Urban mobility takes flight
Volocopter and its fleet of electric, fully autonomous air taxis promise to revolutionise urban air mobility.
It all started with a yoga ball. Inspired by recreational drones, software engineer Stephan Wolf set out to prove that the same, easy-to-use technology could be applied to passenger aircraft. Once he was sure the concept would work, he enlisted the help of his childhood friend Alexander Zosel, and Volocopter was born. Powered by 16 electric rotors attached to a seat fitted onto a yoga ball – which doubled as the landing gear – the world’s first manned electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) flight took place on an airstrip in southwestern Germany: it lasted 90 seconds.
This seemingly crazy idea has come a long way in the eight years since that first flight in 2011. The yoga ball and the original seat have made way for a sleek two-seater cabin. And thousands of unmanned test flights and several iterations of the aircraft later, Volocopter made its first manned flight over Singapore’s Marina Bay in October 2019.
Bringing urban air mobility to life
So what is the Volocopter exactly? It is a fully-electric, emission-free VTOL aircraft. Nine batteries power its 18 independent rotors, offering a high degree of redundancy and safety. And compared to its noisy, petrol-fuelled older cousin – the helicopter – it is practically silent. “Based on all these features, we think that this is the perfect air vehicle to be used within urban centres,” says Volocopter CEO Florian Reuter, beaming.
Imagine ordering your autonomous Volocopter via an app, being whisked away by air and arriving at your destination quickly and comfortably, while avoiding bumper-to-bumper traffic below. That is precisely what Volocopter envisions.
And what about range anxiety? Reuter is not too concerned given that the Volocopter is designed for short urban routes. Think airport-to-city centre, business district-to-train station, or hotel-to-shopping district. “The Volocopter can take us up to around 22 miles, or 35 km, on a single charge, and 93 of the top 100 cities in the world have their major airport within that distance,” he explains.
Of course, this futuristic vision requires landing and take-off points. “Clearly we’ve set out to provide mobility as a service. It’s not just about the vehicle; we need to provide a whole ecosystem in order to be able to provide that service,” says Reuter. So Volocopter has partnered with landing infrastructure provider Skyports to build specially designed ‘VoloPorts’ in select locations, the first prototype of which was unveiled in Singapore. As it turns out, building a series of strategically placed VoloPorts is easier, faster, and more cost-effective than building entire rail networks in already crowded city centres.
Ideal for megacities
Which cities are likely to benefit most from urban air taxis? Practically any large, congested megacity with little available space to build new infrastructure, “in particular cities where you have a lot of waterways or topography-related obstructions such as mountains,” explains Reuter. “A perfect example is New York, where everybody needs to get to Manhattan from the airports and you have these bottlenecks at bridges and tunnels.” But he believes that forward-thinking, tech-oriented cities such as Dubai and Singapore, both of which have already hosted test flights (Volocopter’s first autonomous unmanned test flight took place in Dubai in 2017), are primed to embrace autonomous air taxis before any other city. “Technology-wise, we are already there,” says Reuter, who expects commercial autonomous flights to take off within the next two to five years, pending regulatory approvals.
Urban air mobility for all
The concept of aerial ridesharing may not be entirely new – other companies such as Uber already operate air taxi helicopter services in Manhattan, for instance – but with trips priced at over USD 200 (and a huge carbon footprint) per passenger it is prohibitively expensive for most. Volocopter, however, has an entirely different flight plan: “We would like to go beyond the niche of a transportation mode for the richest 5 percent and become the perfect transportation mode for the most painful 5 percent of our routes, where it actually makes sense to go into the air,” Reuter explains. “And manufactured and operated at scale,” he continues, “we can offer this at an attractive price so that a majority of people can afford these routes."
Cities of the future
All of this fits perfectly with Reuter’s personal vision for a future city: “My wish is that we get back to a city that is full of nature, that is green, and that has a good quality of life. And the way to get there is by using mobility in the smartest way possible.” This means that ideally, Volocopter’s app and services are fully integrated into a city’s existing transportation network. “It has to be intermodal,” Reuter explains. Depending on the user’s location, desired destination and current traffic situation, this intermodal app will then suggest the optimal transportation mode for that trip. “And more often than not, that can be – but doesn’t have to be – the Volocopter.”
Over the next 20 years, more than 2 billion people will migrate to cities. With the growing number of urban dwellers come many challenges: congestion, pollution and a shortage of housing and recreation options, to name a few. So how will our transportation infrastructures keep up? Where will everybody live? Will there be enough jobs for everyone? In our ‘Future Cities’ series, we explore what type of innovations are helping cities to become more sustainable – and liveable.