Electric and unmanned, air taxi ready to take off

Concord (USA) (AFP) – The small electric plane, powered by artificial intelligence that crosses the city, takes its passengers from one “vertiport” to another, the setting of the science fiction that Silicon Valley promises from here. Only ten years.

“We will see a network of electric, regional or long-distance air taxis. The landscape will change a lot,” assures Mark Piet, a Belgian founder of Xwing, a startup specializing in autonomous technology for aviation.

Several California companies are actively preparing for the future of this mobility, which is a remedy for traffic jams and pollution.

Concord, in a hangar on 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.”

Pilot Ryan Olson inspects Xwing’s Cessna 208B Grand Caravan, fitted with computer systems to make it autonomous Nick Auto AFP

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 heaven”

In February, Joby’s electric VTOL (eVTOL) crashed during a remotely operated flight while startups were testing speeds above its limits.

“It’s bad for the whole industry when an accident happens (…) but tests are for that,” said Luis Bristo, vice president of Archer, another company.

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 startup of Boeing and Larry Page – co-founder of Google – is working on an autonomous eVTOL.

Archer's eVTOL prototype, during an experimental flight
Archer’s eVTOL prototype, during an experimental flight Handout Archer Aviation Inc./AFP

Archer has received a pre-order for 200 vehicles from United Airlines and is targeting Los Angeles and Miami to get started.

“We’re building Uber in the sky,” said Luis Bristo

He estimates that it will take ten years 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 taken an existing, well-known aircraft. We’ve made the minimum changes and certified it to make it an autonomous aircraft, and then we can explore other applications,” added Mark Piet.

Autonomous eVTOL prototype of Wisk Aero during a test flight
Autonomous eVTOL prototype of Wisk Aero during a test flight – Whisk Arrow LLC / AFP

Working without a pilot will reduce costs and meet demand in disadvantaged areas, where there is no shortage of airports or aircraft but not much manpower.

The startup plans to equip the machines responsible for delivering the product to commercial operations within two years before it reaches 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 that “people are already flying on their own.”

He further explains that autonomy is “simple” in the air, where the environment is constantly in control as opposed to the road.

Executing boss Mark Piet is posing in the control room
Executing boss Mark Piet is posing in the control room Nick Auto AFP

What if hackers take control from a distance? “Our technology is designed so that the aircraft refuses to obey dangerous orders,” Mark Piet replied.

When elevators were invented, “people were terrified to use them without operators,” he laughed. “Today we press the button without question. It will be the same with aviation.”

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