Electric, pilotless air taxis are ready to take off

Concord (United States) (AFP) – Small electric planes piloted by artificial intelligence cross over cities to take their passengers from one “vertiport” (vertical airport) to another: that is the science fiction scenario that Silicon Valley promises ten years from now.

“We are going to see this network of electric, regional or long-distance 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.

Several Californian companies are actively preparing this future of mobility, which they hope can be a remedy for traffic and pollution.

In a hangar in Concord, on the San Francisco Bay, Xwing focuses on the most surprising factor in the equation: that any aircraft or airplane can take off and land vertically (VTOL), and that with a gasoline or electric engine, it can roll, take off, fly and land on your own.

And at the same time talk to the passengers.

Pilot Ryan Olson inspects Xwing’s Cessna 208B Grand Caravan, which has been equipped with computer systems to make it autonomous Nick OttoAFP

“Autopilot system on,” declares a woman’s voice as Ryan Olson sits in front of the ship, on a journey where he won’t be touching the dash or joystick like an instructor with a trainee.

“The plane is a good student, unlike humans who behave differently every time,” says the pilot.

Equipped with cameras, servers, radar and other instruments, the Cessna Caravan is already autonomous in good weather, and Xwing is working to make it capable of dealing with bad weather as well.

“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’s bad for the whole industry when there’s an accident … But that’s what testing is for,” says Louise Bristow, a vice president at Archer, another company.

Archer and Joby’s eVTOLs look like helicopters, but with one wing and multiple propellers. They hope to launch the 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 pre-order from United Airlines for 200 vehicles and plans to start in Los Angeles and Miami.

Archer's eVTOL prototype during a test flight
Archer’s eVTOL prototype during a test flight Handout Archer Aviation Inc./AFP

“We built an Uber from the sky,” Bristow declared.

He estimates the necessary time in ten years “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 dreamlike visions are taking shape through the convergence of three technologies: electric power, 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 obtaining their agreement “is going to take longer than you think,” the expert points out.

It will also be necessary to build “vertiports” and “a digital interface to manage air traffic and communication between vehicles.

like an elevator

Wisk Aero's autonomous eVTOL prototype during a test flight
Wisk Aero’s autonomous eVTOL prototype during a test flight – Wisk Aero LLC/AFP

For these reasons, Xwing decided to start with autonomy.

“We took an existing, well-known device. We made the minimum necessary modifications to make it stand-alone and have it certified, and then we can explore other applications,” summarized Marc Piette.

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 company first plans to equip the devices in charge of distributing merchandise, in order to be able to carry out commercial operations two years from now, before carrying passengers.

Xwing boss Marc Piette poses in a control room
Xwing boss Marc Piette poses in a control room Nick OttoAFP

His boss knows that he will face resistance, but he is sure that these flights will be safer.

“The vast majority of air accidents are caused by human error,” he notes before recalling that thanks to automatic piloting, “people fly alone to a large extent”

He also explains that autonomy is “simpler” in the air, where the environment is always under control, unlike what happens on the roads.

What if the devices are hacked remotely? “Our technology is designed so that the aircraft refuses to obey dangerous commands,” Piette replies.

When elevators were invented, “people were afraid to use them without an operator,” he recalls with a laugh. “Today we push the button without question. It will be the same for aviation.”

Leave a Comment