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In the air taxi over the traffic jam

Get in, take off and simply float over the traffic jam: this dream from the world of science fiction could become a reality in the years to ...

Get in, take off and simply float over the traffic jam: this dream from the world of science fiction could become a reality in the years to come. All over the world, young start-ups, but also veteran aviation giants and car manufacturers are working on air taxis that will transport passengers across cities or between them.

VCR, CD player, DVD or the Commodore 64: the list of electronic innovations featured at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas celebrated their world premiere is long. Meanwhile, more and more car manufacturers are using what is probably the most important trade fair for entertainment electronics in the world to present their vision of tomorrow's mobility. They show self-driving cars, electric vehicles or go straight into the air: The Korean car manufacturer Hyundai and the driving service broker Uber presented the model of a flying taxi this year in Las Vegas, with which they want to conquer urban airspace for mobility services in the future. It goes by the name S-A1 and is an electrically operated high-flyer, in short a so-called eVTOL (electric Vertical Take-Off and Landing). Designed for a cruising speed of up to 290 kilometers per hour, the aircraft should be able to cover up to 100 kilometers for four passengers on one battery charge and be recharged in five to seven minutes at peak times. Uber intends to fly its first commercial missions as early as 2023 - and thus a cheaper and quieter alternative to flights byHub helicopter offer, with which the company since October 2019 transported wealthy customers in New York during rush hour for around $ 200 from Lower Manhattan to JFK International Airport.

Over 75 air taxi projects worldwide

Uber is by no means the only company that wants to realize the dream of air traffic in the coming years. The management consultancy Roland Berger counted 75 air taxi projects in a study at the end of 2018.

In May 2019, for example, Airbus blew up its own electric flying taxi for the first time. The CityAirbus was able to take off and land autonomously on the company premises in Donauwörth, Bavaria. However, he did not get high: For safety reasons, the e-helicopter, equipped with four double rotors, was tied to the runners with steel cables and therefore only lifted a few centimeters. At the beginning of 2020 , the demonstrator was allowed to fly without a safety line for the first time - for five minutes and two meters above the ground. An extensive test program is to start this year at the Manching airfield near Ingolstadt.

Ingolstadt is one of the model regions for testing drones and air taxi concepts as part of the EU Urban Air Mobility initiative. German politicians are also showing interest in mobility opportunities in the air. At the first presentation of the CityAirbus, Federal Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer urged that the legal framework for the use of the new aircraft be created quickly. "The laws must not only be created when the engineers have finished developing the aircraft," said the CSU politician. The Airbus engineers in Manching are now working on developing a prototype that should correspond to the planned series model in most respects.

Airbus' American competitor Boeing had the prototype of an air taxi with eight propellers and four wings take off as a test in January 2019. At Manassas in the US state of Virginia, a controlled take-off with hover flight and landing was successfully carried out. The nine-meter-long and 8.5-meter-wide vertical take-off aircraft with an envisaged range of 80 kilometers was developed by the Boeing subsidiary Aurora Flight Sciences. It only took a year from concept design to flying prototype, says Boeing. It should take significantly longer until it is ready for series production. First, the aircraft has to manage the transition from vertical take-off to forward flight. This is considered to be the greatest challenge in the development of an aircraft that takes off and lands vertically.

Electric aircraft from Munich

The German start-up Lilium has already successfully overcome this hurdle. After the maiden flight in mid-2019, the e-jet of the same name by the inventor from Munich not only mastered complex maneuvers at a speed of over 100 kilometers per hour, but also the transition from vertical to horizontal flight.

The aircraft is powered by 36 electric motors and, as with Boeing, there are four fixed wings. With these, the E-Jet is significantly more efficient than aircraft powered by rotors and, with a range of 300 kilometers, can cover much longer distances than most of its competitors, the start-up is convinced. Thanks to the buoyancy of the pairs of wings, the jet needs less than ten percent of its maximum power of 2,000 hp and roughly the same amount of energy as an electric car over the same distance.

