Electric and unmanned aerial taxis ready to take off

CONCORD: Small electric planes, controlled by artificial intelligence, that traverse cities to take their passengers from one “vertiport” to another, this is the sci-fi setting Silicon Valley promises in ten years.

“We will see networks of electric, regional or long-haul air taxis appear. The landscape will change a lot,” assures Marc Piette, the Belgian founder of Xwing, a startup specializing in autonomous technologies for aviation.

Several California 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 focuses on the equation’s most perplexing factor: Any vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft, aircraft or aircraft, whether on fossil fuel or electric fuel, can taxi, take off, fly and fly on its own. Nations.

And talk to passengers at the same time.

“Autopilot system engaged,” a woman’s voice says to Ryan Olson as he sits at the wheel, ready for a journey without touching the dash or joystick, like an instructor with an advanced student.

“The plane is a good learner, unlike people who behave differently every time,” says the pilot.

Equipped with cameras, servers, radars, lidars and other sensors, the Cessna Caravan is already self-sufficient in fair weather, and Xwing is working to enable it to cope with bad weather on its own.

Uber off the air

In February, Joby’s electric VTOL (eVTOL) crashed during a remote-controlled flight as the startup was testing speeds above its limit.

“It’s bad for the entire industry when an accident happens (…) But that’s what the tests are for,” said 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, with pilots, by the end of 2024. Wisk Aero, a Boeing startup and Larry Page — co-founder of Google — 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 launch.

“We build the Uber from the sky,” says Louise Bristow.

She estimates the time it will take “for enough devices to be in service, for people to get used to moving this way, and for you to feel the difference” in the cities, as ten years.

According to Scott Drennan, a new air mobility consultant, these dreamlike visions are being shaped by the convergence of three technologies: electricity, computing capabilities and autonomy systems.

But while the technology is on track, companies face two major challenges: certification and infrastructure. The authorities are not holding back, but getting their agreement “takes longer than you think”, emphasizes the expert.

“Vertiports” (vertical airports) and “a digital interface for air traffic management and vehicle communication between them” will also have to be built.

Like an elevator

So many reasons why Xwing has chosen to start with autonomy.

“We took an existing, well-known aircraft. We made the minimal adjustments to convert it into an autonomous aircraft and have it certified, and then we could explore other applications,” Marc Piette summarizes.

Without pilots, it should be possible to reduce costs and meet demand in disadvantaged regions, which have no airports or planes, but lots of manpower.

The startup plans to first equip machines responsible for delivering goods, with a view to commercial operations within two years, before moving on to passengers.

The boss knows he will meet resistance, but he is convinced that these flights will be safer.

“The vast majority of aircraft accidents are caused by human error,” he notes, before recalling that thanks to the autopilot, “people are already largely flying alone.”

He also explains that autonomy is “easier” in the air, where the environment is constantly under control, unlike the roads.

What if hackers take control remotely? “Our technology is designed in such a way that the aircraft refuses to carry out dangerous orders,” answers Marc Piette.

When elevators were invented, “people were terrified to use them without an operator,” he laughs. “Today we push the button without asking questions. It will be the same for aviation.”

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