It’s early 2018 and the year has already seen a match made literally in the heavens. Two days ago, Intel‘s CEO, Brian Krzanich, became one of the first people to fly in German air taxi company Volocopter‘s latest prototype. He did so as he announced a strategic partnership between the two companies, which was met with all sorts of fanfare and applause.
Knowing that everyone wanted a closer look, we headed over the Central Plaza here at CES 2018 to get next to the device, and to hear what Volocopter leadership had to say. More on that and videos can be found below.
This video is that closer look. Note that the narration has some errors. Volocopter’s giant drone has 18 blades, not 16, and that while Intel has partnered with Volocopter, the venerable chip maker has not acquired them.
It’s a beautiful machine but we wanted to drill down a bit more into Volocopter. Who are they? What does it mean to build a company focused on delivering autonomous, flying taxis?
A little research proved immensely helpful in understanding the Volocopter vision. As populations head from the current 7.4 billion people to perhaps more than 10 billion people in 30-40 years, cities are becoming more and more crowded as humans seek to relocate to where the opportunities are. Trying to get to JFK during rush hour in New York a city that swells to up to 15 million people on a weekday can take more than an hour. Between traffic and rising housing costs, Seattle is seeing commuters spending one hour and forty-five minutes commuting each day. Apply that logic to the cities of Mumbai and Delhi, which both boast more than 18 million people each. When we think of how close things actually are in densely populated cities “as the crow flies,” Volocopters seem promising – perhaps more so than trains for quick jaunts to time sensitive locations like airports and regional railways. According to The Verge, a flight in Dubai included a version that had a maximum range of 17 miles at 43 mph.
As cool as all of this sounds for urban mobility perspective, there are considerable infrastructure questions must be asked. Even though Tesla has shown impressive adoption of electric cars, when people look at the current state of the art, they’re often left wondering less about range anxiety and more about charging stations. A Volocopter uses a significant amount of power to get the job done, so cities would have to install platforms where these devices can be charged quickly before taking off again. Emerging solid state battery technologies may allow for quicker recharges and/or the ability to make more than one trip short trip like the one described by The Verge above. Either way, while far from impossible, delivering that power is neither cheap, nor easy.
In the video below, it’s clear that the Jetsons-like future that Volocopter and Intel leadership present is one that means skylines would become more than buildings and bridges.
In the Volocopter world, we’ll see vehicles aloft in the air, at heights that helicopters and planes would consider dangerously low. It’s a big change for city dwellers because it has the potential to impact quality of life, security, and privacy – not to mention the general worry about a Volocopter hitting a building or structure. While that last concern seems obvious, it’s actually the one to worry about the least. Not only is Volocopter’s vision for autonomous air taxis, but, their partnership with Intel, in addition to their obvious commitment to safety, boosts confidence in their ability to fly safely, avoiding structures. At CES 2015 Intel showed off technology they had developed where they put their drones through what could only be described as an aerial obstacle course.
We look forward to seeing where Volocopter is going next. FAA regulation is a hurdle that a partnership with a company like Intel can help with.