Lilium wants to be operational in various cities around the world by 2025 and fly five passengers each to their destination. The first production plant in Weßling near Munich has already been completed, and a second factory is planned at the same location. Lilium plans to produce hundreds of aircraft a year here by the time it goes into operation. First, however, the start-up has to gradually improve the technology of its air taxi. Media reports , according Lilium struggling again and again with engine failures and other problems. This is why the prototype has so far been remote-controlled and unmanned.

Manned flight over Singapore

Competitor Volocopter is already a few steps further: the company from Bruchsal near Karlsruhe has been working on its drone for two passengers since 2011. 18 rotors and multiple redundancy in all flight-critical systems should make the aircraft as safe as possible.

After test flights in Dubai, Finland , Germany and the USA, the Baden start-up completed the first manned flight over a large city in Singapore in October 2019 . The air taxi equipped with 18 rotors flew over the port district of the metropolis for two minutes and 30 seconds. A month earlier, the unmanned Volocopter also took to the air over a major German city for the first time. Namely in Stuttgart, the headquarters of the Daimler group, which has been involved in the company since 2017. "I am convinced that we can solve the congestion problem in cities on specific routes in this way," said Daimler boss Ola Källenius before the test flight, describing the potential of air taxis. The Chinese carmaker Geely, currently Volocopter's most important investor and Daimler's largest shareholder, also apparently believes in this. Geely and Volocopter want to put together a joint venture set up to "bring in the important Chinese market," to air mobility in cities as well.

Airy relief for global megacities

Above and beyond the megacities in the Middle Kingdom, which are plagued by traffic jams and smog, but also in India and South America, flying taxis should be used first and foremost. Aviation expert Stefan Levedag also sees the greatest need here. “In Chinese megacities there is currently no way to get from A to B quickly. In big cities like São Paulo there is not only a time problem but also a considerable risk of crime, which wealthy customers would of course like to avoid, ”says the head of the Institute for Flight Systems Technology at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in Braunschweig.

Volocopter aims to be ready for the market within the next three to five years. In ten years, up to 100,000 passengers a day should fly up to 35 kilometers across the giant cities at a cruising speed of 110 kilometers per hour. For comparison: In 2018, local public transport in Berlin carried an average of around three million passengers a day. In fact, Volocopter does not want to replace traffic on the ground, but rather to relieve traffic on heavily frequented routes - for example as a feeder to the airport in front of the city.

According to the manufacturer, traffic jams in the sky are not to be feared due to the air taxis: In a simulation, an air taxi was made to fly every twelve seconds over New York on eight routes at 70 kilometers per hour at altitudes between 100 and 350 meters. From the ground, the Volocopters are said to have been hardly any larger than high-flying birds.

Passengers should get on and off at so-called VoloPorts, which the start-up wants to set up on rooftops, train stations or parking lots. Here, the batteries of the electrical aircraft are to be automatically exchanged and charged. Right from the start, Volocopter wants to offer a flight for double the taxi price. "When the system is fully operational, a flight to the meeting won't be much more expensive than a taxi ride - but it will be faster," promises Alexander Zosel, co-founder of Volocopter.

More environmentally friendly than a car?

Experts have serious doubts about whether air taxis actually help the environment. Only at distances of more than 100 kilometers and with three passengers would they consume less energy than an electric car or a combustion engine, in which an average of 1.5 people sit, according to a study by the University of Michigan . On distances of less than 35 kilometers, they would even need more energy and thus produce more greenhouse gases than cars with internal combustion engines. And these are precisely the distances over which the air taxis will mainly be used in cities in the future.

But even if the aircraft were operated exclusively with green electricity - the technical problems are far from being solved, says Stefan Levedag from DLR. It is precisely what makes air taxis ideal for use in the big city that is the biggest hurdle: the combination of vertical take-off and electric drive. “From an energetic point of view, taking off vertically is the most unfavorable way to fly,” says the aviation expert. VTOL aircraft need significantly more thrust to take off, and every kilo is heavier than an aircraft, which benefits from the lift on its wings. This is why conventional helicopters can only fly much shorter distances and carry considerably fewer passengers than hydrofoil aircraft. A problem that is exacerbated by the electric drive. Because the energy density of today's lithium-ion batteries is 40 times lower than that of kerosene; so you can go far less with the same weight.