Welcome back to our UAM Glossary! Today we look at autonomous air taxis (AAT), the principle of autonomous technologies, and how they stand to benefit mobility.
In a mobility context, autonomy describes the ability of a vehicle or aircraft to drive or fly by itself. It is fully automated and can operate without a pilot or remote supervision. Using its sensors, environmental data, and its AI “brain,” the system makes executive decisions, thereby navigating standard routes. What’s more, it can also react accordingly to any unforeseen obstacles or problems. An autonomous air taxi is an unpiloted, fully automated passenger aircraft that functions as a taxi or shuttle.
Just like self-driving cars, autonomous aircraft are expected to launch commercially in the next couple of years ̶ and they’re set to pave the way for all. Compared to ground vehicles, autonomous aircraft will initially navigate through uncongested skies, and need not account for pedestrians, cyclists, or other road users. Instead, they will share the airspace with other highly automated aircraft, all communicating with each other. In fact, most aircraft already operate using smart systems like autopilots, which automatically execute direct routes or help with landing. 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.