Several Californian companies are actively preparing the future of mobility; little ones electric planes piloted by artificial intelligence that cross over cities to take their passengers from one “vertiport” (vertical airport) to another.
“We are going to see this network of regional or long-distance ‘electric air taxis’ appear. The landscape is going to change a lot.says Marc Piette, Belgian founder of xwing, a company specialized in autonomous technologies for aviation.
Something from the sci-fi setting that Silicon Valley promises ten years from now, can already be seen in a hangar in Concord, on the San Francisco Bay, where xwing focuses on the most surprising factor in the equation: that any aircraft or airplane vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL)and with a gasoline or electric motor, it can roll, take off, fly and land on its own.
And at the same time, talk to passengers.
“Autopilot system on”, declares a woman’s voice as Ryan Olson sits at the front of the ship, on a journey where he won’t be touching the dash or the joystick, like an instructor with a trainee. “The plane is a good student, unlike humans who behave differently every time”says the pilot.
The Cessna Caravan is already autonomous in good weather and Xwing works so that it is also capable of facing bad weather.
“Uber from heaven”
In February, a Joby electric VTOL (eVTOL) crashed during a remotely operated flight while the company was testing speeds beyond its limits. “It is bad for the entire industry when there is an accident (…) But that is what the tests are for”notes Louise Bristow, vice president of Archer, another company.
Archer and Joby’s eVTOLs look like helicopters, but with one wing and multiple propellers. They hope to launch first air taxi services by the end of 2024, with pilots. Wisk Aero, the Boeing company and Larry Page (the co-founder of Google) are working on an autonomous eVTOL.
Archer received a United Airlines pre-order for 200 vehicles and plans to start in Los Angeles and Miami. “We built an Uber from the sky”Bristow stated.
Estimate in ten years the necessary time “so that there are enough devices in service, that people get used to moving in this way, and that the difference is felt” in the cities.
According to Scotte Drennan, New Air Mobility Consultant, these once dreamlike visions are taking shape through the convergence of three technologies: electrical energy, computing capabilities and autonomy systems. But, if the technique goes down the right path, companies face two major challenges: certification and infrastructure.
The authorities are not reticent, but get their agreement “It’s going to take longer than you think”, highlights the expert. also have to build “vertiports” Y “a digital interface to manage air traffic and communication between vehicles”.
like an elevator
For these reasons, Xwing decided to start with autonomy. Bypassing the pilots should allow us to reduce costs and respond to orders in regions with little access, which do not lack airports or planes, but rather manpower.
“The vast majority of air accidents are caused by human error notes Marc Piette, before recalling that, thanks to the autopilot, “People fly alone to a large extent”
What if the devices are hacked remotely? “Our technology is designed so that the plane refuses to obey dangerous commands”Piette replies.
When the elevators were invented, “people were afraid to use them without an operator”remember laughing. “Today we pushed the button without asking ourselves questions. It will be the same for aviation.”.