Electric, pilotless air taxis are ready to take off

In different cities, small electric planes cross the skies trying to become the future of mobility to avoid generating traffic and pollution.


Small electric planes piloted by artificial intelligence cross over cities to take their passengers from one ” vertiport ” (vertical airport) to another: that is the science fiction scenario that Silicon Valley promises ten years from now.

“We are going to see this network of electric, regional or long-distance air taxis appear . The landscape is going to change a lot,” says Marc Piette, Belgian founder of Xwing , a company specializing in autonomous technologies for aviation.

Several Californian companies are actively preparing this future of mobility, which they hope can be a remedy for traffic and pollution.

In a hangar in Concord, on the San Francisco Bay, Xwing focuses on the most surprising factor in the equation: that any aircraft or airplane can take off and land vertically (VTOL), and that with a gasoline or electric engine, it can roll, take off, fly and land on your own.

And at the same time talk to the passengers.

“Autopilot system on,” declares a woman’s voice as Ryan Olson sits in front of the ship, on a journey where he won’t be touching the dash or joystick like an instructor with a trainee.

“The plane is a good student, unlike humans who behave differently every time,” says the pilot.

Equipped with cameras, servers, radar and other instruments, the Cessna Caravan is already autonomous in good weather, and Xwing is working to make it capable of dealing with bad weather as well.

“Uber from Heaven”

In February, a Joby electric VTOL ( eVTOL ) crashed during a remotely operated flight while the company was testing speeds beyond its limits.

“It’s bad for the whole industry when there’s an accident … But that’s what testing is for,” says Louise Bristow, vice president of Archer , another company.

Archer and Joby ‘s eVTOLs look like helicopters, but with one wing and multiple propellers . They hope to launch the first air taxi services by the end of 2024, with pilots. Wisk Aero , the Boeing company, and Larry Page (the co-founder of Google) are working on an autonomous eVTOL .

Archer received a pre-order from United Airlines for 200 vehicles and plans to start in Los Angeles and Miami.

“We built an Uber from the sky,” Bristow declared.

He estimates the necessary time in ten years “so that there are enough devices in service, that people get used to moving in this way, and that the difference is felt” in the cities.

According to Scotte Drennan, New Air Mobility Consultant, these dreamlike visions are taking shape through the convergence of three technologies: electric power, computing capabilities and autonomy systems.

But if the technique goes down the right path, companies face two major challenges: certification and infrastructure. The authorities are not reticent, but obtaining their agreement “is going to take longer than you think,” the expert points out.

It will also be necessary to build ” vertiports ” and “a digital interface to manage air traffic and communication between vehicles.