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US Air Force Gives Lift To Flying Taxis

Military endorsement could bring novel electric vehicles closer to reality. US Air Force Gives Lift to Flying Taxis

Flying taxis, which one day may whisk passengers around town without pilots, are getting a boost from the U.S. military.

US Air Force Gives Lift To Flying Taxis

The Joby Aviation Vehicle, With Six Electric-Powered Tilt Rotors Above An Egg-Shaped Body Sized For Four Passengers, Is Lighter, Cheaper And Quieter Than Conventional Helicopters.

The Air Force has issued a first-of-its-kind safety endorsement of an electric-powered vehicle similar to a helicopter, opening the door to using such commercially developed equipment for military missions. This initial stamp of approval is meant to lay the groundwork for eventual civilian certification of the technology and even approval of autonomous flights crossing American cities, industry and military officials said. The current version does require a pilot.

For now, the impact of the Air Force’s decision, expected to be announced as soon as Thursday, is limited. It means Joby Aviation, a Northern California startup, will become the first maker of novel vertical-takeoff-and-landing craft providing transportation for the U.S. armed services.

The Air Force will help accelerate safety analyses by conducting flight tests, pledging to pay for contracts seeking to verify vehicle reliability and generally vetting the capabilities of vehicles through direct and indirect funding of the company.

The Air Force intends to help jump-start the budding industry to enhance American competitiveness. The process is expected to take years, but the race to develop air taxis already has attracted significant investments from companies including Boeing Co. , Toyota Motor Corp. , Hyundai Motor Group of South Korea and Airbus SE.

“We’re really competing with other nations to bring this technology to bear,” Will Roper, head of Air Force acquisitions, said in a recent interview. “Not just for military missions, but for all missions, including commercial ones.”

Based on the positive safety assessment, Joby’s vehicle will be contracted to carry cargo and people, as well as provide emergency rescue and other services, initially between military facilities in the U.S. and later around the globe. Ferrying freight among domestic locations connected by military airspace could begin as soon as early next year, according to Mr. Roper and others inside the Air Force.

The novel design features six tilt rotors above an egg-shaped body sized for four passengers, producing a vehicle that is lighter, cheaper and quieter than conventional helicopters.

In the future, it could be used for missions from slipping commandos into hostile territory to picking up injured pilots on the battlefield to carrying high-priority cargo to remote outposts, according to the Air Force. Other military services also will have a chance to assess the craft’s capabilities.

The Air Force endorsement, stemming from a year-old initiative called Agility Prime, also signals a potentially new chapter for Pentagon procurement, by harnessing for military missions equipment initially developed just for commercial markets.

“This is about retooling our system to be commercially focused, commercially agile,” Mr. Roper said. He told an industry conference during the summer that the Air Force needs to be involved “wherever innovation is happening in aviation.”

Joby said it is “excited to partner with the U.S. government to accelerate testing, development and certification,” adding that the military’s safety and performance evaluation had determined the vehicle “meets Air Force standards for flight.”

At this point, the company won’t be authorized to fly in civilian airspace or offer broad commercial services, both of which require full-fledged safety certification by the Federal Aviation Administration. But industry experts, along with military and civilian government officials, see the Pentagon’s endorsement as an important step toward that goal.

Referring to the collaboration between military and civilian safety experts, FAA chief Steve Dickson told an air-mobility conference this week, “It’s really gratifying to see how our interests align.” He didn’t discuss specific companies. Joby has said it anticipates formal FAA safety certification by 2023.

Separately, earlier this week Joby said it intends to acquire the Uber Elevate unit of Uber Technologies Inc., as part of an expanded partnership between the two companies. The latest agreement also increases Uber’s investment in Joby to $125 million as the two companies pursue plans to integrate future ground and air travel options. On Wednesday, Joby said the Air Force and Uber developments seek to accelerate its timeline for offering services to customers.

The Pentagon plans to spend roughly $100 million annually to support flight tests and pay for actual transportation as part of the overall effort to assess Joby, which is funded partly by Toyota, and other companies working on novel airborne vehicles.

The long-term goal, according to Air Force Col. Nathan Diller, who will oversee testing and evaluation, is for the military to collaborate with industry and the FAA to ensure U.S. manufacturers snare a major share of the emerging air-taxi market. Pointing to China’s dominance in commercial drones, he said, “We can’t afford to do what we did with the small-drone industry.”

Several other companies are looking for similar endorsements, formally called airworthiness evaluations, in coming months. They include Vermont-based Beta Technologies and Texas-based Lift Aircraft Inc.

