying taxis are part of everyday life, however, we are left with two alternatives – either sit in traffic or stand on the platform and hope that the train is not running late.