Another acronym you need to get used to: UAM, for Urban Air Mobility. Think flying cars. Or for now, helicopters and drones that carry people. Like the Volocopter, which completed its first manned flight over Singapore’s Marina Bay in October. It’s also opened the first air taxi voloport (yes, you’re going to have to get used to these names, I’m afraid.)
You don’t think of Singapore as a place where traffic jams and poor infrastructure make you want to take to the skies, but in terms of friendly regulators and investment boards, it’s certainly the place to start. German-based Volocopter opened an office in Singapore in January 2019 and has plans to expand in South East Asia. The company has recently presented their VoloCity – the next generation eVTOL (that’s electric vertical take-off and landing to you and me) air taxi and recently announced Series C funding. Investors include Daimler, Geely, Intel Capital, BtoV, and Manta Ray Ventures.
They’re not alone, of course. There’s EmbraerX, a ‘market accelerator’ which is part of Embraer S.A., a Brazilian aircraft manufacturer which has crowd-sourced the design of an autonomous eVTOL (below, note apparently obligatory Singapore skyline), which is still at the theoretical stage, it seems (you can help them name it but please don’t suggest eVTOLy McTOLface).
There are several hurdles that need to be overcome before you see these things buzzing around the skies. The Singapore Volocopter flight, for example, covered 1.5 km and lasted for two minutes; blink and you’d have missed it. Airbus told a conference here in April that the three design hurdles are the development of a battery pack for flight beyond 15 minutes, the maturity of autonomous systems and noise levels. Airbus is working on an upper limit of 65 dB, which is the same as a passing subway train, and will affect where the aircraft can land in a city.
Some companies are looking to liquid hydrogen which is less efficient than batteries but has a better energy density. Skai of the US is working on an eVTOL air taxi which could go as far as 430 miles.
Most of these companies talk about the ‘democratization’ of air transport which the cynic in me would sniff at. No way are the prices of these trips going to come down to one ordinary folk can afford any time soon. But then again, Uber etc have shown that it is possible to ‘democratize’ chauffeur-driven transport (which is pretty much what ride-hailing is) so maybe I shouldn’t be so sniffy.
Indeed, it’s partly’s at Uber’s prodding that companies like EmbraerX are exploring eVTOLs. Uber is someway down the track on this, realising that a lot of its rides are to and from airports. So it’s working with partners to get the infrastructure ready for when these eVTOLs overcome their current limitations. Who wouldn’t pay for the efficiency of getting to the airport in 15 minutes against an hour or so? The well-heeled, initially, but maybe it won’t be long before ‘taking an Uber to the airport’ has a different meaning to the one we currently assume.