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How flying taxis could go mainstream

This article is part of "5G and Connectivity Playbook," a series exploring some of our time's most important tech innovations.

Ariel Davis for BI

Within 10 years, you might be stuck in traffic on the way to the airport — surrounded by a cacophony of horns and motors — choosing whether to roll up your window to prevent the smell of fumes or leave it down so a whiff of air could momentarily soothe your anxiety.

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As youre stuck on the freeway, something in the sky catches your eye. Its not your airplane leaving without you — and its not a news chopper covering the sprawl. Its an air taxi.

Air taxi is the name for an electric vertical-takeoff and -landing aircraft, also known as an eVTOL. These flying vehicles are made for short-haul flights, such as a dash from Manhattan to Newark Liberty International Airport, and could be billed as the safer, faster, and more-energy-efficient future of transportation.

There are hundreds of companies in the advanced-air-mobility market, some with fully functioning aircraft being used in test flights and displayed in showcases worldwide. But some experts say if air taxis are going to go mainstream, an overlooked element will need to be scaled up: software.

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Before accepting customers in the US, AAM companies will have to go through a certification process mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration, which could be issued as early as 2025 or 2026. From there, the process of becoming operational will move really fast, said Yu Yu Zhang, the program director of advanced air mobility at the Center for Urban Transportation Research.

That is, if specific infrastructure is in place, she said.

When we talk about infrastructure for AAM, there are two parts, Zhang told Business Insider. One part is the physical infrastructure, such as a vertiport — where air taxis can take off, land, and recharge. The other part is the digital infrastructure.

While the AAM industry has primarily focused on developing and certifying new aircraft, companies are beginning to build the digital infrastructure — the hardware and software that can enable a service — that will make mainstreaming the field possible, Zhang said. Theres no official process for creating this infrastructure yet, but companies are working toward an automated ecosystem that supports safe and efficient flights.

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There are two software categories that fall under eVTOL vehicles, Susan Shaheen, a professor in residence at the University of California, Berkeley, and a codirector of the universitys Transportation Sustainability Research Center, told BI. Theres consumer-facing software such as digital apps people can use to book a flight and back-end software for operations, aircraft control, and air-traffic management. The latter will play a critical role in ensuring safety and efficient operations, Shaheen said.

Some startups are focused on advancing the operations side of the software. In May, students at Purdue University launched Aerovy Mobility, which focuses on cloud-based technology that supports aircraft energy needs, such as recharging at a vertiport.

Meanwhile, other eVTOL developers face specific software challenges related to their aircraft. For example, Wisk, a subsidiary of Boeing, developed an autonomous four-seat air taxi. Because its a self-flying aircraft, there are unique software needs, Becky Tanner, the chief marketing officer at Wisk, told BI. This eVTOL uses software that builds on the same technology that supports automated pilot functions during commercial flights, but with added features that support pilotless voyages with human oversight.

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The other side of the software effort at Wisk is technology that integrates things from outside Wisk into Wisk, Tanner said. In this case, the goal is for customers to have stitched-together, seamless experiences where they can book multiple forms of transportation in a one-stop shop, she said. In practice, this could look like booking your Wisk ride with the same app you used to get a car to the vertiport.

Volocopter, a German company, is approaching software holistically through a product that integrates factors including but not limited to passenger booking, pilot dispatch, airspace navigation, and battery management. The cloud-based platform is called VoloIQ and has been in development since 2020. The technology is supported by Microsoft Azure and described as the digital brains behind Volocopters eVTOL system.

Part of VoloIQ is already live and used in test flights, Klaus Seywald, the director of digital products and strategy at Volocopter, told BI. There are also plans to launch limited commercial services this year in Paris and Rome, and those flights are set to be available to book through a VoloIQ-linked app. At the start, the app will show customers which routes and flights are available, but over time, Volocopter plans to move toward an on-demand model, Seywald said.

Volocopter also sees a stand-alone business case for VoloIQ as a third-party software, Seywald said. The idea is that rather than developing a new system, other eVTOL companies could use VoloIQ to support their products.

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The problems it solves are not mostly Volocopter-specific but industry-specific, Seywald added.

Software is an essential part of the success of a mobility provider, Seywald told BI. Building and certifying a new vehicle is one thing, but you have to think about how do you actually operate it, he said. The certifications are within reach, but operation, I think, has not gotten enough attention.

Seywald thinks the industry will start scaling around 2026 and that by 2028 or 2029, the average person will be able to afford and start using this mode of transportation. Until then, Shaheen said, AAM businesses have the opportunity to learn from other shared-mobility industries, such as ride-hailing companies.

We have seen from shared-mobility deployments if you build it, riders do not always come, she said. It is very important to demonstrate viable use cases and to serve a mobility need.

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Part of getting customers to use flying taxis will hinge on addressing social barriers including safety, equity, affordability, and convenience, Shaheen said. In part, service providers can approach this by developing and using Americans with Disabilities Act-accessible consumer apps.

If software and digital platforms can enhance the safety and convenience of eVTOL, then these tools could help address these obstacles, she said.

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