It’s fun to imagine the crowded skies of these air taxis flying above rumbling vehicle traffic with only a faint hum of rotors as they zip along established routes to and from strategically stationed vertiports on buildings. from the city. This world of George Jetson, however, rests on some pretty big leaps of faith. The most important of these is whether passengers will eventually be willing to board an aircraft without a pilot on board (early versions will be piloted). Will the public agree to fly automated planes above their heads? Will the price drop to make it more appealing to a wider audience? When flights are automated, the economy of the aircraft increases exponentially. The price for passengers – those willing to trust a computer to navigate – could be low enough that the service could very well break out of the niche market.
And, of course, the answers to all of these questions hinge on whether the Federal Aviation Administration is willing to create a pathway for unmanned passenger flight. The agency’s slow progress in allowing small drones to fly beyond a remote pilot’s visual line of sight indicates that the agency will be willing to go that far, eventually, if they are in security. Yet the licensing process for unmanned passenger flights will take longer and require more testing than the loudest cheerleaders in the industry claim.
Practical, more mundane testing of these planes — known as electric vertical takeoff and landing, or eVTOL — will begin with cargo. The experience will most likely begin overseas, where the skies aren’t as busy as in the US and where the need is greater (think island hopping in Southeast Asia). That’s why Textron Inc., the maker of Cessna and Bell Helicopters private jets, bought Pipistrel in March. The Slovenian electric aircraft pioneer is working on an autonomous cargo drone.
In the United States, FedEx Corp. and United Parcel Service Inc. have a use case for cargo versions of eVTOLs. Both companies use small supply planes to shuttle between sorting centers, especially in more rural areas, and will gain efficiency by taking off and landing from the parking lot of these facilities. This will reduce the time and expense required to land at an airport and have a truck transport the cargo the final distance to the hub.
UPS has ordered planes from startup Beta Technologies Inc., the first version of which will be flown. The aircraft can hold 1,400 pounds of cargo and have a flight range of up to 250 miles. FedEx is partnering with Elroy Air for a plane that will be unmanned and have the ability to fly up to 300 miles and carry up to 500 pounds.
The military is already playing an important role in getting electric planes off the ground through the Air Force Agility Prime program, which provides funding for flight testing and experimentation. The Air Force has the advantage of seeing first-hand how these new planes could transport cargo and soldiers while manufacturers can take advantage of the military’s unique ability to test planes without FAA approvals. No organization has more experience with autonomous flight than the Department of Defense.
NASA is a big fan of this fledgling industry and has taken the lead in guiding the vision of how this new mode of transportation works and what is needed for an air traffic management system. The agency speaks of a mission “to safely develop an air transportation system that moves people and cargo between locations previously unserved or underserved by aviation – local, regional, intraregional, urban – using revolutionary new aircraft that are only becoming possible”.
Delta’s investment in Joby, which could climb to $200 million, is obviously a bet on that future. Electric motors are on the way to replacing noisy and polluting internal combustion engines. This will happen first with small helicopters and small planes, although it will take time. Joby plans to certify and begin sales in 2024 for its electric plane, which seats four passengers and will have a pilot to start with. These electric rotorcraft will be quieter, faster, greener and cheaper to operate and maintain, although more expensive to purchase. They will also likely be safer because they have multiple rotors, six in Joby’s case, instead of one large like helicopters.
There will be buyers of these eVTOLs, but probably not enough to sustain all the startups chasing the dream. Whether it remains a niche market for the well-heeled who brag about their green flight or whether it becomes more mainstream will depend on solving a host of intricate details. Long before that happens, however, these planes will most likely be carrying cargo.
More from Bloomberg Opinion:
• Afraid of driverless cars? China has the answer: Anjani Trivedi
• Your next Porsche could be a two-wheeler: Chris Bryant
• Don’t expect drones to drop your packages: Thomas Black
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Thomas Black is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering logistics and manufacturing. Previously, it covered US industrial and transportation companies as well as Mexican industry, economy and government.
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