As talk increases about flying cars being part of the solution to city transportation needs in the near future, it might occur to some that a flying car is really just a new version of a helicopter. So who better to get in on the race to get people into flying cars than a helicopter company?
David Royse | LedeTree
Bell Helicopters is showing off its idea for the Air Taxi at the Consumer Electronics Show this week in Las Vegas.
“Imagine coasting along while masses of people are stuck in the gridlock below,” the company says in a press release announcing it is working on the concept, and promising a “one-of-a-kind passenger experience in the future of urban air mobility.”
“Bell has been moving people over urban obstacles for decades with traditional rotorcraft,” the company says. “Now we’re expanding the scope of air travel and aviation technology to advance life’s conveniences. From shaving precious minutes off a cross-town commute for your cannot-miss meeting to that last-minute tee time with friends (with room for your clubs!) – Bell’s on-demand Urban Air Taxi concept makes the previously unthinkable a viable solution to your busy life.”
It’s hoping to have them in the air for testing within two years. Makes sense, really. An air taxi is little more than a helicopter, and Bell’s been making those since 1935. A key difference is that it takes expertise to fly a helicopter and thus requires a pilot, whereas Bell envisions an air taxi that is, eventually, fully autonomous. Early on, however, Bell says the taxis would have pilots to instill confidence in riders. The vehicle, which would take off and land vertically, would carry four passengers.
And while helicopters are noisy and polluting, the envisioned air taxis would be electric.
— Bell Helicopter #CES2018 (@BellHelicopter) January 9, 2018
Bell envisions the vehicles being used as taxis, or ridesharing services, rather than personal vehicles. In fact, Fort Worth-based Bell has already announced a partnership with Uber for testing in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex by 2020.
“Imagine one day you’re using your everyday Uber [app], you see a new option for air,” Jeff Holden, chief product officer at Uber said in a story last April in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “You literally push a button and get a flight.”
— WIRED (@WIRED) January 11, 2018
According to Uber, Bell is just one of about a dozen companies working on flying taxis.
The technology may be the easiest part of getting air taxis, sometimes called VTOLs for Vertical Take-off and Landing, into our every day lives.
The economics is a bit tougher, but workable, Uber says.
“Ultimately, if VTOLs can serve the on-demand urban transit case well—quiet, fast, clean, efficient, and safe—there is a path to high production volume manufacturing (at least thousands of a specific model type built per year) which will enable VTOLs to achieve a dramatically lower per-vehicle cost,” the company says. “The economics of manufacturing VTOLs will become more akin to automobiles than aircraft.
“Initially, of course, VTOL vehicles are likely to be very expensive, but because the ridesharing model amortizes the vehicle cost efficiently over paid trips, the high cost should not end up being prohibitive to getting started. And once the ridesharing service commences, a positive feedback loop should ensue that ultimately reduces costs and thus prices for all users, i.e. as the total number of users increases, the utilization of the aircraft increases.”
Infrastructure is a question – where would they land once they deliver you to your home or office? In cases where office buildings could create rooftop helipads, that could be solved, according to Uber.
“Even though building a high density of landing site as infrastructure in urban cores (e.g. on rooftops and parking structures) will take some time, a small number of vertiports could absorb a large share of demand from long-distance commuters since the ‘last mile’ ground transportation component will be small relative to the much longer commute distance,” Uber says on its website.
But in residential neighborhoods, the service would need stations, similar to train stations, where a VTOL could land to drop off passengers.
“The greatest operational barrier to deploying a VTOL fleet in cities is a lack of sufficient locations to place landing spots,” Uber says. “Even if VTOLs were certified to fly today, cities simply don’t have the necessary takeoff and landing sites for the vehicles to operate at fleet scaling.”
Regulation is another big issue. You can’t just start flying things through the sky, where there are Federal Aviation Administration rules on flight paths, and regulations regarding safety of the actual craft.
Uber acknowledges getting approval to fly from the FAA is an obstacle from a technical standpoint.
“VTOL aircraft are new from a certification standpoint, and progress with certification of new aircraft concepts has historically been very slow,” Uber says.
But the flight path issue may not be as difficult as one might think, according to Uber.
“While there is no provision yet for dedicated VTOL routes in the U.S. National Airspace System (NAS), an equivalent construct is simple to define by negotiation with (air traffic control), just as news reporting and medical aircraft have defined routes,” it says. “For the foreseeable future, aircraft operating in urban areas will still use voice communications with (air traffic control) to allow for the variety of traffic, but in the next few years all aircraft will have readily available cockpit displays showing all the other nearby aircraft. Through experience with piloted operations along the same routes, it will be possible to demonstrate the basis of an autonomous route structure, which will evolve to avoid conflict with existing aircraft operations.”