In Silicon Valley, several companies are actively preparing for the future of this mobility.
Small electric planes, powered by artificial intelligence that pass over cities, to carry their passengers from one “vertiport” to another, this is the sci-fi setting that Silicon Valley promises from here. Only ten years. “We will see the emergence of a network of electric, regional or long-distance air taxis. The landscape will change a lot, “said Mark Piet, a Belgian founder of Xwing, a start-up specializing in autonomous aviation technology.
Several California companies are actively preparing for the future of this mobility, which remedies traffic jams and pollution. Concord, in a hangar on the San Francisco Bay, focuses on the most confusing factor of the Xwing equation: any vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft, aircraft or aircraft, fossil or electric fuel, taxi, take off, fly and own Landing on.
And talk to passengers at the same time. “Autopilot system employed,” a woman’s voice announces to Ryan Olson as he sits in control, ready for a journey where he won’t touch the dash or joystick, like an advanced trainee instructor. The pilot said, “The plane is a good student, unlike people who behave differently every time.”
Equipped with cameras, servers, radar, leaders and other sensors, the Cessna Caravan is already self-sufficient in good weather, and Xwing is working to enable it to cope with bad weather on its own.
“Uber from the sky”
In February, Joby’s electric VTOL (EVTOL) crashed during a remotely operated flight while start-up was testing speed above its limits. Luis Bristo, Archer’s vice-president, said: “When an accident happens, it’s bad for the whole industry (…) but so are the tests.
Archer and Joby’s EVTOL looks like a helicopter but with one wing and multiple propellers. They hope to launch their first air taxi service with pilots by the end of 2024 Wisk Aero, a start-up of Boeing and Larry Page – co-founder of Google – is working on an autonomous eVTOL.
Archer has received a pre-order for 200 vehicles from United Airlines and plans to launch in Los Angeles and Miami. “We’re building Uber in the sky,” said Luis Bristo He estimates that it will take time for cities to “have enough devices for the service, for people to get used to it and feel the difference”.
According to Scott Drenan, a new Air Mobility Consultant, this dream-like vision is taking shape through a combination of three technologies: electrical power, computing capabilities and autonomy. But while technology is on track, companies face two major challenges: certification and infrastructure. Authorities are not reluctant but say it will “take longer than you think” to get their agreement, underlining the expert.
It will also be necessary to create a “verticalport” (vertical airport) and “a digital interface for managing air traffic and vehicle communication between them”.
Like an elevator
There are many reasons why Xwing chose to start with autonomy. “We’ve got an existing, well-known device. We make the minimum changes and certify it to make it an autonomous aircraft, and then we can explore other applications, ”added Mark Piet. Working without a pilot will reduce costs and meet demand in disadvantaged areas, where there is no shortage of airports or aircraft but a lot of manpower.
The start-up plans to equip the machines responsible for delivering the product to conduct commercial activities within two years before reaching the passengers. The boss knows that he will face resistance but he is sure that these flights will be more secure.
“Most plane crashes are caused by human error,” he said, before thanking the autopilot, “people are already flying on their own.” He further explains that autonomy is “easy” in the air, where the environment is constantly under control as opposed to the road.
What if hackers take control from a distance? “Our technology is designed in such a way that the aircraft refuses to obey dangerous orders,” Mark Piet replied. When elevators were discovered, “people were terrified to use them without operators,” he laughed. “Today we press the button without question. It will be the same with aviation. “