Here come the flying taxis (soon) but where and how they fly is still up in the air

UPDATED: The contest for air space is heating up with American aerospace company Bell revealing its hybrid-electric propulsion aircraft this month and Boeing Co landing the first test flight of its autonomous passenger air vehicle last week.

But before these types of vehicles can take to Australian skies, there are some big regulatory, accessibility, manufacturing, sound and infrastructure-related hurdles to overcome first, such as where they can fly and where they can land.

Uber wants to launch fleets of piloted taxis that are electric-powered, have minimal noise and vertical take-off and landing capabilities. Karem, Embraer, Pipistrel, Boeing subsidiary Aurora Flight Sciences and Bell (formerly Bell Helicopters) are among the aircraft manufacturers developing aircraft that fit the ride-sharing and mobility company’s flying taxi requirements. Uber’s goal is to have its UberAIR service in operation by 2023. The plan is to start with piloted aircraft and eventually have them flying autonomously.

Provided they make it off the ground and into Australian skies, how will fleets of flying taxis and other next-generation flying passenger vehicles shape the built environment and how we live?

Critical to answering this is knowing where they will be able to fly. According to MacroPlan Dimasi executive chairman Brian Haratsis, the regulatory environment for what are known as electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft is problematic. He says that the piloted electric flying vehicles are currently handled by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) but the “interesting thing is there is no nexus between CASA and land use planning authorities.”

“There are currently no connections between where we might fly these vehicles and where we might land them,” he told The Fifth Estate.

Haratsis believes that the airspace one kilometre above the ground is going to become “contestable space”. MacroPlan Dimasi is currently conducting research on what Haratsis calls the “active third dimensions”, which will involve merging land use and above land use, planning and regulation. He imagines that the aircraft will initially follow the existing road and rail infrastructure.

According to University of NSW School of Aviation emeritus professor Jason Middleton, writing in The Conversation, piloted aircraft are subject to existing CASA regulations and automated vehicles currently fall under drone regulations for commercial drones. Because CASA is trying to stop drones from interfering with the flight paths of traditional manned aircraft, they can’t fly higher than 122 metres or anywhere near an airport.

Is this form of transport a good fit for Australia?

Brian Haratsis thinks Australia would be smart to be early adopters of these technologies because low density and long travel distances “makes public transport difficult to be profitable” in many parts of the country.

Haratsis is unsure how far away the technology is but says Bell’s hybrid-electric propulsion aircraft called Nexus signals the “first serious commercial entry.” Many of the other companies entering the fray are start-ups or smaller players that would struggle to manufacture at scale.

Flying taxis might let you live further away from where you work

Cofounder of residential property management start up Different, Ruwin Perera, has been following the space carefully and “wouldn’t be surprised if electric flying passenger vehicles are common” within 10 years as the technology improves and costs go down. He’s also given thought to how they might impact the built environment and property markets once they are ubiquitous.

He says reducing the distance premium that is applied to transport will be one significant impact. It might mean more “people can live where they want”.

“I’ve opted not to live somewhere I want to live because I’m not interested in sitting on the M1 for half an hour every day.”

Because there are only so many spots for them to alight, such as building rooftops, the flying vehicles would be multi-modal rather than door-to-door. People will walk or use some other form of transportation for the final leg.

As a result, Perera says, these landing spots will then become transport hubs and increase the value of surrounding property and how the land is used.

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  1. I don’t think the pilotless autonomous drones are decades away, when you consider that there are a bunch of companies (including Boeing) that are developing these vehicles, such as Ehang:
    The interesting thing about ehang is that they are a drone company that have made one big enough for people. Last I heard they were looking to get a license to fly.

  2. Firstly flycars / flying taxis have been flying in Australia since the 1950s. Most Australian cities have airtaxi services using commercial helicopters, which are VTOL aircraft.
    eVTOL passenger aircraft should never be confused with drones. eVTOL is simply VTOL aircraft using electric propulsion rather than a turbine engine. eVTOL commercial passenger aircraft will be subject to the same stringent type certification process as any other commercial passenger aircraft.
    Drones are unmanned air vehicles and autonomous (pilotless) passenger drones are for the military and will not be used for civil aviation for decades to come.