Welcome back to our UAM Glossary! Today we’re looking at autonomous air taxis (AAT) and how they stand to benefit us today, and familiarizing ourselves with the principles behind autonomous technologies.
When considered from a mobility standpoint, autonomy describes the ability of a vehicle or an aircraft to drive or fly by itself, with no onboard pilot. In other words, it is fully automated and operates with no remote supervision.
What is on board, however, are sensors, environmental data, and its “AI brain,” all of which help this autonomous system to make executive decisions, thereby navigating pre-defined routes. What’s more, it can react accordingly when faced with unforeseen obstacles or other issues that may occur en route.
Just like self-driving cars, autonomous aircraft (in our case, eVTOLS – or electric vertical takeoff and landing aircrat) are expected to launch commercially as early as 2024 and they’re set to pave the way for companies besides ours to follow suit.
Crucially, compared to ground vehicles, autonomous aircraft will initially navigate through relatively uncongested skies, without a need to account for pedestrians, cyclists, or other conventional road users. Instead, they will share the airspace with similar, highly automated aircraft, and they will all communicate with each other.
DID YOU KNOW? Most aircraft in operation today do in fact already operate using smart systems like autopilots, which work by executing direct routes or help to land an aircraft. Autonomous air mobility can and will build on that.
Autonomous flight is a core element of the Volocopter mission statement, and the VoloCity was designed to ultimately take to the skies as an autonomous air taxi. From the very beginning, Volocopter’s intention was for its aircraft to one day fly solo in the commercial skies. Today, the company is working closely with autonomous technology leaders like Near Earth Autonomy on the beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) capabilities of its VoloDrones.
But why is this an intrinsic part of our vision?
Urban air mobility needs to be tailored to the challenges of flying within a city – tall buildings, narrow roads, moving obstacles. And while our highly trained pilots will be more than capable of navigating this environment, we will also be deploying smart, redundant assistance systems to ensure maximum safety right from day one. And by gradually moving toward full autonomy we will continue to promote more flexible and even safer urban operations. Furthermore, autonomy will lower costs and thus boost affordability, availability, and help scale eVTOL operations.
To make autonomous air traffic a reality, however, a number of steps must first be taken. As this is a novel kind of mobility, regulations are still being compiled and may well not be set in stone for a good few years yet. Volocopter is working closely with Europe’s aviation authorities and other experts in the field to bring urban air mobility to life and share its insights.
Just as it takes time to develop an autonomous operations rulebook, the practice will not be implemented overnight. Volcopter is gradually increasing the degree of automation its aircraft will offer: first, through the number of control functions (like speed control or autopilot). Second, by preparing for unforeseen future events and the decisions that will have to be made. In short, this is a gradual process that will be moderated by technological, regulatory, and economic considerations. As it gears up to offer fully autonomous flights, Volocopter will collect data from piloted flights in an operational environment that will flow into the VoloIQ data lakes, as well as offer training, and test autonomous applications. Only then will the company launch autonomous flights.
In the envisaged fully autonomous VoloCity air taxi, several sensors will ensure a 360-degree view and detect objects in its flight path. An independent monitoring system will keep an eye on all components at any given time, whether radio communication, propulsion, or a flight plan. The flight management system will make decisions and automate predefined processes that are always on time, accurate, and safe. Even without a data connection back to the ground, the VoloCity will be connected to Europe’s digital airspace management system U-SPACE and the Mission Control Center, ensuring smooth and safe flights for all. And the passengers? Well, all they need to do is sit back and enjoy the view on their super-quick journeys. And if they want to speak to a crew member, our ground team will always be available and happy to help.
Autonomous flight and air taxis are the next logical step for urban air mobility and are likely to become a reality in the next few years. This unpiloted form of travel will be extremely cost-effective and safe thanks to its sophisticated technology, multiple redundancies, and the safety associated with air travel in general. Volocopter’s aircraft are already designed to one day fly autonomously, and we are actively working on making this a reality in terms of regulations, technology, and public acceptance.