United States: Silicon Valley prepares for the implementation of air, electric and unmanned taxis

United States: Silicon Valley prepares for the implementation of air, electric and unmanned taxis

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A science fiction setting. Silicon Valley expects the establishment, in the coming years, of small electric planes, piloted by artificial intelligence. These devices will cross over cities to carry their passengers from one “vertiport” to another. “We will see the emergence of electric, regional or long-distance air taxi networks”predicts Marc Piette, founder of Xwing, a startup specialized in autonomous technologies for aviation.

Several Californian companies are actively preparing for this future of mobility, a remedy for traffic jams and pollution. In a hangar in Concord, San Francisco Bay, Xwing is focused on the most confusing factor in the equation: making any vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft, plane or plane, fossil fueled or electric, able to taxi, take off , fly and land on your own.

The devices will also be able to talk to passengers. “Autopilot system activated” a woman’s voice says to Ryan Olson as he sits at the controls, ready for a ride where he won’t be touching the dash or the joystick, like an instructor with a highly advanced trainee.

“The plane is a good student, unlike humans who behave differently each time”says the pilot. Equipped with cameras, servers, radar and other sensors, the Cessna Caravan is already autonomous in good weather, and Xwing is working to make it capable of handling bad weather on its own.

In February, a VTOL (eVTOL) Joby’s electric crashed during a remotely piloted flight, when the startup was testing speeds above its limits. “It’s bad for the whole industry when there’s an accident (…) But that’s what the evidence is for”says Louise Bristow, vice president of Archer, another company.

Archer and Joby’s eVTOLs look like helicopters but with one wing and multiple propellers. They hope to launch their first air taxi services in late 2024, with pilots. Wisk Aero, a startup from Boeing and Google co-founder Larry Page, is working on an autonomous eVTOL. Archer received a pre-order from United Airlines for 200 vehicles and is targeting Los Angeles and Miami to start.

“We are building the Uber of the sky”says Louise Bristow. She estimates in ten years the necessary time “so that there are enough devices in service, that people get used to moving like this, and that we feel the difference” in towns According to Scott Drennan, a new air mobility consultant, these visions are taking shape through the convergence of three technologies: electric power, computing capabilities and autonomy systems.

But while the technology is on the right track, companies face two big challenges: certification and infrastructure. The authorities are not reluctant but get their agreement “It will take longer than you think”, emphasizes the expert. It will also be necessary to build “vertiports” (vertical airports), and “a digital interface to manage air traffic and communication between vehicles”.

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