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flying taxi future

Ready for Flying Taxis? Security, Privacy, Jobs?

In Tech With Purpose Newsletter, Air Quality, Game Changers, Sustainability by Scott

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Today’s TechWithPurpose newsletter begins with a special feature looking at the future of flying taxis. Click here to jump straight to the news summary, or continue reading for a glimpse of the near future.

Flying Taxis Set for Lift Off

Are You Ready for Flying Taxis in the Near Future?

This week I noticed that UK flying-taxi company, Vertical Aerospace, announced it had secured 1,000 pre-orders, giving a clear indication that flying taxis are going to be a reality in our lifetime. So that got me thinking, privacy, security and jobs…

If you look across the nascent flying-taxi industry, otherwise know a eVTOL (electric Vertical Take-Off and Landing), there are several young companies making positive headway in the market, including Vertical Aerospace, EHang, Volocopter and Lilium. There are of course others who are actively developing these technologies, too, but looking at these four you can get a sense of what’s to come.

flying taxis future travel - vertical aerospace

Visit Vertical Aerospace for the full video.

All four seem to be starting their journey with a pilot-on-board, but ending with fully autonomous operations. Some have their sights set on shorter, more frequent cross-city hops, others on intercity and airport connections. All are building electric vehicles dependent on the continued renewable energy transition to achieve lofty carbon-free travel promises, as well as helping to manage fuels costs to help keep control on costs from the outset.

Keeping control of costs is imperative. Many commentators have already cast doubts on equitability of flying-taxis, suggesting they will be the domain of only the elite, whilst the rest fight their way through crowded, congested, polluted ground transportation systems. So, whilst a “convenience premium” should be expected, eliminating as much operational cost at the outset will be high on the agenda to enable these businesses to profitably scale across the broadest passenger demographics.

Security and privacy

The link between security and personal privacy will be tested even further than it is in today’s aviation market. One such example to think about is that of weight. Whilst the airport check-in and security lines that we might remember of pre-COVID times were frustrating and often challenged our patience as well as privacy, getting on board a flying-taxi might push things even further.

Weight and weight distribution will be critical in these lighter electric powered vehicles, so as well as knowing the weight of luggage, flying taxi operators will need to know the weight of each individual in order for them to be effectively seated to ensure flight stability. On a personal note, I have often been asked to move seat on partially loaded short haul flights to “help balance the aircraft”. Despite what my bathroom scales say, I am not that heavy! Even as a very well-seasoned traveller, this unnerved me and I wonder how it might sit with more casual travellers looking to “hop across town”.

I spoke with a commercial airline pilot, Elena Escrivá de Romaní Pérez, about the current practice of weight distribution in aircraft. “Every airline assigns a specific standardized weight per pax including carry-on”, said Escrivá de Romaní, “Meaning that is never super accurate, as the airlines do not require real passenger’s weights”.

Given the size and characteristics of traditional aircraft exact weight distribution is not essential. However, even though these flying taxis are smaller, resulting in passengers being placed closer to the centre of gravity, getting the balance wrong could have a much greater impact, and as such individual weights will be important flying-taxi flight parameters.

Even a budget “taxiline” (here I go making up new words again – taxi-airline) is unlikely to want to put passengers through the humiliation of having to stand on scales at check. It is perhaps, more likely that carefully constructed one-a-time chicanes in the terminals would allow individual passengers and their carry-on to be weighed as they make their way to their flights.

Beyond that, once passengers are weighed, the pilot (or further along, the automated AI flight crew) will need to ensure people sit in their allocated seats. This means weight information will need to be assigned to, and tracked with, individuals, which will likely be accomplished using AI powered “observational” measurement of bodily characteristics.

Facial recognition could be one such method, but this technology is already fraught with privacy concerns, so perhaps an alternative approach might be considered. I have seen demonstrations of radar technology that can identify people from their heart beats, maybe this could be used?

