New Jersey architect John Sartor chuckled three years ago when cartoon character George Jetson’s flying car flashed on the screen at an aerial taxi convention.
The idea of commuters whizzing crosstown in small flying vehicles sounded like a joke.
Sartor said the laughing stopped when expert after expert from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), aircraft startups bankrolled by major investors and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) paraded on stage to promote the future of what is known as urban air mobility.
“They were pushing this because they believed in it,” said Sartor, whose Warren-based firm, PS&S, is now a player in the industry. “They believed the new transportation solutions cannot be built by simply building new tunnels and expanding our roadways.”
This month, NASA began testing a prototype electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) vehicle in California that looks like a large version of a 6-rotor drone. It is designed to lift off like a helicopter with as many as six passengers and then tilt its rotors forward to fly like an airplane.
The aircraft is designed by Joby Aviation, a publicly owned company whose key backers include Toyota. It has been in development with NASA for 10 years.
So make all the Jetsons jokes you want, but the novel electric aircraft is gaining momentum and its believers advancing in their uphill climb to convince regulators they are safe to carry passengers.
The FAA said limited service could begin as soon as 2023 – yes, 2023! — while a leading air taxi startup projects 14,000 aircraft flying in 20 cities within 10 years.
New Jersey has a prominent role in the emerging aerial ride-sharing industry, which also has attracted major investments from United Airlines, the U.S. Air Force and foreign aviation companies.
The FAA and NASA announced this year they would collaborate at the FAA William J. Hughes Technical Center in Egg Harbor on advancing urban mobility and drones. FAA technicians there published an early study that imagined air taxi service between Atlantic City Airport and nearby casinos.
Rowan University has launched research using artificial intelligence to identify rotorcraft landing sites in the region and routes for air-delivery drones and air taxis. The college is posting its data to a public database.
Sartor said air taxis represent a future growth opportunity for New Jersey towns like Atlantic City, Hoboken, Jersey City, New Brunswick and others.
“This is going to take time, but you can create these air transit hubs,” he said. “The larger they are, the more people you move, you can create housing opportunities around that, shopping, entertainment-related and employment.”
PS&S was hired in 2015 by Uber’s Elevate group to design “Vertiport” passenger terminals on strategically placed parking garages and office tower roofs in Los Angeles, Dallas and Melbourne, Australia.
Uber sold its urban mobility business, but PS&S continues to serve on NASA advisory committees and promote air taxis for passengers, light freight, news gathering, law enforcement, medical services, first responder, and other activities that lie between services currently provided by helicopters and drones.
Jay Merkle, an FAA executive, told the Vertical Flight Society’s virtual symposium this year that the FAA expects to certify the first urban air mobility aircraft in late 2021. He said tests of simulated flight patterns could begin next year and FAA may publish regulations that allow the first commercial air taxi flights as soon as 2023.
NASA’s vision for urban air mobility is to “help emerging aviation markets to safely develop an air transportation system that moves people and cargo between places previously not served or underserved by aviation,” according to its website.
Aside from public acceptance of new airborne services, the overriding issue facing urban air mobility is how it shares FAA regulated airspace with existing airplanes and helicopters.
“This is going to be a big challenge for this community,” Merkle said, according to a transcript of his comments. “The traditional operators in this airspace will not easily yield their positions.”
Charles Clauser, a senior director at PS&S and a licensed pilot, said the FAA is studying the creation of corridors between 400 feet and 2,000 feet for air mobility.
“This is not just a flash in the pan. Billions of dollars are being poured into this. NASA and FAA have jumped in with both feet,” Clauser said. “This is serious stuff. There is a great deal of momentum behind this.”
United this year became the first commercial air carrier to invest in air mobility, ordering $1 billion in yet-to-fly aircraft from Archer Aviation, a publicly held startup. The deal works out to about $5 million per aircraft.
United said in a statement that the order was contingent on Archer winning safety certification for its aircraft and showing that it can meet the airline’s operating and business requirements.
Other eVTOL developers include Beta Technologies, Boeing and Kitty Hawk-funded Wisk, and China’s EHang and Germany’s Lilium. Volocopter, another German company, hopes to gain European approval in 2022, while Lilium is targeting certification around 2024.
Toyota has invested $400 million in Joby and is helping to set up a factory near Monterey, California, as well as refining the design of some aircraft components to make them easier to mass produce. Joby said its prototype has flown 150 miles on a single charge, including an energy-draining vertical takeoff and landing.
Joby has won an airworthiness certification from the U.S. Air Force, which awarded the company $40 million in contracts to test cargo delivery, medical evacuation and search and rescue. The company said it expects to win an additional $100 million in Air Force contracts.
Joby told investors it will start earning a profit by 2026 on $2 billion in revenue, and 10 years from now, it will be generating $20 billion in revenue with 14,000 aircraft flying in 20 cities.
The lofty revenue projections of Joby and other U.S. electric aviation startups emphasize quick FAA approval, the projected lower cost of electricity versus fossil fuels, and the lower maintenance they anticipate electric aircraft will need.
Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at Teal Group, cautioned in a July newsletter that the sticker price of the aircraft may temper the industry’s ambitions.
“[Electric air taxi] backers focus on operating costs because they look great,” he wrote in a July newsletter. “As with light jets and light helicopters, seat mile costs aren’t much more than with a nice car. Capital costs are the real problem.”
George E. Jordan writes a weekly column on business and development in New Jersey. He may be reached at [email protected].