Like so many other technologies foretold by science fiction, flying cars could grace our skies in the near future. A number of companies are racing time and the competition to be the first to lift us off the highways and into the skyways, transcending gravity and traffic jams.
German startup Volocopter has positioned itself to lead the flock with its passenger drones.
The first air taxi company in the world to receive a permit to fly, Volocopter launched its initial test flight in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, in 2017, followed by a test flight in Singapore in October 2019. The company is working with Micron and others to take city commuters to the skies worldwide, targeting 2022.
“We expect to have two to six years of lead time over anyone else,” Volocopter CFO Rene Griemens says. His company has conducted more than 1,000 test flights on its current-generation craft and anticipate it is just one generation away from certification. Its plans for a commercial launch will follow in a city that Volocopter is keeping secret, for now.
The Journey to Autonomous Flight
At first, Volocopter’s plans call for electric air taxis that will operate much as other app-based ride service vehicles do on the ground, according to Griemens. On-call human pilots will pick up passengers from building rooftops, parking lots and other designated spots and transport them to their destinations. Each journey will last a fraction of the time that automobiles would take to navigate crowded streets, and the fare is expected to be comparable to that of a taxi ride.
“Regulators will expect piloted services in the beginning,” Griemens says. “The early flights will have a pilot even if it’s not necessary.”
But autonomous flight is Volocopter’s end goal. As technologies such as 5G, internet of things and artificial intelligence continue to advance — enabled by increasingly powerful computing capabilities — the company will equip its vehicles with the sensors, cameras and other hardware needed for the aircraft to fly themselves.
The service is needed, Griemens says, to solve two of the most pressing transportation issues in cities today: increasing congestion as greater numbers of people move into urban areas and sustainability. Most solutions being considered today, such as autonomous on-the-ground cars and micromobility — electric scooters and bicycles, for instance — can exacerbate the congestion problem. “Our approach is to take mobility into the third dimension: into the space above the cities.” But, he adds, Volocopter’s all-electric motors are emissions-free.
Today, the company is still in its initial phase, developing routes and planning heliports for target cities while it continues to test and demonstrate its vehicles in flight. Griemens expects routes to coincide with popular tourist destinations, at least at first. Airport services will likely make up 60% to 80% of Volocopter’s market, he says.
After about five years of piloted flights, Griemens expects regulators to approve autonomous point-to-point flights. Eventually, the company envisions offering unpiloted on-demand services, with customers hailing a skyride from the parking lot of the grocery store where they do their shopping or from the roof of their apartment or office building.
Overcoming Obstacles in the U.S. and Beyond
Flying cars will most likely grace the skies outside the U.S. at first because the Federal Aviation Administration has not yet established standards for new aircraft. The European Union Aviation Safety Agency, however, approved SC-VTOL-01 on July 2, 2019, addressing small-category vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft that follow certain special conditions.
But Griemens envisions doing business someday in U.S. cities. A Volocopter white paper states that, in New York City, a flight from midtown Manhattan to Kennedy Airport would take 20 to 25 minutes as opposed to an hour or more by car.
Urban areas are the initial target market, the white paper notes, because 60% of the world’s population is expected to reside in cities by 2030.
But any air taxi or flying car company will face obstacles to operating in some cities. Safety is one concern. In New York, a 1977 accident that killed a pilot prompted lawmakers to ban helicopters from landing on Manhattan rooftops except for those in use for emergency services. Instead, they use three helipads along the Hudson River.
Other cities have banished helicopters because they’re loud. But a Volocopter isn’t your typical noisy chopper, Griemens points out. Because it has 18 rotor blades instead of one, those blades can be smaller, generating seven times less noise than a conventional helicopter emits.
“In New York, you won’t be able to hear it on the ground when it lands on the roof,” he says. On the ground, the noise from a truck 50 feet away would be louder than a Volocopter at the same distance, Griemens says.
Working With Micron on a Common Dream
Wherever Volocopter launches its air taxi service, it will do so in collaboration with Micron.
On Oct. 24, 2019, it was announced that MIcron had invested venture capital funds in Volocopter as part of Micron’s continued focus on artificial intelligence and edge computing.
“Volocopter is an exciting company that’s well-positioned to revolutionize the mobility and transportation market and contribute to building a sustainable and environmentally friendly transportation infrastructure,” said René Hartner, vice president of Corporate Business Development at Micron Technology. “Micron’s investment in Volocopter aligns with our view of the critical role that memory and storage solutions play in enabling the breakthrough capabilities needed for autonomous vehicles and edge computing.”
Micron is the largest memory supplier for the automotive industry, with high-performance solutions that facilitate advancements in autonomous driving, virtual reality and air travel. Micron Ventures’ investment in Volocopter reflects the company’s constant scouting for new, innovative solutions.
“We’re proud to have Micron work with us as we execute on our bold vision to bring urban air mobility to life,” said Volocopter CEO Florian Reuter. “Volocopter helps megacities transform their mobility infrastructure toward a more sustainable future. We aim to offer affordable, autonomous, on-demand air taxi services to transport people in megacities — all for the price of a taxi ride and with significant time savings.”
And Volocopter’s flying machines wouldn’t be possible without the vision of using technology to improve people’s lives — a vision shared by Griemens and Micron.
“It was always for me a child’s dream to bring mobility in the air,” he says, “to build flying cars.”
With the support of Micron and advanced technology, Griemens and Volocopter are doing just that.