In the nearer-term pilot on board scenarios, one has to think of the security of the pilot. In traditional aircraft the pilot is physically secured away from passengers and often afforded additional security from trained air crew. In the flying-taxi scenario, perhaps the pilot will be secured away from their passenger(s) using a similar perspex based technique as in ground taxis.

Speaking of this, Escrivá de Romaní commented that “In this scenario, pilots aren’t separated from the passengers, plus, since there is only one flight crew on board, in the event of the pilot being incapacitated, automation would need to jump in to ensure an emergency landing”. However, she cautioned that much work is still to be done before AI will be fully trusted.

The risk resulting from a hijacked airborne taxi driver far exceeds that of their more pedestrian four-wheeled ancestors, so I wonder what additional security measures will be employed to allow the pilot to secure the flight against malicious actors? Will they be armed, for instance? Will flying taxi pilots really be air marshals, rather than flight officers?

Commenting on the risks, Escrivá de Romaní said “The safety and consequences are higher than a conventional aircraft given the exposure of the space but it wouldn’t be scalable to have full licensed pilots operating taxis. Maybe this changes the whole scene and costs of training go down?”

Flying-taxi Jobs

From a jobs point of view, I’ve already seen one article that suggests almost 100,000 jobs could be created from this new industry. But what tickles my curiosity is what these jobs will be. Will we see traditional pilots cross-train to become taxi drivers, will taxi drivers be given the opportunity to up-skill and become pilots? Whilst much of the checking in and security will be automated, what new roles will be created in this area? Operational roles will need to blend skills across communications and networking, AI and aviation, power management, people management and carbon control.

Vertical Rights

A few years ago I presented at a conference on the future of drones. One of the other presenters was from the UK’s organisation for air space control, NATS. I learnt that as a civilian we have very few legal rights governing the vertical space above us or our properties. I was shocked to hear that even privacy laws wouldn’t be of much help if someone flew a drone into my front garden and filmed through my window. Further still, if I were to throw something at the drone and damage it, I could even be liable for the damage.

The presenter went to further outline the complexities of air-space, and how decades of standards, procedures, organisational institutions and practices needed to be completely overhauled and re-imagined to facilitate broader use of drones in the skies. Frankly it sounded like an almost impossible task.

Take this, along with both, the amount of objection I have personally received legally flying a drone in a public space, and the abhorrence to urban flight paths, I wonder how ownership and control of vertical spaces will develop over time. If you’re an expert in this, please do get in touch or leave a comment below.

Flying-Taxis and SDGs

One of the environmental promises of flying taxis is to reduce carbon emissions from fuel. This can take several forms, including a potential reduction intercity flights, but also through the reduction of other ground transportation – this seems a bit overly optimistic to me because some of the transportation it will replace is already well along the renewable journey (electric trains and trams, hydrogen busses), and road vehicle electrification is also in progress. From this point of view, though, I think reduced city congestion could be something to look at. Congestion is a major contributor to emissions, air pollution and waste (inefficiencies due to delays).

Beyond SDG 13 (climate) and SDG 3 (health) flying taxis obviously tick the infrastructure, innovation and industry (SDG 9), sustainable cities (SDG 11), and renewable energies (SDG 7) with the potential to help across others such as economic growth and jobs (SDG 8). Of course, none of this is going to be possible without strong partnerships, SDG 17.

Hard-tech boom

Whilst pondering on this topic today, I also noticed TechCrunch’s article that talks of the growth of investment in what’s known as hard-tech. This seems interestingly aligned as the development and commercialisation of these services will require a new investment attitude that thinks beyond our modern software-focus. I wonder if Uber’s investment portfolio included line items for novel vehicle types, development of new security protocols and nationwide infrastructure – probably not.

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Scott is an Independent Technology Analyst, Content Writer and Connector of interesting people. Scott is a technologist at heart, with a history of technology innovation and marketing leadership roles. As the founder of this website and several other businesses, he is passionate about helping technology companies communicate their relevance and awesomeness in a way that engages and excites everybody. Get in touch with Scott here or connect with him on LinkedIn. Learn Scott's tips for content marketing, download his free template here..