A sci-fi setting. Silicon Valley hopes for the introduction in the years to come of small electric planes, piloted by artificial intelligence. These devices will cross above the cities to take their passengers from one “vertiport” to another. “We will see networks of electric, regional or long-distance air taxis appear”predicts Marc Piette, founder of Xwing, a startup specializing in autonomous technologies for aviation.
“The landscape is going to change a lot.”Marc Piette, founder of Xwing
Several Californian companies are actively preparing for this future of mobility, a remedy for traffic jams and pollution. In a hangar in Concord, San Francisco Bay, Xwing is focused on the most confusing factor of the equation: making any vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft, airplane or plane, at fossil or electric fuel, can taxi, take off, fly and land on its own.
Devices will also be able to talk to passengers. “Autopilot system engaged” says a woman’s voice to Ryan Olson as he sits at the controls, ready for a journey where he won’t touch the dashboard or the joystick, like an instructor with a well-advanced apprentice.
“The plane is a good student, unlike humans who behave differently each time”, says the pilot. Equipped with cameras, servers, radars and other sensors, the Cessna Caravan is already autonomous in good weather, and Xwing is working to make it capable of facing bad weather on its own.
In February, a VTOL (eVTOL) Joby’s electric crashed during a remotely piloted flight, when the startup was testing speeds above its limits. “It’s bad for the whole industry when there is an accident (…) But that’s what the tests are for”relates Louise Bristow, vice-president of Archer, another company.
Archer and Joby’s eVTOLs look like helicopters but with one wing and multiple propellers. They hope to launch their first air taxi services by the end of 2024, with pilots. Wisk Aero, a Boeing and Google co-founder Larry Page startup, is working on an autonomous eVTOL. Archer has received a pre-order from United Airlines for 200 vehicles and is targeting Los Angeles and Miami to start.
“We are building the Uber of the sky”, assures Louise Bristow. She estimates at ten years the time necessary “so that there are enough devices in service, that people are used to moving around like this, and that we feel the difference” in the towns. According to Scott Drennan, a new air mobility consultant, these visions are taking shape through the convergence of three technologies: electric power, computing capabilities and autonomy systems.
But while technology is on the right track, companies face two major challenges: certification and infrastructure. The authorities are not reluctant but obtain their agreement “will take longer than you think”, underlines the expert. It will also be necessary to build “vertiports” (vertical airports), and “a digital interface to manage air traffic and communication between vehicles”.