Lilium Jet is developing a prototype that will soon be undergoing tests (picture shows an artist’s impression of the ‘car’)

All hail the flying drone taxi

Image credit: Lilium Jet

First, there were drones. Now, companies are working to combine drone technology with that of a common aircraft, to bring us something from the realm of science fiction: a personalised flying vehicle.

You land at a busy airport and hundreds of people on other flights land just before or after you. All these people are just as keen to get to the city as you are, relying on trains, buses or - of course - taxis. Traffic jams and delays seem inevitable.

How wonderful would it be then if, for a little extra, you could avoid all this mayhem and hop into a flying taxi, to go right from the airport to downtown? Eduardo Uriarte, chief executive of start-up Kairos Air, believes this scenario is just a few years away. “We’d like to make people’s daily commute simpler, by using personal aerial transportation,” he says, as he takes a quick break between presentations at October’s Hello Tomorrow conference in Paris. “You book your taxi with your phone, walk to one of the stations, a ground pilot verifies the route and you check your emails or read a book during the six or seven-minute journey to reach downtown,” he says.

Uriarte used his time at the event to network with other companies working on aerospace technology, such as aircraft engine maker Safran. The event brought together entrepreneurs, investors and corporations in all major fields of science and technology.

Kairos Air isn’t the only firm looking into flying cars, aiming to catch up with the vision of sci-fi movies like Back to the Future, Blade Runner and Fifth Element. Another one is Zee.Aero, founded in 2010 by inventor and Nasa scientist Ilan Kroo, and reportedly funded personally by Google co-founder Larry Page. Then there is Lilium Jet, a German start-up that was also present at Hello Tomorrow and that is reportedly close to having a working prototype of a flying car. “There will be a point when there will be too many vehicles on the ground; it’s simply a space problem,” says Mareike Mutzberg, Lilium Jet’s communications manager.

The idea of flying cars or passenger drones has been around for quite some time, and a number of companies now have the technology to make it happen. At the moment, however, there are plenty of hurdles to be overcome before flying cars can take off - and that includes not just technology challenges, but legal issues too. That’s what Kairos Air is trying to achieve - working with regulators, making the business case and coming up with a concept to commercialise the technology.

The company is also collaborating with Nasa and talking to the Federal Aviation Administration to design a vehicle and flight control operations that will comply with regulations. Then the firm would offer its design to a manufacturer that would take care of the sales and operation of the ‘cars’. “We want to be a service provider - what Air France is to Airbus,” says Uriarte.

The first step, thinks Uriarte, will be flying taxis, taking passengers from airports into the city, a bit like a ski lift or a shuttle train going back and forth. There won’t be any pilots inside the electric self-piloting single-passenger quadcopters that he envisions, but pilots will still be part of the flying process, as controllers on the ground. The ‘car’ will be able to transport a passenger with cargo at 95km/h for 35 minutes, at an altitude of 500 to 700 feet.

Just like Kairos Air, Lilium Jet also wants to create an all-electric personal aircraft - and aims for it to have speeds of up to 400km/h. The firm even won a competition in Paris, taking home 100,000 euros. The Hello Tomorrow Challenge, aimed at start-ups from around the world, attracted interest from nearly 5,000 companies in 112 countries.

Lilium Jet envisages a vehicle with electric fans at the rear of the wings. The canards (front wings) would be able to move in a way that if directed downwards, they would produce uplift and if directed backwards, they would let the jet fly forwards. “The operation of the aircraft will be very easy to handle since everything is computer-aided,” says Mutzberg, who argues that as a result there simply won’t be any pilot’s errors. The firm is also looking into regulations and certifications, discussing various steps with the authorities. “We will not leave anything to chance,” she says. 

Big players are looking into flying cars too. Airbus, for instance, has recently unveiled its secret flying-car project Vahana: a single-seat, pilotless aircraft, able to take off and land vertically. With eight rotors on two sets of wings, able to tilt depending on whether the car is flying horizontally or vertically, Vahana would carry one passenger under a canopy that retracts like a visor. Again, the idea is to use the car as a taxi .

If these flying cars appeared tomorrow, say, would people be ready to fly them? “Well, we definitely would and receive a lot of mails from people who tell us they cannot wait until they can actually fly the Lilium Jet,” says Mutzberg.

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