The Vertical Flight Society, a nonprofit group in Fairfax, Va., that promotes urban air taxis, says roughly $5 billion has been invested in the segment since 2014. National and local governments from Europe to Singapore are devising pilot projects to promote the technology. At least $5 billion more is likely to be spent on new-vehicle development in the next few years, according to Michael J. Dyment, managing partner of Nexa Capital Partners, which funds novel aircraft development.

Updated: 12-10-2020

Singapore Set To Have Flying Electric Taxi Service By 2023

Singapore is set to host the world’s first electric-powered air taxi service by the end of 2023, according to Volocopter GmbH, which is developing the vertical-takeoff craft.

The German manufacturer is committed to starting operations within three years once it completes flight trials, evaluation and certification in collaboration with the city-state, it said in a statement Wednesday. Tickets for a 15-minute trip costing 300 euros ($364) are already on sale.

Volocopter completed a demonstration flight over Singapore’s Marina Bay area in October last year, and the first commercial route is likely to fly tourists over the same district, offering spectacular views of the skyline, the company said. Later services could including cross-border journeys.

Singapore is at the forefront of plans to introduce flying taxis thanks to a more welcoming regulatory regime than in some other countries. While the craft could replace helicopters and light aircraft on some routes, they’d also be small and nimble enough to fly deep within cities and land with minimal space.

“Singapore is renowned for its leading role in adapting and living new technologies,” Volocopter Chief Executive Officer Florian Reuter said, adding that local capabilities in battery research, material science and route validation for autonomous operations will be central to the project.

Volocopter, which counts computer chip manufacturer Intel Corp. and automakers Daimler AG and Geely as investors, plans to set up a team of 50 pilots, engineers and operations specialists to support the Singapore flights.

The craft will initially carry a pilot and one customer, though services could switch to two passengers once approvals for autonomous operation are received. Ticket prices should fall sharply once flights become more widely available, according to Volocopter.

Obtaining necessary approvals from the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency will be a prerequisite for flights, the company said.

Updated: 12-15-2020

Germany Orders Electric Air Taxis To Carry Emergency Doctors

Germany’s biggest air-ambulance operator has ordered two electric air taxis to evaluate their potential in a pioneering role speeding doctors to patients.

ADAC Luftrettung, part of the country’s leading motoring association, will begin testing the 18-rotor Volocopter GmbH aircraft from 2023 after the simulation of 26,000 emergency responses in two cities indicated that it could fulfill a rapid-transport role currently performed by a costlier helicopter fleet.

The joint announcement Tuesday provides further evidence of the commercial potential of vertical takeoff air taxis, coming less than a week after Singapore said it plans to launch the world’s first such service.

Germany may need more than 250 bases for the craft, according to ADAC, which plans to operate them alongside its choppers. Though the VoloCity model has no room for a third person in its cabin with the pilot and medic, only 25% of helicopter missions today require a casualty to be evacuated by air, it said.

Still, ADAC said that Volocopter, based in Bruchsal, Germany, might need to improve the model’s payload, a range currently limited to 22 miles, and its speed of 68 miles per hour to make a stronger business case.

Singapore plans to introduce air taxis via a venture with Volocopter by the end of 2023. Tickets for a 15-minute trip costing $365 are already on sale.

While regulations mean initial flights will feature a pilot, the manufacturer’s plans envisage that the craft will ultimately operate as a two-passenger drone.

Updated: 1-17-2021

Volocopter Seeks Approval For Electric Air Taxis In U.S. Cities

German electric air-taxi startup Volocopter GmbH is seeking regulatory approval to operate its vertical takeoff craft in the U.S.

The Federal Aviation Administration is considering a type-certification application from Volocopter, opening up the possibility of flights in cities such as Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Washington in the next two to three years, the company said in a statement Friday.

Volocopter plans to inaugurate commercial operations in Singapore by 2023, with tickets for 15-minute tourist flights already on sale for 300 euros ($360). The two-seat model, powered by multiple electric rotors, performed its first manned test in 2011 and has since completed more than 1,000 flights.

The company, whose backers include carmakers Daimler AG and Geely Automobile Holdings Limited, as well as logistics firm DB Schenker and the venture capital arm of chipmaker Intel Corp., is seeking FAA approval concurrent with an earlier application to the European Aviation Safety Agency, as well as Singaporean authorities.

Updated: 1-28-2021

Jet-Powered Flying Taxi Startup To Develop Hubs Across Florida

Lilium, working with Spanish infrastructure giant Ferrovial on at least 10 so-called vertiports, aims to be running flights in cities worldwide by 2025.

