Science fiction books, TV and movies often pave the way for real innovation by imagining a future without worrying about how you make it happen. Flying cars/vehicles have long been part of the Sci-Fi landscape. I remember watching the Fifth Element when it was released in 1997 and wondering “When will someone make this real?”
The answer seems to be right now. At least 70 companies are currently working on their own variant of a flying car / taxi including Boeing, Airbus, Audi, Porsche and Toyota. All of this activity creates opportunities for smaller tech companies to provide key technologies and solutions to these teams.
According to Colin Guinn, the co-founder and CEO of DJI North America (a drone manufacturer) there are four major areas of technical challenge that need to be solved before the flying taxis can become commercially successful.
Better Autopilots. Most early flying taxis will have some sort of a human pilot on-board. The autopilot will be there to assist the pilot. While commercial and recreational drones have made big strides in autopilots, the number of rotors and the stabilization and safety requirements for vehicles carrying people are much greater. For instance, if you have 18 rotors running, it would be almost impossible for a human to track the performance of all 18 simultaneously. Likewise, given the relatively light weight of the vehicles, you will need adaptive stability.
Autonomous Flight. This is the end goal for these projects. This takes the requirements for the autopilot to the next degree of complexity. It will require new approaches to airspace management. How do you automate flight planning? How do you manage and avoid controlled or restricted airspace? How do you keep hundreds if not thousands of drones and flying cars from interfering with each other or even crashing into each other?
Both the autopilot and autonomous flight space offer opportunities for startups in the AI space as well as in sensors.
Flight Time. Most of the proposed vehicles are electric and as a result, are limited by the batteries they utilize. Smaller, commercial drones typically can fly for 30-45 minutes on a single charge. You can then either swap out the battery or just recharge it. But for a flying taxi, every minute the vehicle is on the ground charging is a minute it is not making money. The prototypes that are in the air today can only stay in the air for 10-20 minutes. This severely limits their range and ultimately, their economic viability.
Regulations. This is probably the biggest hurdle. Governments move slowly, especially in aviation. Several companies including Uber want to launch these flying taxi services in by 2025. I think we may see piloted flying taxis in that time frame, truly autonomous flying taxis are probably 10 years away because of regulations.