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What is the future of flying taxis?  Many are asking questions relating to Urban Air Mobility, flying vehicles, electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft and so on.  But of course all those will depend on AI / Artificial Intelligence for flying and for route planning.  

 Over more than two decades I have made many accurate predictions about the aviation industry - see elsewhere on this site.  And I have advised many global aviation companies including giants such as Airbus, Dassault Falcon and several airlines.

(And yes, I warned for years of the risks to the aviation industry and other sectors from a new viral pandemic. And then, when COVID struck, I also predicted that demand for air travel would bounce back very rapidly the moment that travel restrictions eased. Indeed airports in many nations have been completely overwhelmed because they failed to understand how powerful the human urge would be to explore the world again, the moment it became possible.)

But what about Urban Air Mobility over the next 20-30 years?

* "Life with AI - How to survive and succeed in a super-smart world" - Patrick Dixon's latest book on AI is published in September 2024 by Profile Books.  It contains 38 chapters on the impact of AI across different industries, government and our wider world, including the impact of AI on aviation and airlines including flying taxis.

Urban Air Mobility Revolution

More than 250 companies around the world are now investing in next-generation, low-cost, electric powered flying taxis.

Most Urban Air Mobility companies are small startups that you have never heard of, while the largest aircraft manufacture are also innovating in this area.

The top ten UAM startups have received over $6bn in funding over the last 5 years, with successful test flights over more than 150kms between charges.

History of short-hop air travel is long

For decades, many airports in congested cities have been serviced by companies offering helicopter flights from city centres.

Other airports offer similar links because of their geography eg linking Nice airport to Monaco, or transport to a remote airport on the Marquesia islands in the middle of the Pacific.

But such flights are expensive and emit high amounts of carbon per passenger mile, compared to most other modes of transport.

Drone technology combined with AI points to future of short-hop air travel

At the same time, we have seen dramatic improvement in drone technology – highly stable, efficient, reliable, autonomous, AI-driven vehicles.

680,000 commercial drones were sold in 2020 alone, with $13bn of sales expected to grow 60% or more per year - for uses such as surveying crops or buildings, military intelligence and so on.

That does not include a further $490m of sales of drones as toys in 2021.

Impact of urbanisation - 1 billion people on the move

All this has to be seen in the context of global urbanisation with over 1 billion people expected to migrate from rural areas into cities over the next 30 years.

In most large cities the average driving speed across a typical journey is getting longer, as investment in roads falls behind expansion in car ownership.

Drone tech is already being used of course for freight deliveries, especially into remote rural areas, and we can expect to see very rapid growth of this sector.

The main safety issues are collision with other flying vehicles / aircraft and mechanical failure leading to forced landings.

How long before Uber flights as easy and cheap as Uber road taxis?

The obvious question has been how long it will be before electric-powered drone-type aircraft are large enough and reliable enough to carry passengers, and how far they will be able to travel on a single charge?

How long before ordering a flying Uber becomes as straightforward and low cost as ordering a traditional Uber taxi?

Expect global consolidation in flying vehicle production

Expect no more than 5 manufacturers to seize over 50% of the global market, with possibly $10-12bn a year of sales by 2030.

That may seem a huge market, but to keep in proportion – this is tiny compared to the entire aviation industry in 2022 of $3.5 trillion a year or 4% of the global economy.

Traditional helicopter services will be replaced in most cities by electric-powered vertical take-off and landing aircraft, with a typical range of up to 100kms.

But expect growth too in longer range eVTOLS, especially for high-value, urgent freight – eg medicines or human organs for transplant.

Safety, silence and sustainability - challenges to overcome with regulators

The entire sector will be held back over the next 15-20 years in many nations by safety and regulatory issues, in a similar way to the constraints on fully autonomous road vehicles.  That's why AI / Artificial Intelligence is going to be so important in development of flying taxis and similar vehicles.

At the same time, expect activist campaigns against the widespread use of eVTOLS, on grounds of sustainability, safety and nuisance from noise.

The fact is that overcoming gravity requires a huge amount of energy, even if the vehicle is stationary, hovering just half a metre from the ground.

Such vehicles are therefore only fully efficient if travelling very fast over relatively long distances.

And such vehicles also create a lot of air disturbance / vibration noise.  Just think how annoying it can be to hear a tiny toy drone buzzing overhead.

What about energy efficiency?

Some eVTOL companies have claimed that energy per mile per person travelled could be less than for people in a car, but such claims will be closely scrutinised in future.

A key factor will be aerodynamics and average number of passengers per flight. Another will be embodied carbon - energy used to make the aircraft etc, divided out by number of actual flights.

Cars have to stay on the road surface and create a lot more wind resistance, compared to aircraft.

But another factor to overcome is weight to power ratio of batteries, and recharge time, which can limit numbers of flights per day.

Key to widespread acceptance will also be smarter navigation tools for air traffic control, allowing hundreds or even thousands of autonomous flying machines to work their way around cities.

And key to afforadability will be ensuring each flying eVTOL is heavily used because they will be very expensive to buy compared to a car.

Flying vehicles in context of wider transport trends

In all this, the future of flying vehicles can only be understood as part of the wider picture of travel patterns across cities and nations.

At the same time as flying vehicles become more widely available, expect to see big investment in light railways in cities, more efficient and frequent bus routes (often the lowest cost and fastest way to improve transport services), better traffic management, and high speed intercity rail.

Flying vehicles will also be in competition with next-generation autonomous road vehicles, with fewer cars on the roads, much higher proportion of vehicles available for hire, better management of traffic flow, and lower costs per mile.

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