“Wow, this town looks almost the same as it did when I came here 40 years ago as a kid,” my husband marveled at the old-timey charm of West Yellowstone, Montana, with its hokey Western saloons and storefronts hawking souvenirs.
Look closer, however, and you can tell that change is afoot. There was a bank of Tesla superchargers at the nature center. Almost every business boasted free Wi-Fi. Rather than the squat station wagons of his youth, the streets were crowded with taller versions called crossover SUVs – including our rented GMC Acadia.
At least the sky is inviolate, and the only objects to fly in the vastness of the Wyoming landscape to the east of town are winged creatures. In it, you might catch sight of an eagle or an osprey, although it will most likely be a raven or a magpie. You could opt for a helicopter tour, but they are required to stay above 2,000-feet in altitude. From that height, you won’t be able to witness the geologic and biological wonders of Yellowstone National Park up close and personal.
By the way, don’t even think about using your drone here. There are multiple signs prohibiting their use.
Right now, it’s better this way.
Air Mobility is Coming, and Sooner Than You Might Think
It might be tempting to fire up a drone in Yellowstone. Likewise, the idea of flying cars intrigues early-adopter types. But in reality, airborne vehicles designed for personal use and shuttle service would require lots of planning and forethought. Regulations and rules (and their enforcement) are also necessary to ensure that such travel is safe and doesn’t impinge on others’ quality of life.
If you’re thinking that this might be a problem for the next generation to solve in a couple of decades, you’d be wrong. The future is knocking on your door, right now. Investors are primed, companies are innovating, and Morgan Stanley is optimistic that by 2040, air mobility will be a $2.9-trillion industry.
As we speak, there are an estimated 70 companies working on the engineering and testing of flying vehicles. Some of them even have release dates and are testing VTOLs – vertical take-off and landing vehicles. The vertical part is important, as it will only require a fraction of the landing and takeoff space that an airplane requires. Rather than a landing strip, all you need is a helipad.
Most of these companies envision VTOLs as multiple-occupant ride-share vehicles that provide short-hop commuting in crowded cities. Think of a Super Shuttle van that flies. Others are designing them as personal-use vessels for those who have a few million bucks to spare.
Virtually all incorporate autonomous piloting, as these companies don’t predict the majority of users will earn a pilot’s license anytime soon. Computers and software are at the helm, thank you very much. And all of the VTOLs in development are powered by electricity rather than jet fuel, making them cheaper, cleaner, and allegedly quieter to operate than vehicles powered by combustion engines.
Call me a skeptic, but you’ve heard the racket made by a tiny little drone with a GoPro mounted to it, right? Imagine what’s necessary to get electric motors, batteries, and people off of the ground.
Five Companies Working on VTOLs, Today
The transformation of transportation is just getting started, with a handful of players demonstrating serious effort toward a future of Jetsons-style mobility. Below, we profile five of the companies hoping to become big players in our airspace in just the next few years.
Opener is based in innovation-heavy California, and it claims to be developing “the world’s first ultralight all-electric fixed-wing VTOL aircraft.” The name isn’t great – Blackfly – but the personal mobility concept is exciting.
Even more exciting, the Blackfly is past the abstract stage. The company has released all specifications and has even stated that pricing should be competitive with a family-sized SUV – perhaps in the $50,000 range. What’s your next vehicle gonna be? A Lexus RX, or a flying car?
In January, Boeing NeXt completed the first test flight of its autonomous air taxi in Virginia, with no humans aboard. While it was a short test – less than a minute, and hovering rather than actually flying – this American company is serious about competing in the space.
Boeing says that they hope to have these vehicles in the air by the early 2020s. No doubt, the company exercise newfound due diligence and scrutiny of the software flying these autonomous air taxis.
Brazilian aerospace company Embraer unveiled its VTOL concept vehicle last May. While it may not be testing one quite yet, based on its presence at Uber’s 2018 Elevate Summit, Embraer appears to have its business model and partnerships all lined up. Clearly, they plan to be a key player in the coming transformation of transportation.
This French company builds cargo drones today and plans to use similar technology for the passenger vehicles of tomorrow. Airbus expects a single-seat VTOL called the Vahana to go on sale within 10 years at an ownership cost comparable to a car or daily commuting by train. Additionally, a 4-passenger CityAirbus test vehicle is undergoing testing at the company’s helicopter plant in Munich.
Forget about owning your transportation. Just open an app, request a ride, and make your way to a “vertiport” to catch a ride. Uber says that it will start offering this type of transportation in Dallas, Los Angeles, and one more city by 2023.
Uber is so invested in a future in the sky that it hosted a conference last year to share ideas and forge partnerships to get the ship off the ground, so to speak. The 2019 Uber Elevate summit will take place in Washington D.C. from June 11-12, and we can’t wait to learn about the innovations that will be announced.
Currently, Uber says its air shuttles will hold five people, cruise at 150 mph, and travel 60 miles on a single charge. And with loads of cash from their recent IPO, it’s easy to imagine a not-too-distant future where calling an Uber means something vastly different than it does today.