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Flying taxis are closer than ever to reality. The booming industry needs to overcome infrastructure hurdles.

Taylor Rains   

Flying taxis are closer than ever to reality. The booming industry needs to overcome infrastructure hurdles.
  • The era of electric air taxis is near, with eVTOLs expected to fly commercially starting next year.
  • One expert said eVTOLs fly at low altitudes and could create airspace and security challenges.

The US's first electric vertical-takeoff and -landing aircraft are expected to fly commercial passengers as soon as 2025.

At launch, these zero-emission, piloted air taxis — which take off and land like a helicopter but fly like an airplane — are expected to hop between city centers and major airports as a faster and more efficient alternative to driving. The battery-powered vehicles are also much quieter than the noisy helicopters that commonly fly over densely populated cities.

According to the Royal Aeronautical Society, more than 10,000 eVTOLs are on order worldwide in deals worth some $60 billion.

Carriers, including American Airlines, United Airlines, and Virgin Atlantic Airways, as well as noncommercial operators like the US Air Force, have placed orders for the new type of aircraft.

The investments signal confidence in the futuristic eVTOLs and the burgeoning market for urban air mobility, which JPMorgan analysts have predicted could be worth about $1 trillion by 2040.

However, the widespread commercialization and expansion of eVTOLs will depend on public acceptance and how regulators and operators address infrastructure challenges both on the ground and in the air.

Existing landing zones will need to be electrified with expensive chargers

With up to 200 of the US-based Archer Aviation's Midnight aircraft on order, United is expected to operate the US's first commercial eVTOL route starting in 2025.

In June, the aircraft received federal approval to fly commercially as a Part 135 operator, meaning it can run non-scheduled operations like on-demand private charters. It still needs further approvals to fly for airlines like United, but the latest certificate puts it one step closer.

United's planned hopper service is set to fly 10 to 20 minutes between downtown Manhattan and Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, offering an alternative to a drive that often takes more than an hour.

A later, second United eVTOL route is planned between Chicago's city center and O'Hare International Airport.

All the eVTOL destinations have established spots for the electric aircraft to take off from and land on. This type of operation is favored because the landing spots don't take up much space and can be placed near high-density sites such as sports arenas, finance districts, or concert venues.

Archer's chief growth and infrastructure officer, Bryan Bernhard, told Business Insider that Midnight would primarily use these existing heliports or VTOL-specific "vertiports" to start. It also plans to repurpose already-built city infrastructure, such as parking-garage rooftops, as additional landing zones.

Regardless of location, facilities that want to welcome eVTOLs like the Midnight must invest in chargers. Bernhard said Archer's would be expensive to purchase and install but would not put a massive new strain on the power grid.

He said the challenge lay in striking the right balance between battery conservation and terminal convenience when choosing where to place landing zones.

"We're utilizing existing assets and existing routes, so it'll be easy to integrate into that," he said. "But you want to be strategic on where the charger is so the vehicle doesn't have a long taxi path before it can take off."

Bernhard added that the Midnight's charger had about the same power output as a high-speed EV charger.

Newly built vertiports may not be welcome in less-urban areas

Henry Harteveldt, a travel analyst, told BI that the continued development of high-density batteries was crucial to eVTOL operators' hope of carrying more people and cargo longer distances.

This would lead to the need for newly built vertiports.

Joby Aviation, the first and only other US eVTOL manufacturer to secure an FAA certification, has, for example, partnered with eVTOL infrastructure provider Skyports to build four vertiports around Dubai.

A Joby spokesperson told BI the company's global operations, which it plans to also extend to places like Japan, would "blend into the background" and not disrupt daily life.

"We worked with NASA to analyze the acoustic footprint of the aircraft, demonstrating that at takeoff, it is quieter than a conversation at a distance of 100 meters and is barely perceptive when flying overhead at an altitude of just 500 meters," Joby said.

Across the world, Rani Plaut, the CEO of Air, an Israeli company developing a two-seater eVTOL, told BI that the more infrastructure built to support the growing air-taxi market, the quicker the public would become accustomed to it.

Harteveldt said, however, that this unique challenge of public acceptance would be particularly difficult in less-urban communities.

"There could be an opportunity to build new vertiports in places like office parks or shopping centers," he said. "However, one thing we know to be true is that communities will not want eVTOLs buzzing in and out at all times, even if they're electric."

Harteveldt suggested that the optimal places for new vertiports were on top of or adjacent to convention centers or on waterfronts in places like New York City and San Francisco.

Fortunately for operators, the Federal Aviation Administration's official vertiport guidance, coming in 2025, is set to be performance-based. Bernard said the fewer regulatory requirements would make building new US facilities quicker and less costly.

eVTOL operators need to consider airspace safety, security, and efficiency

While manufacturers will face infrastructure challenges on the ground, the industry must also figure out how to efficiently incorporate eVTOLs into the airspace network.

Airspace is used by everything from helicopters and passenger airliners to private jets and student pilots — meaning everyone has to work together with air-traffic control to safely share the skies.

Bernhard said the first couple of years of flying the Midnight would involve a few vehicles on existing and approved aviation routes and that Archer intended to use the same operating procedures that exist for other rotorcraft vehicles.

He said opening newly certified pathways and new landing locations would take another few years, but conversations about the logistics of air traffic management would ignite.

While the era of air taxis is almost here, Harteveldt said he didn't see eVTOLs littering the skies anytime soon. He said this "Jetsons"-like dream would be limited by safety and noise restrictions, especially since the eVTOLs would be flying at lower altitudes.

"How do you ensure these aircraft don't intentionally do anything that jeopardizes safety and security in places like Washington, DC, or London or Paris, and many others," he said. "You aren't going to want to have these eVTOLs operating in proximity to some of these places."



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