Vertical Take-Off & Landing: A New Form of Mobility?

Vertical Take-off & Landing (VTOL), refers to aircraft that take off, hover and land vertically, as opposed to airplanes that takeoff horizontally with runways. There are two main types of VTOL crafts. Rotorcraft use rotor blades to generate lift and movement. Powered-lift vehicles can take off vertically but fly forward using fixed wings like airplanes. Future VTOL aircraft could include automated flying taxis, also known as passenger drones or drone taxis, which could provide a new form of mobility.

Current Status

Several companies, including Uber Elevate, Lilium, Kitty Hawk, and Volocopter have announced plans or started testing VTOL aircraft in some form. More traditional aeronautics names, such as Airbus and NASA, are also experimenting with VTOL technology. Some of these companies envision medium-range flights within a metropolitan area, while Lilium envisions longer ranges, such as London to Paris flights. Uber has publically stated that they plan to operate flying taxis by 2020, while Kitty Hawk has reached an agreement to test self-flying craft in New Zealand. Several of the companies are collaborating with traditional aircraft manufacturers, like Bell Helicopters.

Many companies envision fully-automated flight in the future, but most recognize that a human pilot is necessary in the craft or at a control center until automated systems are more advanced. However, some companies such as Lilium are designing their aircraft to fall within a less rigorous Sport Pilot license. The United States regulatory framework for prototype VTOL aircraft is unclear at this time; new rules will need to be developed especially as less human control and more automation is developed.

The VTOL crafts currently in development are mostly powered via electric motors and batteries, as opposed to traditional liquid fuel. Due to the limits of battery storage, they are being designed with lightweight materials.

Possible Benefits

VTOL craft could provide a new mobility option. We have outlined some potential benefits below:

Decreased travel time for users compared to ground travel, particularly in congested metropolitan areas

Improved travel flexibility for users due to direct air routes between destinations

Potential to improve travel safety for users due to fewer ground based conflicts and automated flight control

Reduced greenhouse gas emissions as compared to other forms or flight as most VTOL concepts include electric based drive systems

Reduced ground noise as compared to traditional helicopters

Possible Limitations

VTOL craft are likely to face regulatory and technological hurdles before they move from early testing to widespread use. We have outlined some of the potential limitations of the technology below:

Limited flight time and range due to battery storage capacity and weight issues

Designated landing areas will need to be defined and controlled,  requiring coordination with land owners and public agencies

Community acceptance of operations and landing areas may vary by city/region, limiting the ability to scale

Pilots will likely be needed in the near term until craft are able to operate safely on their own

Airspace control regulations will need to be negotiated and monitored

Cost could limit demand, depending on the range of factors influencing prices

Safety and security concerns will need to be addressed for both marketing/branding and regulatory purposes

Weather conditions could impact the reliability of such a service, thereby limiting demand

Looking for more info?

Fehr & Peers is committed to devoting some of our R&D resources to evaluating emerging technologies such as VTOL so we can keep our clients informed and help them navigate this rapidly changing landscape.