Breaking Down The Promise Of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles For Urban Transport

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1Q 2018 | IN-5025

Sebastian Thrun, a computer scientist who famously helped win the DARPA-funded autonomous driving challenge in 2005, recently announced that the online-learning platform Udacity, which he co-founded, was going to begin a 12 month course on flying cars. The Flying Car Nanodegree program will teach inductees the software skills and conceptual understanding necessary to build an autonomous flight system.

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They Promised Us Flying Cars, Instead We Got 140 Characters


Sebastian Thrun, a computer scientist who famously helped win the DARPA-funded autonomous driving challenge in 2005, recently announced that the online-learning platform Udacity, which he co-founded, was going to begin a 12 month course on flying cars. The Flying Car Nanodegree program will teach inductees the software skills and conceptual understanding necessary to build an autonomous flight system.

This is in and of its self not a huge deal. The course is more related to the preexisting phenomenon of commercial-grade multirotor and fixed wing drones than flying taxis. That being said, there have been a flurry of technology demonstrators over the past decade, and with them an increasing number of thought leaders who believe advances in unmanned aviation and autonomous driving will open up a new frontier of transportation that futurists have been pining for since the early twentieth century.

The fascination with flying automobiles is long and well documented in science fiction. Many have questioned whether the first relevant US helicopter, the VS 300, would have become a staple of urban transport had its inventor, Russian émigré Igor Sikorsky, been as adept a communicator as Henry Ford was in envisioning a future of personal car ownership and massive interstate highways.

The failure of the technology to match up to human fantasies has caused a great deal of angst among some. Venture Capitalist Peter Thiel once quipped that ‘they promised us flying cars, instead we got 140 characters’.  

ABI Research is a company that tracks transformative technologies from an early horizon. With that in mind, it is still worth introducing some of the promises and problems determining the validity of flying taxis. 

Drivers and Inhibitors


The benefits of flying taxi services have become have become more apparent as the difficulties of congestion and increased traffic have gradually eaten away at the benefits that mass-car ownership brought to cities. Through a mixture of population increase and unfortunate city planning, many cities in the United States take longer to traverse through than they did in the seventies.

Technology and policy heads have been debating amongst themselves how to fix this. Some see autonomous vehicles as a natural answer that will improve efficiency on the road and eliminate human error. Elon Musk has called for a focal shift toward tunneling technology as a way to make urban transport 3D. Less ambitious voices have called for minimizing the use of automobiles and prioritizing pedestrians and public transport.

Flying taxis is another method by which this problem can be fixed. Though long associated with speculative futuristic visions, the promise for urban aerial transport has been accepted by a growing list of high-profile technology and aerospace companies. The idea is also very tempting for cities with extreme traffic congestion, such as Sao Paulo in Brazil, where senior business executives are known to travel across the city in helicopter. Asian cities, such as Manila and Jakarta, that are rapidly deploying mass rapid transit system may also benefit from the deployment of air-borne taxi that reduces road traffic volume.

Among the traditional aircraft giants, rivals Boeing and Airbus have both made moves towards development of flying taxis. Airbus has two projects in place, one being the Vahana project being run outside its advanced projects and partnerships group in Silicon Valley.

Its second project has been a coverture with ItalDesign to conceptualize a multi-modal urban taxi platform called the Pop.Up. The platform features three separate components, i.e. the car body, the powertrain for driving, and the multirotor component for VTOL takeoff at designated locations.

For its part, Boeing acquired Aurora Flight Services, a legacy aeronautics research company, in October 2017. Aurora’s latest aircraft, the Strike-Lighting is an electric-powered, VTOL multirotor system was funded by the Department of Defense, and forms the blueprint for the as-of-yet hypothetical flying transport service.

Prior to being brought by Boeing, Aurora was one of many organisations who had signed up to Uber’s ‘Elevate’ intitiative to develop autonomous urban aerial transport solutions. The list of members included governmental entities like NASA, universities like the California polytechnic university, venture firms including Linse Capital, and private aerospace companies like Pipistriel, Embraer, Mooney International, Bell Helicopter and Heli Experts.

While Uber, Airbus and Boeing currently represent the biggest players in the ‘flying car’ ecosystem, a number of new actors to express interest and develop early-stage technology demonstrators. These include German companies; Lilium Aviation and E.Volo, British Neva Aerospace, Slovakia-based Aeromobil, and in America, DeLorean Aerospace and Kitty hawk. Below is a list of some of the companies who have made considerable efforts in conceptualizing and developing unmanned aerial transportation.

