Air taxis may ease big-city com­mutes, but in­fra­struc­ture and rules come first

The Washington Post - - CAPITAL BUSINESS - BY PETER HOL­LEY

In traf­fic-clogged cities such as Hous­ton, At­lanta, New York and Los An­ge­les, it can take hours to drive a few miles dur­ing rush hour.

For years, in­ven­tors have been work­ing to­ward a po­ten­tial so­lu­tion: ver­ti­cal take­off and land­ing air­craft. Though some know them as “fly­ing cars,” early pro­to­types more closely re­sem­ble a hy­brid ver­sion of an air­plane and a he­li­copter with a hint of drone, rather than a con­ven­tional au­to­mo­bile.

Among the most highly an­tic­i­pated ex­am­ples of an air taxi is the Bell Nexus, an “ur­ban air mo­bil­ity ve­hi­cle” that de­buted at this year’s CES tech­nol­ogy event in Las Ve­gas. Bell He­li­copter, which cre­ated the pro­to­type, said the idea be­hind the tech­nol­ogy is sim­ple: In­stead of idling in traf­fic, com­muters could or­der a fly­ing taxi to shut­tle them across town from above, by­pass­ing the con­ges­tion below.

Uber, which has unof­fi­cially part­nered with Bell Nexus, has claimed its fleet of air taxis would be able to travel 150 to 200 mph, al­low­ing the com­pany to whisk pas­sen­gers across a sprawl­ing me­trop­o­lis such as Los An­ge­les in min­utes in­stead of hours.

“It won’t be like an Uber that you or­der and it comes to your drive­way,” said Robert Hast­ings, Bell’s ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of strate­gic com­mu­ni­ca­tions, not­ing the com­pany in­stead fore­sees us­ing an app to fig­ure out the lo­ca­tion of the clos­est sky port, where you’ll ren­dezvous with your air­craft. “We be­lieve this will be for short hops across a metropoli­tan area.”

“Get­ting to the Dal­las Fort Worth air­port from the suburbs can be an hour-and-a-half drive, and we think these air­craft can make the same trip in eight min­utes,” he added.

Hast­ings said the com­pany thinks the Bell Nexus is more than just a com­muter air­craft. When cargo needs to move from a Wal­mart on one side of town to the other, he said, the com­pany’s air­craft could be put to use.

The Bell Nexus seats up to five pas­sen­gers, plus a pi­lot. The com­pany orig­i­nally planned to by­pass a pi­lot, keep­ing the air­craft au­tonomous, but has since in­cluded room for a pi­lot in the ma­chine’s de­sign, Hast­ings said. Larger ver­sions of the air­craft could hold eight to 10 peo­ple, he said.

What does it look like in­side? Hast­ings said the In­ter­net-con­nected cabin was de­signed to be plush and pro­vide wide views of the out­side world.

“It looks like you’re in a limou­sine on your way to prom,” one re­viewer said, ex­cit­edly point­ing out USB ports and cup hold­ers.

The craft is pow­ered by a hy­brid-elec­tric propul­sion sys­tem fea­tur­ing six tilt­ing fans. Those fans, the com­pany said, would al­low the ve­hi­cle to take off ver­ti­cally and cruise at high speed when they’re po­si­tioned at 90 de­grees.

Hast­ings said the fans are be­ing tested in a wind tun­nel and that the com­pany is con­fi­dent the flight con­trols can be de­signed to op­er­ate au­tonomously. The big­gest chal­lenge air taxis face, he said, is build­ing in­fra­struc­ture and nav­i­gat­ing reg­u­la­tory is­sues and cer­ti­fi­ca­tion chal­lenges through the Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion. In­side the in­dus­try, ex­perts say the FAA won’t cer­tify ver­ti­cal take­off and land­ing air­craft for com­mer­cial trans­porta­tion un­til they’re proved safe. Once that hap­pens, ex­perts say, a new wave of al­ter­na­tive trans­porta­tion will prob­a­bly emerge.

“We be­lieve a very suc­cess­ful project would get an air­craft cer­ti­fied and man­u­fac­turable by the mid-2020s,” Hast­ings said. “The tech­nol­ogy, for us, is not ex­tremely dif­fi­cult.”

Part of the lo­cal reg­u­la­tory bat­tle air taxi com­pa­nies will face in­volves per­suad­ing cities to tol­er­ate even more air traf­fic than they al­ready do.

In ad­di­tion to de­sign­ing its 6,000-pound air­craft to be re­sis­tant to wind, rain and birds, Hast­ings said, the com­pany has fo­cused heav­ily on im­ple­ment­ing a de­sign that is as quiet as pos­si­ble. Bell has done this, he said, by mak­ing the ro­tor blades smaller and by en­cas­ing the ends of the eight-foot blades — where most of the noise is cre­ated — in­side cir­cu­lar ducts. The re­sult, Hast­ings said, is that the blade’s sound changes from a “whop whop whop” to a “whoosh whoosh whoosh.”

The ques­tion for cities will be whether cre­at­ing more traf­fic, this time from above, is an ac­cept­able price to pay for re­liev­ing con­ges­tion.

“Ev­ery­thing is just get­ting more crowded and dense and ev­ery­body is try­ing to solve that prob­lem, and we think there’s one di­men­sion that’s not be­ing ad­dressed — and that’s up,” Hast­ings said.

STEVE MAR­CUS/REUTERS

Peo­ple ex­am­ine the Bell Nexus, a ver­ti­cal take­off and land­ing air­craft, dur­ing the CES tech­nol­ogy event in Las Ve­gas last week.

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