Several companies aim to begin services within the next 5 to 10 years

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Aviation safety agencies around the world are rushing to draw up regulations for flying taxis, with a wave of companies promising to be ready to launch services within the next five to 10 years. In Europe, aviation regulator EASA said it was preparing a set of tests to ensure the safety of both the vehicles and the software that will run them. It said its approach to flying taxis, which is at an early stage, would cover operations and maintenance, the competence of operators, noise pollution, and making sure that the software used by the taxis is scrutinised “with the level of robustness needed”. “This new certification approach would allow EASA to understand how the software behaves in different circumstances,” it said. In the UK, the Civil Aviation Authority has set up a virtual space where flying taxi companies can test their technology, while China’s regulator has authorised five companies to explore airworthiness standards and certification by the end of the year. The market for transporting humans around cities could be worth $674bn by 2040, according to a 2018 study by bank Morgan Stanley, and transport company Uber wants to launch an “Uber Air” aerial ride-sharing network by 2023. There are more than 170 companies developing aircraft powered by electricity, consultancy Roland Berger found earlier this year, half of which are for urban air taxis.

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Manufacturers say that the first air taxis will have human pilots, before they create artificial intelligence powerful and safe enough to fly the aircraft by itself. The Civil Aviation Authority of China also recently issued draft guidelines that suggested China will develop regulatory standards and co-ordinate demonstrations of UAV by 2020, then build an actual aviation management system by 2035. Regulators are also giving developers the ability to explore how their tech will work in cities. In May, the UK’s CAA announced it had created a virtual “sandbox” for organisations to test their technology. Of the first six, one was innovation charity Nesta, which will explore the future of urban drone use in the UK; another was Volocopter, which is developing its own urban air taxis. Another project in the CAA’s sandbox was from Altitude Angel, which is developing an unmanned traffic management system for automated drones, akin to air traffic control for aeroplanes.

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The Morgan Stanley study envisaged the market starting as “an ultra-niche add-on” to established modes of transport, before becoming “a cost-effective, time-efficient method of travelling short to medium distances”. Richard Aboulafia, analyst at the Teal Group in the US, said cost will be a key barrier, noting that the market for helicopter travel remains small. “This is not a question of regulation or technology. It’s a question of economics. Very few people can afford to use vertical flying technology on a regular basis,” he said. Companies from Airbus to Uber have announced plans for flying vehicles, or aircraft that can hop from one building to another, driven by breakthroughs in electric motors and battery power. The four-passenger CityAirbus electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft made its first tethered flight on May 3 in Germany. Uber does not want to build its own vehicles, but has recruited manufacturers including Bell, Boeing and Embraer to develop Uber Air. Embraer is in the early stages of developing its eVTOL through its subsidiaries EmbraerX and Atech. Last July, the UK aero-engine group Rolls-Royce announced plans for an electric aircraft with rotating wings that could take off or land vertically, and which it thinks could be available by the early to mid-2020s. Recommended Lex Lilium/electric aviation: wing and a prayer Lilium, a Germany-based start-up, last month unveiled what it claimed was the world’s first all-electric, five-seater plane that it plans to use as a public air taxi service from as early as 2025. The company is already in talks with EASA about certifying the plane. But a spokesman said the aircraft, which will be piloted and has a fixed wing, is designed in such a way that it could fly under existing certification that covers “light aircraft”. “We would prefer not to do that and EASA are working on a specification specifically for our sector,” said the Lilium spokesman, adding that “whichever certification route we go down, it will be as rigorous as today’s large commercial aircraft”. Elaine Whyte, UK drones lead at consultancy PwC and a former safety and airworthiness engineer in the Royal Air Force, said air taxis would need the same safety standards that a century of aviation had already established. “This is likely to be a significant barrier to entry and require different skill sets for those potential manufacturers new to this sector,” she said. Anita Sengupta, co-founder of Los Angeles-based start-up Airspace Experience Technologies, which wants to popularise “private air mobility”, said: “Cyber security needs to be sorted in the air just as it does on land . . . Currently you would be cleared by air traffic control but in future you could imagine a different system” involving AI and machine learning. Additional reporting by Tim Bradshaw and Leyla Boulton in London and Andres Schipani in São Paulo

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