The world’s first all-electric vertical takeoff passenger jet could start operations from boutique hubs across Florida in coming years.

German startup Lilium GmbH has struck a deal to build a network of at least 10 so-called vertiports with Spanish infrastructure giant Ferrovial SE, the companies said on Wednesday. Ferrovial owns 25% of London’s Heathrow Airport and manages three other terminals in the U.K.

Lilium, which is developing a five-seat air taxi, will serve Florida’s major population centers, including Miami and Tampa. The timing of the first flights, in the southern part of the state, could be announced as soon as this spring, Ferrovial said in a statement. The companies will collaborate on the design, construction and operation of the airports and charging facilities. Lilium aims to be running flights in cities worldwide by 2025.

The company says the pay-per-ride services will be emission-free, five times faster than a car, and produce less noise than a motorbike. The aircraft’s battery will have a 300-kilometer (186-mile) range; initial flights will feature a pilot but can also operate in drone mode.

A first test flight took place in May 2019. Once the service is up and running, Lilium expects a short connection between, say, John F. Kennedy International Airport, in Queens, NY, and Manhattan would cost about the same as a top-end limousine service.

The aircraft, powered by 36 jet engines that swivel after takeoff to provide forward flight in the manner of a standard plane, uses 10% of the energy of multi-rotor drones used in helicopter technology.

The savings should allow the craft to fly longer distances, overcoming some of the range issues that are seen as a major obstacle to electric-powered planes. The model has no tail, no rudder, no gearbox and only one moving part in the engine, features, Lilium says, that make the craft safer.

Based near Munich, the company has similar deals with airports in Düsseldorf and Cologne/Bonn in Germany, and to serve a planned community in Orlando, Florida.

In early January, it appointed former Airbus SE chief Tom Enders to its board. The company became a unicorn — a startup valued at more than $1 billion — after raising $275 million last year from investors including Tencent Holdings Ltd., Atomico and later Baillie Gifford & Co.

Updated: 3-10-2021

This Startup Wants To Fill The Skies With Cargo-Filled Robot Planes

Reliable Robotics has been flying Cessnas through a mixture of autonomy and remote control. FedEx, for one, is a believer.

There’s nothing unusual looking about the 38-foot-long cargo plane that’s been flying around Northern California for the past month. But the insides of the Cessna 208 have undergone a sci-fi makeover, resulting in a plane that’s been taxiing, taking off, maneuvering in the air, and landing without a pilot.

The machinery and software that let it fly on its own come from a startup called Reliable Robotics Corp., which has spent four years working on autonomous flight. The company has a grand total of two planes, but its long-term plan is to fill the sky with pilotless aircraft transporting cargo and passengers.

Reliable’s story begins with the self-doubt of its co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Robert Rose. His attempt to become a pilot in college ended for lack of money, but by 2016 he’d earned enough to give the cockpit another shot. Rose, who’d spent his career building autonomous cars and spacecraft for Tesla Inc. and SpaceX, expected that planes would have modernized since he last hopped in a cockpit.

But the one he took up had decades-old technology. The shock of how much the flight still relied on a human pilot hit Rose midair as he contemplated his rusty skills and mortality.

“My first thought was, ‘Wow, it’s insane that a private person is allowed to do this,’ ” he says. “You have all this navigation that you need to manage and all the communications you have to do between other planes and taking instructions from air traffic control. There’s layers and layers of stuff. All the while, you are one mistake away from a fatal accident. I kept thinking, ‘How is this OK?’ ”

Rose founded Reliable in 2017 with Juerg Frefel, an old buddy from SpaceX. The pair set up shop in Rose’s garage in Los Altos, Calif., planning to make improved autopilot technology. They hoped to tap into the mechanical and positioning systems available on most planes, buy a couple of off-the-shelf sensors, and tie everything together with clever software that could make the types of decisions usually expected of pilots.

Each step of the way, however, they discovered the existing gear for sale wasn’t resilient enough for the job. “You just could not have a serious conversation about removing the human from the plane with these parts,” Rose says. “That meant we had to build.”

These days, Reliable has an office in Mountain View, Calif., where some engineers write software and others craft the electronics, actuators, and other machinery that need to be installed in a plane. The hands-on work takes place at the company’s hangar at the nearby San Martin Airport.

During a recent visit, Rose and Frefel revealed the inner workings of their plane to a reporter for the first time, opening up the side of their Cessna to show an aircraft cabin filled with computers and high-precision global positioning systems bolted to the floor.

These communicate with custom mechanical devices that control the cables connected to the plane’s elevator, rudder, flaps, and throttle. Because the plane needs backups in case something fails, there are duplicates of almost every part.

