The flying car was only recently only in the realms of science fiction but is now becoming a reality. Boeing is one of the leading companies in developing what are now known as electric air taxis. These autonomous, multi-rotor passenger air vehicles will revolutionize the way we travel.
Boeing looks to the future of urban mobility
Boeing’s flying taxi completed its first test flight in January 2019. Boeing subsidiary Aurora Flight Sciences is developing the autonomous, multi-rotor passenger air vehicle (PAV) as part of the Boeing NeXt urban air mobility program. PAV is an electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft designed to lead the next generation of on-demand mobility.
During the PAV maiden pilotless test flight, the aircraft successfully completed controlled takeoff, hover and landing. Aurora tested the vehicle’s autonomous functions and ground control systems.
The PAV is 30-feet long and 28-feet wide, and its advanced airframe features integrated propulsion and wing systems to enable efficient hovering and forward flight capabilities. It has eight propellors to give it lift for takeoff and landing, along with a rear propellor to provide forward speed. Designed for autonomous flight from takeoff to landing, its electric propulsion system gives it a range of up to 50 miles.
The Boeing NeXt program is working to advance the safety and reliability of on-demand autonomous air transportation. With the growth in this technology and the introduction of electric air taxis, an ecosystem where manned aircraft and autonomous air vehicles can safely coexist needs to be ensured.
Of the test flight, John Langford, president and chief executive officer of Aurora Flight Sciences, said,
“This is what revolution looks like, and it’s because of autonomy. Certifiable autonomy is going to make quiet, clean and safe urban air mobility possible.”
PAV, our autonomous passenger air vehicle, has potential to change the way we overcome today’s busy roadways. Think of it like an "air taxi" from the future. #PAS19
— The Boeing Company (@Boeing) June 20, 2019
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Setback for PAV after crash
In June 2019, the PAV crashed during another test flight when one of the propellors providing vertical lift failed. The unmanned aircraft was around 20 feet off the ground and came straight down when the failure occurred. With multiple rotors, they usually have built-in redundancy, meaning if one fails, the others will keep the aircraft airborne. That didn’t happen in this case.
Nobody was hurt and, apparently, the damage to the PAV wasn’t as bad as Boeing and Aurora had feared. However, test flights, especially for such new technology, are bound to suffer setbacks. When an accident happens, the developers are able to learn lessons and correct the causes of the crash.
However, for Boeing’s PAV, the COVID crisis may have been the final nail in the coffin of this interesting project. In September, the planemaker announced it would cease operations of its NeXt subsidiary, which was the arm working with Aurora Flight Sciences on the PAV project. As reported in the Seattle Times, Steve Nordlund, the head of St. Louis-based Boeing NeXt said at the time,
“As we now navigate through the impacts of COVID-19, it should come as no surprise that … I have recommended to [Boeing chief engineer] Greg Hyslop, and the entire Executive Council, that we fully pause the current Boeing NeXt mission … to adapt to our new market reality.”
There is a ray of hope for the PAV, as Aurora continues to exist and will still work on other unmanned and optionally manned air-vehicle projects and seek new contracts. Perhaps the PAV will be reincarnated as an Aurora vehicle, just without the Boeing badge.
The race to develop flying taxis
The global market for flying taxis is expected to be worth around $1.5 trillion by 2040. So it’s no wonder that major brands are getting in on the action. Boeing, along with Airbus, Hyundai, Toyota and Uber, are working on the reality of linking the suburbs with urban centers without the hindrance of traffic.
Wisk made the world’s first flying taxi flight with its Cora prototype in November 2017, and Cora has made over 1,400 flights since. Lilium has been testing a full-scale five-seater prototype of its Lilium Jet and claims to be on track to launch its regional air mobility service in 2025. Operational trials in pilot cities are just around the corner. Meanwhile, aviation authorities are working on the policies and safety standards that will govern this new transport phenomenon.
What do you think about electric air taxis?