Part Two: The autonomous and airbourne future of short haul transport
In the second instalment of the Vanguard of Kinesis series, CarTrawler investigates the real world application of passenger drones, while also exploring how airlines can take advantage of this technology to further extend the relationship with their customers beyond two airport terminals and into the lucrative “last mile” of travel. In the previous chapter of CarTrawler’s future focused technology series, the Vanguard of Kinesis Part I, we set our gaze upon Elon Musk’s Hyperloop and what its development means for the airline industry.
Drones have advanced from specialised military hardware to a part of everyday life in less than a decade, however interest in autonomous and electrically powered Vertical Take Off and Landing (VTOL) drone systems has gone into overdrive in the past twelve months following Volocopter’s much publicised unmanned test flight in Dubai and Boeing’s acquisition of Uber partner Aurora Flight Sciences Corporation. The possibility that autonomous drone shuttles will be transferring travellers to and from the airport in the near future may be bad news for taxi drivers, but airlines should view this with a positive gaze, as there could be potential to benefit from this new form of mobility. A shrewd carrier may see the possibility to upsell premium travellers on a package that incorporates rapid transport to and from the airport and, once the technology becomes more mainstream, a larger shuttle service for economy passengers could be feasible too.
This opens up the option for premium passengers to accumulate additional loyalty points or air miles during their drone transfer. Travellers could also potentially hail a drone to bring them to the airport through their carrier’s app and pay for the service using previously accrued points. CarTrawler has produced an app based on this concept for its CabForce business that allows travellers to book taxis and other transfer options, and pay using customer loyalty points. Applications like this will no doubt be adapted as part of a Mobility as a Service system for future technology, by displaying a list of available options to the traveller, including hyperloop, drone, autonomous cab or even autonomous buses; all of which could be covered by the customer’s points, provided they remain brand loyal.
With names like Airbus and Boeing taking this seriously, it’s time to consider the reality of autonomous passenger drones. German company Volocopter, which is backed by automotive giant Daimler and partnered with Intel, have developed an 18 rotor two person autonomous air taxi which is capable of a 30 minute flight. “The Volocopter will be used in the city, that’s what we’re optimised for. Very safe, stable short flights within cities,” Helena Treeck, Senior Global PR Manager for Volocopter, told CarTrawler. The firm staged a test flight for Dubai’s Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed in September 2017, as part of the United Arab Emirates plan to lead the Arab world in high-tech innovation. 
(Photo Credit: Nikolay Kazakov, Karlsruhe)
“There was a completely autonomous flight in Dubai, it was unmanned, which was important so they could see that nobody was piloting the Volocopter,” said Treeck, “Dubai has the goal of automating 25% of their public transport by 2030 so they want autonomous buses, trams, cabs and most importantly air taxis.”
“We’re in talks with cities all over the world, but Dubai is the only one we can talk about right now,” said Treeck. In terms of a roll out timeline, the team at Volocopter believe there will be a commercial point to point route within three years. The example used is New York’s JFK Airport to Manhattan, a journey which the Volocopter could undertake in twenty minutes, compared to the hour it would take a commuter on public transport. “There would be two Volopads, where you’d land, exchange the batteries and take off again. If you build a Volocopter hub on top of a skyscraper with multiple levels then you can have several Volocopters landing and taking off at the same time. With this in place we would expect to be able to get hundreds of people in and out per hour,” according to Treeck.
As the Volocopter is classed as an ultralight aircraft its weight is restricted to 450kg in total including payload. This means that a family of four with large bags travelling from JFK to Manhattan would need three Volocopters. This could prove to be impractical and a costly deterrent for big groups or people with a hefty amount of luggage. Conversely, a businessperson with a laptop hurrying to a meeting armed with their corporate credit card, or a carrier’s app brimming with loyalty points, might jump at the chance to be in the city in twenty minutes.
The decades of experience in passenger comfort and safety, bolstered by extensive existing infrastructure and the brand trust built up over years, will mean that airborne drone passengers will be more likely to trust established airlines over ridesharing companies like Uber to fly them to their destination, irrespective of distance. This means that carriers who back these systems at an early stage could open a world of ultrashort distance airborne transfer options to their customers, while also taking a share of the ride hailing industry, which is expected to grow to $285 billion by 2030 according to Goldman Sachs. Today the global taxi market is valued at $108 billion, which is triple the current valuation placed on the ride-hailing market that currently stands at $36 billion. However, the taxi market is expected to shrink rapidly as more autonomous transfer options are rolled out. In 2016 29.5% of those travelling to JFK arrived by rail, train and subway, 15.6% by taxi, 3.3% travelled via limousine and 8.9% took an Uber or Lyft. It could be assumed that in its infancy drone transfers will be both costly and point to point and thus be more inclined to hit the limousine, taxi and Uber’s share of the market. With passenger numbers at JFK expected to swell to 75 million in 2020 and on to 100 million by 2050 the potential revenue generated by airlines disrupting this market could be in the billions.
Elsewhere, the Boeing backed winner of the Uber Elevate competition, Aurora Flight Sciences, will be ready to roll out flying taxis within the next decade, according to CEO Dennis Mulenburg. The Boeing executive said he believes it will “happen faster than any of us understand” with “prototype vehicles being built right now.” However, one glaring obstacle blocking the development of a citywide drone or flying car network is infrastructure, according to the Uber Elevate white paper “even if VTOLs were certified to fly today, cities simply don’t have the necessary take-off and landing sites for the vehicles to operate at fleet scale.” Aurora are working on an on-demand flying car system for UberAir, with 50 aircraft to be developed by 2020, three years after the company’s prototype electronic VTOL system (eVOTL) was tested at the Uber Elevate Summit in April of 2017.
(Credit: Aurora Flight Science)
Passenger drones look to be an inevitability, however they will require years of safety testing, infrastructure development and financial investment before they’re rolled out. They will open up a multitude of transfer options to airlines that are shrewd enough to recognise their potential early on, as upselling premium passengers or allowing loyal customers to pay for transfers using a loyalty point based app, is only tip of the iceberg in terms of possible benefits. In the third and final part of the Vanguard of Kinesis series we look at a company that already has autonomous vehicles in service and have an exclusive interview with Italdesign CEO Jörg Astalosch about his company’s partnership with Audi and Airbus, and their Pop.Up system which could combine hyperloops, autonomous cars and drones.
For Part III in the series click here.
By Morgan Flanagan Creagh
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