It’s typical, of course, for planes to have an autopilot system. Pilots for large passenger jets often perform the takeoff and then let software handle flying and landing. In smaller planes, the pilot can take off, plot a course, and then have the autopilot system manage the adjustments needed to get from point A to point B.

The pilots do, however, need to take care of the communications with air traffic control and their compatriots in the air—and step in if something unusual happens. All autopilot systems have been designed with the pilot safeguard in mind; for Rose and Frefel, building a system that reached full autonomy felt more like tackling a whole different problem than making one last incremental step.

Pilot error accounts for more than 70% of fatal accidents, according to federal and commercial data. Reliable’s thesis, which is shared by others in the aviation industry, is that computers can react more quickly and safely than people in an emergency.

Pilots are trained to assess a problem and go through a troubleshooting checklist, which sometimes requires them to fumble through a physical manual during flight, finding the right page and following the instructions for whatever midair issue they’ve encountered. Software, which uses sensors and computer chips to figure out the issue, should be able to spring into action and address it immediately.

Reliable’s technology is a long, long way from facing that kind of test. At the moment, a test pilot sits inside its plane to deal with emergencies—and to make the Federal Aviation Administration happy. Communications with air traffic control are handled by a remote pilot at the company’s headquarters.

This pilot clears the plane for takeoff with the tower, gives it a route, and then sits back and watches to make sure all goes according to plan. In its test flights in February, Reliable proved for the first time that this long-distance remote operation worked.

The prototype Cessna belongs to FedEx Corp., and Reliable intends to begin flying cargo routes in remote areas first. The idea is that FedEx’s fleet of small planes could be run more often and at a lower cost if the company didn’t need to shuttle pilots around the country and deal with safety regulations limiting how long they can fly.

Instead of three pilots flying three round trips in a day, a single remote pilot could oversee the journeys of all the aircraft from behind a computer, Rose says. (The U.S. military already operates drones in a similar fashion.)

Reliable’s systems cost six figures and take weeks to install. The company expects the price to drop as its technology matures and plans to outfit and operate planes for customers and possibly to run its own fleet. It also wants to graduate from remote routes to sending cargo planes above cities, then even to picking up human passengers.

People could tap into the U.S.’s vast network of smaller airports and hop about almost as if they had a private plane. “It’s going to take a minimum of 10 years to make this vision realistic, but why can’t regular people just go to the airport, swipe their credit card, get on a plane, and have the thing fly itself?” Rose asks.

He expects that one day Reliable’s mission control will be run by people trained for the job, much like an air traffic controller today, rather than pilots. It’s a less romantic version of flying than the one that draws most people to the job, though some pilots admit there’s a practical reality at play.

“An autonomous plane is a great thing,” says Dezso Molnar, an aircraft designer and pilot. “Flying a plane is not difficult, but managing all the rules that can get you thrown in jail is the challenge that most people find daunting.”

Before it can fly autonomous planes at any scale, Reliable needs to prove to the FAA that its technology can deal with all kinds of emergencies through a combination of computer simulations and flights. It also has to get the agency to buy into the use of remote pilots, a concept that has its skeptics.

“Remote pilots don’t have contextual understanding when problems occur and can often cause as many problems as they can fix,” says Mark Moore, an aerospace expert who spent decades at NASA and later worked on Uber’s flying taxi technology. “Plus, their survival instincts are not engaged.”

The FAA is under pressure to address not just Reliable’s technology but also an increasing number of new aircraft. Dozens of startups have appeared in the past five years, making electric planes that can take off and land vertically, new types of rockets, and other vehicles.

In the robotic realm, Reliable’s competitors include Xwing and Merlin Labs Inc. In a statement, the agency said it was up to the challenge. “The FAA has many initiatives in place to ensure skills of our technical workforce adapt to the ever-changing aerospace system,” said spokeswoman Crystal Essiaw.

For the foreseeable future, Reliable, which has raised more than $30 million, will focus on conducting its autonomous tests and gathering data to present to the government. It also needs to reduce the cost and weight of its equipment. There are other details to sort out, too, such as building computer vision systems that will let the planes drive themselves from the hangar to the runway and back.

Despite these obstacles, Rose hopes to conduct cargo flights by the end of 2022 and considers it inevitable that robotic planes will one day be commonplace. “Pre-Covid, we were moving more stuff and more people around through the air than ever before,” he says. “I think as the costs come down, because of this technology, you are going to see four to five times more flights per day.”

Reliable Robotics has built much of the technology needed for a fully autonomous passenger plane, but government-approved flights remain far away.

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