Why flying taxis are a glimpse into the future

Unmanned air taxis, recently tested in Singapore, could transform urban transport

October 23, 2019

A flying taxi zipping over Singapore this week provided the latest glimpse into a future where air travel provides relief to heavily-congested cities.  

German firm Volocopter showcased its electric hover taxi over Singapore’s Marina Bay. The drone-like craft was aloft for over two minutes, with a pilot in one of the two seats for safety.

“Flying taxis have the potential to transform transport and logistics in our cities,” says Amy Pan, Director, Technology, Data & Information Management (TDIM), JLL Asia Pacific. “While they are a long way from mass utilisation of this taxi service, this shows that the government is willing to support the exploration of this technology.”

This wasn’t the first run for Volocopter, which also has tested its flying taxi in Dubai, Helsinki and Las Vegas.

A report from Citigroup predicts that flying taxi services could be offered regularly from 2025. Cities like Melbourne and Los Angeles could have commercial flying taxis from Uber by 2023, according to the company. 

Disrupting urban mobility

So will flying taxis soon become part of urban mobility alongside autonomous cars and intelligent traffic systems?  The mass availability of this service could be a much-needed silver bullet for heavily congested metropolises such as Jakarta, Los Angeles, and Bangalore.

A fully-functional system is still a ways off, Pan says. Even in a country like Singapore, often hailed as a preeminent smart city, flying taxis are still more of an aspiration than reality.

“If we define ‘near future’ as the next one to three years, then most cities or countries are unlikely to be ready with the technology or infrastructure to support flying taxis beyond a proof of concept,” says Pan. “And even then, it would be in a controlled environment, meaning public flight tests or limited pre-defined tourist offerings.”

Rooftop development needed

Of course, air taxis’ implementation will require they have space to land. For the commercial real estate industry, this means landlords can lease rooftop space or help construct the necessary vertiports.

Both Volocopter and Uber have revealed they are talking with landlords to place these launch and landing stations. And at the building level, architects are incorporating elements that will support extensions and expansions of these services.

“It would probably be landlords of tourist-oriented trophy assets who would be more receptive to air taxis for now,” Pan says. “But with tests like what we’ve seen in Singapore, this could be an area that will generate more and more interest as the technology and regulation mature.”

Becoming a reality

For flying taxis to be commercially viable, there remain critical issues – from operational aspects to regulatory frameworks – that still need to be ironed out. 

“There are several questions that need answers beyond addressing the public’s concerns over noise pollution and perceived safety of such vehicles. For instance, operationally, how will air taxis communicate and connect with existing air traffic management systems, building owners and vertiport operators?” Pan says. “There’s also uncertainty over what sort of service pattern would make sense – would it be hub and spoke model, or cross and inter-city shuttle service or point-to-point transit?” 

Government policy also needs to be defined. Cities around the world are adjusting regulations to keep up with disruptive technologies such as ride-hailing and digital banks. Unmanned flying taxis similarly will require authorities to set comprehensive guidelines. 

In the case of Singapore, Volocopter’s tests were supported by three different government agencies – Singapore’s Ministry of Transport (MOT), the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) and the Economic Development Board (EDB).

Lastly, there is the issue of cost. “For the vehicle to be commercially viable as a mass transit option, cost to consumers or operating fleets must be affordable on a per passenger-trip basis,” says Pan.

But despite hurdles, the flying taxi concept is clearly on the rise.