Air taxis likely to be in the mix within a decade says report

In less than a decade, visitors to the 2032 Olympic Games in Brisbane could be travelling from outlying rural areas to the archery or swimming events in a self-driving flying taxi.

The idea of air taxis is not a new one for Australia, with a number of companies currently working on the possibilities to take to the skies in the next five years.

Now US-based Wisk, the company behind “the world’s most advanced air taxi”, has released a White Paper in partnership with the Council of Mayors (South East Queensland) that looks at the way forward ahead of the Olympics.

South-East Queensland is expected to grow by 1.6 million people by 2041, and, the paper notes, urban congestion will only get worse.

“Likewise, as SEQ continues to be one of the fastest-growing regions in Australia, demand for transport services continues to grow,” the paper says.

“By 2031, demand for transport is projected to increase by 30 percent, which will place further pressure on existing infrastructure and services.”

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And with that congestion and increased travel comes an environmental cost. Wisk says introducing new forms of sustainable public transport is in line with the targets of SEQ Councils, which cover an area of 35,248 square kilometres, including the regional communities of the Scenic Rim, Somerset, the Lockyer Valley and Toowoomba.

Council of Mayors (SEQ) Chair, and Brisbane Lord Mayor, Adrian Schrinner says the group wants to ensure South East Queensland is at the forefront of opportunities to improve connectivity.

“This technology will have an important role to play in an integrated regional transport network, complementing other services like rail and metro,” he says.

“It also presents an opportunity to unlock the South East’s tourism market by providing new connections between our coast, island and rural destinations.”

What would travel look like?

The White Paper paints air taxi travel in much the same terms as taking a taxi, only in the air and often without a driver.

The air taxi services will operate from drop-off and pick-up points known as vertiports. Passengers (or freight operators) will arrive at a vertiport, which will have facilities for check-in, boarding and arrival, as well as the equipment needed to charge, clean and maintain the air taxis.

Wisk air taxis
Wisk air taxis

The electric air taxi, looking something like a mix between a helicopter and a small plane with multiple rotor blades along the wing span, will have room for up to four passengers.

The aircraft takes off vertically and will travel along a set flight path, up to 1.5km above the ground, to its destination vertiport.

The design and the electric power source of an air taxi means it is quieter than a helicopter, up to 100 times quieter in some estimations.

In answer to criticism the air taxis would be “joy rides for the rich”, Wisk has said the aim is to price trips at about $3 per passenger, per mile, or around the cost of an UberX or the premium service Uber Black.

It will fly at a cruising speed of about 120 knots, not much slower than a helicopter at 140-150 knots.

Who’s flying that aircraft?

September 2022 research by Allied Market Research states the global urban air mobility market is expected to be worth $31bn by 2031.

“Urban Air Mobility (UAM) envisions a safe and efficient aviation transportation system that will use highly automated aircraft that will operate and transport passengers or cargo at lower altitudes within urban and suburban areas,” the research notes.

But in a market that is not yet fully on-board with driverless cars, taking off into the sky in a plane without a pilot could look more than daunting.

“The success of AAM will depend, in part, on the willingness of the public to accept and use this technology,” the Wisk/Council of Mayors (SEQ) paper says.

“It will be important for operators, developers and regulators to engage with the public and address any concerns or issues that may arise.”

But Wisk, along with other automated aircraft companies, is at pains to point out that this technology is not new.

“Although autonomous flight may sound ambitious, it leverages the same proven technology used in commercial aviation services today,” the White Paper says.

“Ninety-three percent of traditional pilot functions on commercial flights are already performed by computers; such as autopilots, precision navigation, flight management systems, and more.

“The addition of innovative new sensors, and automated safety systems combined with human oversight from the ground, will ensure that Wisk’s autonomous air taxi exceeds the high safety standards already set by commercial aviation.”

Wisk has called its Generation 6 air taxi, the “most advanced air taxi in the world”, stating it is the “first-ever” candidate for Federal Aviation Administration (the US equivalent to Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority) of an autonomous, passenger-carrying eVTOL (electric vertical take-off and landing) air taxi.

“Through a multifaceted approach – including autonomous flight with human oversight, a simplified design with fewer moving parts, fully redundant systems, and no single point of failure – Wisk’s aircraft is being designed to exceed today’s rigorous aviation safety standards of a one-in-a-billion chance of an accident,” Wisk’s website states.

What happens now?

Chair of the Council of Mayors (SEQ) and Brisbane Lord Mayor Adrian Schrinner has been quoted as saying the project would not cost Brisbane City Council “a cent”.

But, Schrinner says, the Councils are on board.

“This technology will have an important role to play in an integrated regional transport network, complementing other services like rail and metro,” Schrinner says.

“It also presents an opportunity to unlock the South East’s tourism market by providing new connections between our coast, island and rural destinations.”

Read more in Cosmos: The future contains flying taxis

The White Paper says over the next year to two years, the Councils will work with vertiport providers to find the right locations for the vertiports and plant future flight routes.

The Council of Mayors (SEQ) will also bring together all the many relevant government and community stakeholders needed to get the flights off the ground.

The Council of Mayors and Wisk will develop a Future Advanced Air Mobility SEQ Roadmap for more concrete steps towards making air taxis a reality before the Olympics.

What about the environment?

While air taxis run off electric batteries and have zero direct emissions, the Wisk batteries still need to be powered.

To avoid transferring the emissions of the ground to the air, the paper notes Queensland has the “potential” to use sustainable sources to power the Megawatt Charging System needed to run the aircraft.

“In addition, battery powered air taxis offer significant opportunities for investment in the re-use and recycling of battery and composite materials,”  the paper says.

“Once batteries have completed their inflight service life, there is often still battery life remaining, which can be used for other applications, such as supporting peaks in industrial electricity demand and banking solar energy for use overnight.

“As the AAM sector develops in SEQ, circular economy opportunities for the innovative reuse and recycling of equipment can be further investigated and realised.”

There have also been concerns about congestion of the skies and, while air taxis are quieter than helicopters, there is still noise. The flight paths, the paper notes, will be planned in consultation with local government, industry and communities.

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