You’re sitting on the beach – gentle breeze, deep red sunset. It is wonderfully relaxing – until a high-frequency humming noise maddens your eardrums. Yes, drones can be very annoying – especially when package holiday tourists use them to capture every imaginable moment of their vacation. But they do a lot of good in other ways: supporting rescue services and the police, providing care for disaster victims, detecting toxic contamination and monitoring harvests, to give just a few examples. Switzerland will soon be adopting the new European drone directive so as to regulate these miniature helicopters, and just recently it has agreed on closer cooperation with the US Federal Aviation Administration. So far, so good. But the question remains: what about the drone’s “big siblings” – air taxis to be used as part of the transportation system?
In 2011, the European Union already started investing in research projects to develop technologies for air passenger transport. The “MyCopter” project saw scientists working on control systems, operating interfaces and navigation systems. The long list of companies involved in airborne transportation now includes names such as Airbus, Uber, Bosch, Intel, Audi, Daimler and Microsoft. There also numerous start-ups such as the Daimler subsidiary Volocopter, whose corporate promise neatly captures the endeavours of the sector: “We bring urban air mobility to life.”
The world is faced with a constantly growing need for mobility. These new, promising forms of transportation can be summarised in four keywords: networked, digital, post-fossil, shared – all criteria that air taxis are able to meet. They also have one simple but crucial advantage over other means of transport, as Michel Guillaume of the “Mobility and Transportation Conference” at Zurich University of Applied Sciences says: “There is still plenty of space available up to a height of 150 metres.” And this space is all the more important if you consider that in 2030 an estimated 60% of the world's population (i.e. up to 5 billion people) will be living in cities. Manned test flights have already taken place in cities such as Singapore, Dubai, Dallas and Los Angeles, and commercial flight operations are expected to start soon. So this is where the potential lies: in cities with a population of five million or more.
Crowded megacities in emerging and developing countries are a particularly interesting market. “5’000 to 10’000 senior executives with packed schedules are desperately looking for mobility solutions in cities with populations of 20 to 30 million,” explains Stefan Levadak of the Institute of Flight Systems in Braunschweig. In São Paulo, for example, helicopter flights are fully booked – at rates of more than USD 1’000 per quarter hour. Experts assess the potential in western industrial nations to be significantly lower, however. After all, existing public transport systems are generally well established. As such, air taxis are likely to be a niche market in countries like Germany and Switzerland. According to Thomas Jarzombek, the German government's aerospace coordinator: “Air taxis will not become a means of mass transportation in the short to medium term.”
As with all major advancements in innovation and technology, society is divided – enthusiastic fans on one side, vehement sceptics on the other. The much-cited air taxi benefits of “fewer traffic jams, less exhaust fumes, time savings on short distances” are indeed countered by a multitude of concerns and problems that still need to be solved. The biggest challenge is currently the intelligent software. Further topics are the underlying technology (car or helicopter technology?), energy supply, legal aspects (liability, data protection), safety, the noise issue, weather conditions such as heavy rain and storms, the provision of sufficient take-off and landing areas and the high cost. And in addition to all of this, the basic question is: will human beings be prepared to hand over control entirely to a flying machine without a pilot?
It seems clear: the acceleration of short and medium-haul travel by air taxi will initially only become a reality for a small, affluent clientele in urban environments. Whether such airborne wonders will ever become a serious component of urban public transport is “by no means predetermined,” as Berlin-based mobility researcher Andreas Knie sums up, for example. What is more: as the number of air taxis increases, there will also be a growing risk of increased congestion in the air – just as we have on the ground now. But who knows exactly what the long-term future holds? We only need to remind ourselves of the famous quote by Kaiser Wilhelm II: “I believe in the horse. The automobile is a temporary phenomenon.”