Flying taxis moved a step closer to becoming a fixture buzzing across the world’s urban skyscapes, after startups in the U.K. and Brazil made commercial breakthroughs and a closely watched effort was unveiled in Los Angeles.
Vertical Aerospace Group, based in Bristol, England, won conditional orders for as many as 1,000 electric aircraft that could total $4 billion from buyers including American Airlines and Virgin Atlantic Airways, it said late last week.
Brazil’s Embraer separately confirmed it’s in talks to merge its unit developing electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, or eVTOLs, into a public company, sending the stock surging.
In California, meanwhile, startup Archer Aviation Inc. showcased its future electric aircraft after earlier nabbing a $20 million investment from United Airlines Holdings Inc. The carrier will buy as many as 200 of the vehicles, dubbed Maker.
While none are yet certified for commercial use, Europe’s top aviation regulator expects approvals for electric flying taxis as early as 2024. Airlines are starting to place orders because they see the potential to develop a new business tied to local movement, as their main activity shuttling people on longer trips comes under pressure over carbon emissions and the impact of the pandemic.
“We believe that this is the beginning of the next big evolution of urban air mobility,” said Domhnal Slattery, chief executive officer of aircraft lessor Avolon Holdings Ltd., which is investing $15 million in Vertical Aerospace. “This is probably as significant as the jet age.”
Flying taxis are designed to accommodate just a few passengers, not dissimilar to an electrified helicopter. But they are quieter, more agile and emission-free utilizing multiple small electric rotors.
The aircraft are designed to make short trips, with a range of 100 miles or less, and are expected to be used ferrying well-heeled commuters above congestion-plagued urban spots — to the airport, for example, or a weekend getaway. Many eVTOL makers plan to eventually transition to pilotless aircraft.
Patrick Ky, the executive director of the European Union Aviation Safety Agency, said in May that he expects commercial use of eVTOLs to begin with carrying packages, then passengers.
Unmanned flight will take at least another five years, Ky said, as EASA works on a coordinated approach with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and other international regulators.
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