Aviation

Air taxis: about to lift off

5 min.

Save time and beat the queues: Manufacturers all over the world are working on concepts for urban air mobility. They can benefit from light and safe panels made of PLEXIGLAS® brand acrylic glass.

© Shutterstock / Chesky

At the Paris Olympic Games in 2024 it could already be a reality: A purely electric air taxi takes passengers over the queues and into the city. In any case, this is the goal of an ambitious model project in France. And this is only one of many such projects; indeed, air taxis are already being tested in some Asian cities. According to the study “Urban Air Mobility – USD 90 billion of potential: How to capture a share of the passenger drone market” by the Roland Berger management consultancy company, solutions for urban air mobility, i.e., for adding airborne passenger and freight transport to the urban transport mix, are currently being developed in more than 110 projects worldwide.  

What is an air taxi?

An (electrically driven) aircraft that can usually take off and land vertically. The various models differ in terms of the number of rotors and the number of passengers to be transported and usually look like a cross between a helicopter and a car.

Benefits of air taxis

The hope is that electrically driven – and thereby preferably emission-free – air taxis can take the pressure off the congested roads of inner cities and complement the transport mix as a fast and flexible alternative, for example for short distances between cities in conurbations or inside a megacity.

Air taxis are an attractive alternative to conventional taxis at distances of more than 20 kilometers in particular, as reported in Porsche Consulting’s study “The Future of Vertical Mobility.” Alongside aircraft with a range of 15 to 50 kilometers, the experts believe that models will also be available for longer distances of up to 250 kilometers, such as for transport between big cities.

As demand rises, the costs are expected to fall to the level of road taxis in the future. For instance, the Porsche Consulting study expects prices in the region of €10 per minute of flight. Therefore, this can be an attractive alternative for businesspeople who need to get from the airport to the city quickly.

When will air taxis take off?

Air taxis will probably be an absolutely natural part of our cities very soon. Industry experts are expecting air taxis to spread considerably from as soon as 2025 and forecast a phase of strong growth from 2030. Indeed, a real race for urban airspace has begun, driven by huge investments: According to the Roland Berger study, some 907 million US dollars were invested in the sector in the first six months of 2020 – despite the pandemic and the crisis in the aviation industry. As such, the amount invested has risen more than twenty-fold compared to 2016 (approx. 40 million US dollars).

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million kilometers

the possible total distance traveled by passenger drones in 2050 (calculation: Roland Berger)

The number of companies involved in the air taxi market is growing accordingly. Alongside numerous startups such as Joby Aviation, Volocopter and Lilium, established companies including Volkswagen, Airbus, Hyundai and Toyota have long since started work on air taxi concepts.

And their plans are anything but a vision of a far-off future: “We will open our first commercial air taxi routes in the next two to three years,” said Florian Reuter, CEO of Volocopter, on the occasion of his company’s participation in the Paris region’s urban air mobility project in fall 2020.

“We estimate that up to 160,000 commercial passenger drones will be in the air in 2050.”

Manfred Hader, Senior Partner Hamburg Office, Central Europe, Roland Berger

© Shutterstock / Chesky

The air taxi concept: development required

Before air taxis can really take off, however, several issues still have to be resolved. According to the “Quo vadis 3D mobility” study published by the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering (IAO), the greatest obstacles to the implementation of this product technology are legal requirements, air traffic control and the installation of urban infrastructure, in particular “vertiports” for taking off and landing.

Different maturity levels of the technologies

There are also a number of technical challenges. As a result of these, air taxi developers are putting their faith in different technical approaches. One well-known concept is the multicopter, such as the Volocopter made by the German company of the same name. Here, numerous smaller propellers are arranged in a circle above the passenger compartment. Another German manufacturer, Lilium, is working on a tilt-rotor aircraft, where the propellers mounted on the side of the aircraft can be tilted. In terms of the maturity of 3D mobility technologies, the Fraunhofer study comes to the conclusion that some are still in development, but that individual technologies are already very advanced and can soon be applied in practice.

All in all, the Fraunhofer IAO experts believe that the dream of a flying taxi is within our reach. Until then, air taxis must primarily prove two things, regardless of their concept: that they can achieve acceptable speeds and ranges.

According to the Fraunhofer experts, one prerequisite for this is that the aircraft are as light as possible in order to maximize the possible load capacity and energy efficiency. Therefore, light materials and lightweight construction methods are highly important for developers – whether through composite materials, such as a carbon-plastic blend, or using light materials that have already proven their worth in aviation, for instance PLEXIGLAS®, the brand acrylic glass from Röhm.

PLEXIGLAS® in aviation

With its PLEXIGLAS® aviation materials, Röhm has been one of the world’s leading manufacturers in this segment for more than 80 years. Well-known aircraft manufacturers have been using the company’s product for a long time. Due to its high optical quality, low weight and good processability, PLEXIGLAS® is traditionally used in cabin windows of commercial aircraft, cockpit windows in aircrafts and helicopters.

More information, technical specifications and approvals can be found here.

The advantage is that acrylic glass is just half the weight of mineral glass; therefore, it has been a popular material in the aviation sector for decades and is often used in cabin and cockpit windows.

PLEXIGLAS® acrylic glass panels also offer design freedom in terms of size and shape, making them ideally suited to various air taxi concepts. After all, the material can be flexibly adapted to the fuselage of the aircraft. Larger panels can also be formed from a single PLEXIGLAS® sheet, thereby avoiding joints that would otherwise obstruct the view.

A clear view is particularly important in the restricted spaces of urban areas. With its high optical quality, PLEXIGLAS® offers a distortion-free view – glider pilots, for instance, have been relying on this for many years.

Acceptance is a key factor

Safety is one of the key factors behind the acceptance of air taxis. Although various studies show a basic acceptance of air taxis in the population, safety concerns are among the main reasons why people reject urban air mobility.

Another innovative mobility solution had to grapple with a similar problem upon its market launch: When the first automobiles took to the streets in the 19th century, most people were skeptical. Kaiser Wilhelm II is even purported to have said: “The automobile is no more than a transitory phenomenon. I believe in the horse.” We all know how accurate this forecast turned out to be.

So, are we ready for lift-off?

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