Flying cars: US Air Force eyes air taxi revolution  

Electric-powered air taxis, which could revolutionise transport in overcrowded cities, have already seen huge investment in the commercial aerospace sector. Now military services such as the US Air Force are also exploring battlefield applications for such technology, writes Grant Turnbull.

// Bell is one of the leaders in urban air taxi development and last year launched its Nexus vehicle. Image: Bell

Imagine a future where you order a taxi to take you across the city, but rather than waiting hours in a car on congested roads, you are picked up by a pilotless flying taxi that autonomously whisks you to your destination in minutes. This was once science-fiction, but now we are on the cusp of an urban air mobility (UAM) revolution that is bringing such visions closer to reality.

Most top-tier aerospace companies are investing in this emerging sector and have already flown, or plan to fly, demonstrator electric vertical take-off and landing (eVOTL) aircraft. Last year, Airbus and Boeing both flew air taxi prototypes, known as the CityAirbus and the Passenger Air Vehicle, respectively. Canadian helicopter manufacturer Bell unveiled its new Nexus concept, which could begin flying in a few years’ time.

Even companies that are not often associated with aerospace are keen to get in on the action. Japanese electronics firm NEC flew an eVOTL concept last year, while carmakers Hyundai and Toyota have positioned themselves to enter the market with multi-million dollar investments and strategic partnerships.

As well as established players, the sector has also seen a huge boom in startups such as Volocopter and Lilium in Germany, and Joby Aviation in the US, to name a few.

Urban air mobility: beyond people transport

Of course, this technology does not just have applications in urban transport, but also in remote areas, particularly for the delivery of vital supplies such as medicine. Government agencies are also aware of the potential urban air mobility, with NASA in the US announcing in March that it had finalised agreements with 17 companies to begin initial technology demonstrations for what is known as the Urban Air Mobility Grand Challenge.

“With this step, we’re continuing to put the pieces together that we hope will soon make real the long-anticipated vision of smaller piloted and unpiloted vehicles providing a variety of services around cities and in rural areas,” said Robert Pearce, NASA’s associate administrator for aeronautics.

Urban air mobility is also an attractive area for the military, which arguably has been conducting this type of operation for decades with traditional manned helicopters in warzones all over the world. Utility and cargo helicopters are vital for operations and are used extensively to move troops and equipment over large distances, or congested areas, without relying on road infrastructure.

"The technology underpinning urban air taxis, from the eVTOL platforms to the infrastructure and airspace integration, could bring a range of benefits to the military."

While still hazardous, air operations are far less dangerous than moving supplies by road. The US military learnt this the hard way in Iraq and Afghanistan when convoys were routinely hit by IED attacks or suicide bombers, causing thousands of casualties.

The US Marine Corps has previously looked to address this with autonomous resupply helicopters, most notably the Kaman K-Max, developed with Lockheed Martin.

The technology underpinning urban air taxis, from the eVTOL platforms to the infrastructure and airspace integration, could bring a range of benefits to the military. And vice versa, the test ranges, flight safety engineers and certification processes that the military can offer could help to de-risk many elements of the technology’s development – such as certification and supply chains - and ultimately accelerate adoption.

Leveraging commercial innovation for the military

Earlier this year, the US Air Force released an official request for information seeking more insight on eVOTL and UAM prototypes for its Agility Prime programme. In April, the service organised a virtual conference that brought together key military, industry and political officials to talk on the subject of UAM.

One of the key drivers for this effort is to ensure that the DoD leverages commercial innovations. “Eighty percent of our opportunities are out in commercial tech,” noted Dr Will Roper, USAF Assistant Secretary for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics. “The habit we had gotten into was continuing those Cold War business practices where programmes are so few and far between that if you are an upcoming tech company you can’t wait on that once-in-a-generation programme to be your launching pad.”

The commercial aerospace sector is leading the urban air mobility revolution

The urban air mobility revolution is led by commercial aerospace companies and startups, but defence agencies are keen to explore their military benefits. (Photo: Airbus)

“The thing we wanted to do, beyond just work with companies and help them scale up quickly and commercialise in a way that benefits the military… we wanted to look ahead to emerging commercial markets and be able to work with them early to accelerate them in a way that helps our nation but helps our military as well.

“So we don’t just want to see the companies within that market; we want to shape and drive and accelerate the market itself, and the first one we are attempting to do within the Department of Defense is [VTOL] systems. Whether they are electric or hybrid, they represent a truly transformative leap ahead in transportation, but it’s very clear they will have military import.”

Lessons learnt from delays in drone adoption

Another reason for engaging the urban air mobility sector early is not to repeat the same mistakes that occurred with commercial drone development, where the Pentagon did not “engage that market proactively”, according to Roper.

What was the result of that? For the US, that meant that supply chains quickly moved overseas and Chinese companies such as DJI became market leaders. Now those same systems represent security risks in the DoD and need individual authorisation if they are used, which is clearly not what the US government wants to repeat with urban air taxis.

“The USAF’s vote of confidence in the commercial eVOTL endeavour will be a huge boost for those that have already invested in emerging technologies.”

With the DoD and USAF now behind the eVOTL concept and working as an innovation partner, we could see an acceleration in adoption by the wider market. “The intent of these efforts is to create more lucrative investment opportunities for industry, incentivise capital flow, and accelerate fielding of aircraft,” noted the Agility Prime request for information released earlier this year.

The USAF’s vote of confidence in the commercial eVOTL endeavour will be a huge boost for those that have already invested in emerging technologies and is likely to see even more players become involved in the near future.