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German flying-taxi startups soar in the race to urban skies

Jill Petzinger
Jill Petzinger, Germany Correspondent, Yahoo Finance UK
Volocopter's first public flight in Singapore. Credit: Volocopter

Two German startups brought the possibility of taking a flying taxi to work one step closer today.

Volocopter completed its first public manned flight along the Marina Bay waterfront in Singapore at the Intelligent Transport Systems World Congress on Tuesday. The 1.5km (0.9 mile) flight lasted two minutes and the flying taxi cruised 40 meters off the ground.

“The flight today in Singapore was the most advanced Volocopter flight yet and the piloted flight was as stable as ever,” said Volocopter CEO Florian Reuter. “Never before have people been this close to experiencing what Urban Air Mobility in the city of tomorrow will feel like.”

The all-electric, vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) craft is powered by 18 rotors and carries two people. Because the rotors operate at a narrow acoustic frequency, the Volocopter is many times quieter than the smallest helicopter, which is loud because of its main and tail rotors and turbine.

READ MORE: German air-taxi firm Lilium picks UK as tech base and promises 'hundreds' of new jobs

Volocopter, based in Badem-Württemberg, also presented its Voloport in Singapore this week, which it hailed as the “world’s first full-scale air taxi vertiport prototype.” It is a launch and landing pad infrastructure for flying taxis and their passengers in the future.

The volocopter, an electrically powered drone taxi, flies near the Mercedes-Benz museum in Stuttgart, southern Germany, on 14 September, 2019. Photo: Getty Images

A Volocopter spokesperson told Yahoo Finance UK that the first route could be up and running in 2-5 years. Earlier this month Volocopter said that Singapore, Dubai and Germany were the cities most open to air taxis right now.

Regulation of the urban skies is a major hurdle, with authorities scrambling to catch up and draft guidelines and regulations. The EU Aviation Safety Agency released its first regulations for the operation of hybrid and VTOL aircraft in July.

Volocopter is cooperating with Singapore’s Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation Authority on the Voloport infrastucture. Back home, it is working with Frankfurt airport operator Fraport exploring on how to integrate air taxis into the existing infrastructure at Frankfurt Airport.

READ MORE: Fraport and Volocopter partner on flying taxis for Frankfurt Airport

Germany’s other flying-car company Lilium also announced a major milestone today: its prototype Lilium Jet can now hit speeds of over 100 kph (62 mph).

The VTOL craft from the Munich-based startup is also a battery-powered VTOL craft, but, with 36 motors and five seats, it is larger than the Volocopter. The company expects it to be able to achieve a 300km range on a single charge, allowing for inter-city trips rather than just flying around one single city.

A handout picture from Munich flying taxi startup Lilium shows its five-seater prototype. Photo: Lilium/Reuters

Lilium said it will now expand its production capacity to include a second facility, and pegged its commercial launch for 2025. It counts Tencent among its investors, while Volocopter’s big-name stakeholders include Daimler and China’s Zhejiang Geely Holding.

Plying the urban skies is not only a beguiling prospect for disruptive mobility startups like Lilium, Volocopter, and Uber; automotive and aerospace giants are also combining forces to ensure they also get a slice of the Urban Air Mobility (UAM) market of the future.

Boeing and Porsche announced this month that they are teaming up to develop a VTOL craft, while Airbus is developing its CityAirbus battery-electric four-seater passenger drone at its plant in Germany.

READ MORE: Porsche and Boeing partner up to develop electric flying vehicles

Writing on the Daimler blog after Volocopter’s first unmanned European test flight in October, company CEO Reuter said that for most people a flying taxi was still an “unusual sight” but they will soon be a feature of everyday life.

“It makes me think of the early phase of automobile travel, when people were afraid of the new machines and, to ensure safety, a man waving a red flag had to run in front of the car to announce the arrival of this extraordinary means of transportation,” Reuter wrote. “Fortunately, today we seem to be more open to innovation.”