Sylvie Claire / May 8, 2022
A science fiction setting. Silicon Valley hopes to introduce small electric airplanes, piloted by artificial intelligence, in the coming years. These aircraft will cruise over cities to take their passengers from one vertiport to another. We’re going to see the emergence of networks of electric air cabs, regional or long-distance, predicts Marc Piette, founder of Xwing, a startup specializing in autonomous technologies for aviation.
Several California companies are actively preparing for this future of mobility, a cure for traffic congestion and pollution. In a hangar in Concord, in the San Francisco Bay Area, Xwing is focusing on the most puzzling factor in the equation: making sure that any airplane, aeroplane or vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft, whether fossil-fueled or electric, can taxi, take off, fly and land by itself.
The aircraft will also be able to talk to passengers. Autopilot system engaged, a woman’s voice declares to Ryan Olson as he sits at the controls, ready for a trip where he won’t touch the instrument panel or the joystick, like an instructor with a well-traveled apprentice.
The plane is a good student, unlike humans who behave differently every time, says the pilot. Equipped with cameras, servers, radars and other sensors, the Cessna Caravan is already autonomous in good weather, and Xwing is working to make it capable of dealing with bad weather alone.
In February, an electric VTOL (eVTOL) from Joby 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 testing 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 cab services by the end of 2024, complete with pilots. Wisk Aero, a startup of Boeing and Larry Page (co-founder of Google, is working on an autonomous eVTOL. Archer has 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 that it will take 10 years for there to be enough aircraft in service, for people to get used to flying this way, and for cities to feel the difference. According to Scott Drennan, a consultant on new air mobility, these visions are taking shape through the convergence of three technologies: electric power, computing capabilities and autonomy systems.
But if the technique is on the right track, companies face two major challenges: certification and infrastructure. The authorities are not reluctant, but getting their approval will take longer than we think, says the expert. It will also be necessary to build vertiports (vertical airports), and a digital interface to manage air traffic and the communication of vehicles between them.