All part of Uber's Elevate Group

Company Country
Uber USA
Pipstriel USA
Embraer USA
Mooney International USA
Bell Helicopter USA
California Polytechnic University USA
Josephon Engineering USA
Linse Capital USA
Heli Experts USA
Joby Aviation USA
Kittyhawk USA
DeLorean Aerospace USA
Aurora Flight Services USA
Neva Aerospace UK
e-Volo Germany
Lilium Aviation Germany
Airbus France
Aeromobil Slovakia


With some platforms already existent, 2017 saw the clear manifestation of a diverse and distributed ‘flying car’ ecosystem. There is now enough funding and interest to suggest this is not science-fiction. This is in large part due to the improvements of unmanned aerial vehicle technology driven by consumer and commercial drone provider like DJI. The need to minimize cost, maximize payload, autonomy and range, has allowed for the earliest demonstrators of a nascent market.

The accelerating development of key technology enablers like autonomous flight, increased payload, extended range and lower cost have made the vehicles necessary for urban flight a legitimate business endeavor, and the issue of traffic congestion invites technological disruption.

There are however several issues that hinder any serious development of an aerial taxi service that is attributable to the general public.

First is the perception of safety. Most of the technology demonstrators are multirotor systems with heavy blades. Having potentially hundreds of unmanned multirotors operating in low altitude over city-scapes would require stringent regulation, significantly increasing the barriers to entry. If something were to go amiss, public opinion would be very difficult to placate. 2017 has seen liberal, tech-savvy locations like San Francisco push for legislation against the presence of robots (far less dangerous than flying taxis) in public spaces.

There are also questions as to the level of automation. As level 5 automation becomes attainable for ground vehicles, so it does for unmanned platforms. Reasonable anxiety would likely persist in demanding a human chauffeur in the vehicle to allay fears of a technical failure. Most aircraft are already highly automated, but retain human operators, partially because the public is highly skeptical of driverless systems.

But even if public acceptance weathers any media storm, the main challenge for aerial taxis will be constructing a suitable aerial traffic management architecture that can deal with congested airspace, large numbers of vehicles and low-altitude flight. Much of this could be abetted by the push for unmanned traffic management (UTM) for the commercial UAV industry. Non-profits, universities, government and private actors have all put considerable effort into devising a distributed traffic system that accounts for the increased number of small vehicles in the air.

The economics of flying taxi services would also be an enormous challenge. Such infrastructure would involve pick-up and drop-off points laid out across the metropole, incurring huge real-estate costs. New services with hundreds or even thousands of employees would need to be financed. Emergency and civil organisations would have to take on new responsibilities. There is a serious question as to whether cities can fund such services on their own or through partnerships with the private sector.

Then there are the technological hurdles. Improved connectivity will be paramount to running a large urban operation, and would require localities and businesses to invest in an intensive 5G cellular network platform to implement coordination between aircraft. While the barriers to hardware have lessened with the development of commercial UAV’s, there will have to be considerably more investment for the current crop of concept art and technology demonstrators to become viable blueprints for a thousand-strong fleet for every major city. 



 The promise of unmanned aerial taxis became more tangible in 2017 than it had been since the heady days of technological optimism following the Second World War. It has captured the imagination of key industry thought leaders like Thrun and is now on the list of projects major aerospace companies and technology giants like Airbus and Uber are invested in. Now, the newly developed ecosystem has to deliver on to the substantial hype that burdens it.

What might happen in the next 5 years? Uber’s 2016 Elevate document laid out plans to build a functioning VTOL platform by 2021. However, things could move even faster, as the United States Congress is expected to push for an infrastructure bill amounting to around US$1.5 trillion dollars. The Republican-led proposal, though light on details, stresses the need for localities and private enterprise to partner on improving national infrastructure. This is coupled with state and private funds earmarked for ‘transformative projects’ like the oft-touted Hyperloop. This releasing of federal and state capital could be an excellent opportunity for the companies pushing flying taxis to acquire government partnerships and investment.

As of yet, ‘flying taxis’ remain confined to a handful of technology demonstrators, whitepapers and whiteboards. For a more substantive forecast of the technology’s prospects in the short-term, there has to be a clear outlining of government policy towards the regulatory overhauls that would be necessary to allow the market to thrive.


Companies Mentioned