Image: Uber

Flying taxis could ease city congestion and might be a reality by the mid 2020s, but there are still challenges to solve before they’re buzzing over urban landscapes.

Cities all around the world are re-urbanizing. Younger generations no longer want to live in the suburbs. By 2050, two thirds of the world’s population will live in urban environments. While cutting-edge smartphones are now in the hands of  people the world over, many cities still use transport infrastructure more than 50 years old and residents spend hours stuck in traffic and overcrowded mass transit systems.

How could technology be used to improve quality of life in cities? And could flying vehicles be viable alternatives to ease urban congestion? Discussing these issues was a big theme at the CES Smart Future conference track.

Recent evidence suggests most people will need some convincing before stepping into a Jetsons-style flying taxi. Deloitte recently conducted a global study to gauge how willing people would be to use flying taxis. Of those surveyed, 52% did not yet agree that it is a viable solution for urban or suburban congestion, 24% didn’t think VTOL would ever be viable, while the remaining 28% said they were undecided. Asked whether they thought VTOL would be a safe mode of transportation, only 20% of respondents agreed it would be. Given such skepticism, what can be done to ensure flying taxis are viable, safe and can meet consumer expectations over the coming years?

Image: Ari Magnusson

Uber is one of the companies placing a big a bet on flying taxis as a viable congestion killer in the near future. The ride hailing platform is working with planemaker Embraer and helicopter manufacturer Bell to design flying vehicles that could one day integrate into a transportation network above city skies. Uber Air plans to launch in Los Angeles, Dallas and a third non-US city, with the first aircraft to be tested as early as 2020.

Tom Prevot, Uber’s director for Airspace Systems said that for the company’s VTOL project to get off the ground, Uber will need to make sure their flying taxi system is “scalable, affordable and that will make a difference to people’s lives [because] otherwise the system won’t be viable,” he said. Adding to that, he said the vehicles will need to be “highly efficient and quiet.”

Unlike Uber’s current business model, which relies on private drivers that use their own vehicle, Prevot said the VTOL project will use flying vehicles owned by Uber and initially flown by commercial pilots, before transitioning to a fully autonomous mode once proven safe.

Other challenges exist, noted David Rottblatt, Business Development director at EmbraerX. “What will one takeoff every 30 seconds look like? We are looking at situation awareness to ensure safety that means that we are able to scale so we can depart and land whenever we like,” he said, adding that, “We need to work with communities to create a solution that is beneficial to all stakeholders otherwise we won’t be able to bring this to market.”

Another hurdle is air traffic management. Parts of the US already have some of the busiest airspaces in the world. “It’s one thing to oversee a fleet as large as all the aircraft in the US, but another altogether to oversee what are essentially large drones,” said Chris Metts, a former chief acquisition officer at the Federal Aviation Administration who now works as a specialist executive with a focus on transportation for Deloitte Consulting.

Agile Beam Technology (radars without moving parts) combined with artificial intelligence (AI) could be one solution to this, according to Dr. William Cottrell, a licensing manager at Raytheon. “We have a relatively small number of large objects at high altitude, if we have a higher volume of small vehicles, we need to be able to track them,” he said. “When you talk about AI in terms of air traffic management, you need a more general AI solution. We are thinking in the area of explainable human understanding of why an AI system made a decision, so it gives trust in the way that it is performing.

However, from a city planning perspective, VTOL flying taxis may still suffer from what Julia Richman, chief innovation officer at the City of Boulder, calls the “last mile” problem: how to easily complete the last leg of a journey to and from work, after disembarking from a VTOL aircraft, for example. “I have a long 35-mile commute to Boulder, so I thought, ‘where would these VTOLs land?’ This is the same last mile problem that I experience today. It becomes an expensive day when you have the last mile problem.”