When he was a boy in Biggin Hill, every year Martin Warner used to go to the spectacular airshow staged at the Kent aerodrome, watching Red Arrows and the like zooming around in the air. He was a bit of a plane geek.
More than 30 years and a few million quid in the bank later, he’s still very interested in planes. But now Warner wants to put them in the sky all over London, transforming air travel in the capital. What’s more, he reckons he can do it without any pilots. Hence his new company, provocatively called Autonomous Flight.
His vision is an airborne armada for the city — a point network zipping passengers between places like Charing Cross and Heathrow at up to 70mph using electrically powered vertical take-off and landing aircraft.
He’s planning a giant network of routes all over the capital and he’s not far from unveiling the prototype of his first passenger drone, the Y6S. Two other models are planned — a four-seater Y6S Plus, and an eight-seater air shuttle, the AS1.
Can this actually happen though? When people start talking about flying cars it’s generally the cue to smile politely and start edging towards the exit but Warner has an impressive track record.
A serial entrepreneur, he made a fortune selling his 3D printing business Bot Objects three years ago and he’s also the founder and boss of Flix Premiere, a streaming and distribution service for independent films.
“If I got paid for every idea I ever had I’d be a billionaire. Every now and again I get to work on a few — I’m an ideas guy,” says the 46-year old, who left school as a software programmer and calls himself a “dangerous practical engineer”.
Warner, who splits his time between London, Surrey and the US, is fascinated by the potential for drones and reckons transport “has tons of innovation” ahead of it — the “next gold rush”.
He’s serious enough about Autonomous Flight to have pumped in $1 million of cash, alongside other investors. That’s getting him a full-sized prototype, engineers, a secret workshop, patents and lobbying.
He’s also identified nearly 20 potential partners — aerospace, automotive and a couple of tech companies — who could come in with him.
He reckons that he can produce the Y6S for $25,000 — compared to $1 million for a helicopter — creating a “mass- transit, high-ticket opportunity for a high-end first class fare”.
And if the air shuttle system gets off the ground (pardon the pun) he thinks it could carry more than five million passengers in nine months. “Could this be £25 a ticket? That’s the goal, this is not hundreds of pounds.”
Autonomous flight is the “end state” but to get to market quicker they’ll start with pilots.
He stresses: “Flying one of these is like playing a video game. It’s up, it’s forward, you put the navigation in, you have the ability to land, the ability to correct. To fly our vehicle [all you need] is a sports licence which only needs 20 hours of flying.”
Pilotless shuttles could be around in 10 years, he thinks. But is he going to get his plans past the Civil Aviation Authority? His conviction is total: “Absolutely. It’s going to happen. I’d stake my house on it... There’s no good reason, no safety reason, nothing that I can see which prevents this business opportunity happening.”
He sees it as a “complementary option to help decongest major cities like London”. It’s a greener option and it’s cheaper to boot, he adds. “You can move heavy traffic in the air. Digging in the ground costs $1 billion per mile. It’s insane.” He’s more sure of this than he was over 3D printing. “The tech is smart, but is it rocket science? No.”
Warner’s vision of flying drones and transforming the roofs of multi-storey car parks in London into mini landing pads might sound outlandish, but he calls himself a “brutal pragmatist” and he’s a work obsessive, clocking up 80 hours a week on his various ventures.
Warner adds: “Sitting in traffic I hear people swearing, road rage, getting upset. In New York the average speed is four-and-a-half miles an hour. It’s horrible. You could humanise the experience of travel and you can appreciate how beautiful the world is from the air.”