AirMule, an unmanned flying car, has taken off. This development suggests that flying taxis might have a chance to become an alternative means of transportation in smart cities.

Sky's the limit: flying taxis are about to take over smart cities

Developed by Israel-based Urban Aeronautics, AirMule, a flying car, which made its inaugural flight in January last year, is now operating under the name Cormorant. The aircraft is fully autonomous, flying without a pilot, and can transport a load of 1,000 kilos within a perimeter of 690 kilometers. There are many ways in which the Cormorant may be deployed. It was first designed for military use, for extracting soldiers safely from combat zones or getting into difficult areas, but the craft can also be used in a number of other ways. In a civilian environment, it could for instance serve as a taxi for whisking passengers quickly across crowded urban centres.

We might wonder if we are going to see aircraft like these flying above ‘smart’ cities in a few years’ time, as in the 1997 science fiction film The Fifth Element? Airbus is in fact already working on a similar concept and is planning to publicly unveil Vahana, a self-piloted flying vehicle platform for individual passenger and cargo transport, by 2020. However, Airbus’ ambitions go much further than that as the aerospace giant is aiming to create a fleet of automated taxis for the convenience of city residents, reducing journey time on standard taxi routes. In the longer term, Airbus intends to enable people to order a flying taxi as easily as they would book a car through Uber, on their smartphones. And there is no shortage of competition. Google’s Larry Page is discreetly pumping finance into a sector rival called Zee.aero. And Uber may soon see an air-born competitor in the form of Slovak company Aeromobil. Last but not least, French startup SeaBubbles is planning to introduce small hydrofoils – hovercraft boat-taxis – to fly passengers just above the surface of the river Seine in Paris.

Autonomous flying taxis could help to solve a whole raft of mobility problems by declogging cities of cars. Underlines Airbus: “Traffic problems are getting worse globally as a result of increasing urbanisation.‟ However, a number of issues still remain to be answered, such as: How can you ensure the safety of these flying cars and their passengers? What are the risks of accident? How can their engine noise be dampened? What will be the environmental impact for a world increasingly committed to reducing CO2 emissions? This new form of mobility will also require new regulations for air traffic to be drawn up, a new-look transport network, and the creation of helipad zones. Plenty still to do, then.

By Laura Frémy
Journalist