If you want to be taken seriously in the “flying car” business, you need a solid infrastructure plan. It’s not enough to just have a cool-looking aircraft that can take off and land vertically. You also need a citywide system of landing pads, charging stations, and passenger loading and unloading areas. Uber is working on its own infrastructure plan, and now German startup Volocopter is ready to show off its own vision for a fully formed urban “air taxi” system, coming to a city near you.
Today, the company unveiled its vision for a network of rooftop “Volo-ports” where up to 1,000 passengers could board and disembark their own personal “flying taxi” every hour. That translates to 10,000 passengers per station per day, the company claims. These stations would include elaborate systems of conveyor belts, swappable battery packs, and elevators leading to vast charging ports — all designed to move the largest number of passengers possible while also ensuring its fleet of short-range aircraft are fully charged and ready to go.
Setting aside for a moment passengers’ willingness (or unwillingness) to climb inside what are essentially up-jumped drones just so they can shave a few minutes off their trip to the airport, Volocopter’s idea for a citywide air taxi system is clearly very ambitious. The company envisions building circular launchpads that jut out from the top floors of skyscrapers, from which Volocopter’s 18-rotor 2X electric aircraft could take off and land.
After landing, these vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft would be moved via conveyor belt to an indoor hanger, where passengers can disembark, and batteries are swapped out by robots for freshly charged ones. Then, the aircraft are transferred via elevator to a parking garage of sorts on the floor below, where maintenance work can be done before the vehicles are deployed for more passenger-transporting.
“It’s about mass transportation of people and how it can be done in a safe way and with what infrastructure,” Alexander Zosel, Volocopter’s co-founder and chief innovation officer, told The Verge.
Zosel said the goal is to have a Volocopter aircraft take off and land every 30 seconds in order to achieve enough passenger capacity to ensure flights are inexpensive and accessible. In other words, Volocopter needs to handle a high load of passengers, or this whole concept of air taxis will just be a gimmick used only by tourists and one-percenters.
Volocopter’s efforts here are notable because electric flight is extremely hard to do — some even would say impossible in a commercial sense. Flying requires an incredible amount of energy, and present battery technology just doesn’t offer the power-to-weight ratio needed to achieve liftoff. Most experts predict that it will be years, if not decades, before battery technology can catch up.
That’s probably why Volocopter envisions its aircraft operating only over short distances. The 2X features a flight time of 30 minutes and a maximum range of 17 miles, though Volocopter says the batteries can be quickly swapped to compensate for those numbers until the tech improves.
Zosel said Volocopter hopes to have a prototype station in place sometime in the next year, but acknowledged it will take up to 10 years before a full, citywide system can be put in place. The cost of these elaborate stations would likely be spread out over a number of partners, including real estate groups, charging station operators, ride-hailing companies, and Volocopter itself.
The company has demonstrated the 2X’s flight capabilities in Germany, Dubai (where the company is most likely to first launch its aerial taxi service), and more recently at CES in Las Vegas, where it announced a partnership with Intel.