FAA Appears to Be Fast-Tracking Approval of “Hybrid” Drone Taxis

Another “drive-and-fly” drone taxi prototype has just been certified as safe for road and flight testing by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The FAA issued the Silicon Valley-based firm ASKA a Special Airworthiness Certificate (SAC) and a Certification of Authorization (COA) which allows the company to test its flying car prototype on local California roads with appropriate safety monitoring systems in place.

The vehicle is a largely battery-powered hybrid with folding wings and retractable wheels that allow it to shift back and forth from two different modes of operation – flying and driving – as needed.  The car can drive at speeds up to 25 mph, stop and activate its wings, launch and fly for 30 minutes continuously, and then hover and safely land vertically or on a landing strip, depending on the contingency

The 5,000- pound vehicle also includes a gas powered reserve engine that allows it to recharge its batteries in flight, allowing for a total range of 250 miles.  It can fit into conventional parking spaces. No other flying car currently in prototype development can claim these same capabilities.

The next step in the regulatory process is to obtain an FAA “type” certification, which formally approves ASKA’s prototype design as fully safe and functional.  That could take another year or more, company officials say.

ASKA is the second air taxi company in less than a month to receive SAC and COA certifications from the FAA.  Another Silicon Valley based firm, ALEF, is also moving to develop a flying car prototype with hybrid air and road capabilities.  The specs of the two prototypes are broadly similar, but ASKA’s car seats 4, ALEF’s just 2 and it’s a strictly battery-powered eVTOL vehicle with a more limited flight range.

The prototypes of two other Silicon Valley-based drone taxi companies, Joby and Archer (which lack the hybrid features of the ALEF and ASKA vehicles) have also received FAA certifications in recent months.   The FAA, after a period of delay, is now moving briskly ahead with plans to have air taxis in service on a limited basis within the next few years, perhaps as soon as 2025, industry observers say.

Part of the impetus for the FAA’s latest certifications is the reticence of major corporate investors to fund further development of  drone taxis without the agency’s formal regulatory approval.  In addition, a number of Asian- and European- based companies including EHang and Volocopter are racing ahead to commercialize their own drone taxis.  Further delay risks American companies losing their competitive edge in the burgeoning global drone taxi market.

There are other potential roadblocks that stand in the way of full-scale commercialization.  In addition to further prototype testing in real-world scenarios, important stakeholders in government and industry will need to weigh in with plans to build the necessary support infrastructure to permit air taxis to function in daily service alongside existing transportation systems, including cars, buses, road taxis and subways.  Another issue is ensuring that air traffic management authorities can accommodate the addition of flying cars to airspace schedules and routes currently occupied by manned commercial and private aircraft.

The FAA appears to be moving ahead on this latter front.  Last week, the agency announced an expedited strategic plan for integrated air traffic management of manned and unmanned aircraft by 2028.  The blueprint for the plan, first announced last year, now includes more than two dozen action elements, including the need for expanded communication and cooperation between federal, state and local government agencies, upgrades to the electrical power grid, adjustments to border and homeland security, investment in drone noise reduction technology and a formal assessment the environmental impacts of an integrated air traffic management system.

Despite these latest signs of progress, many industry experts believe the FAA and the leading air taxi companies are being unduly optimistic about the prospects for commercializing flying cars within the next decade.  In addition to infrastructure requirements, estimates of consumer demand – especially given the likely costs of air taxis – may be exaggerated, experts fear.  In addition, available studies suggest that the prospects for air taxis replacing road vehicles – and significantly reducing traffic congestion and air pollution while enhancing sustainability – are overblown.

The most likely scenario, experts say, is that flying cars will be introduced on a limited basis as airport shuttles, perhaps as early as 2025.  Several airlines, most notably Delta and United, have plans to introduce air taxis at major metropolitan airports in Los Angeles, New York, Newark and Miami.  Officials in those cities have already begun convening stakeholder meetings to build public and industry support for the idea.  ASKA, ALEF, Joby and Archer are all vying to become the leading contractors for these projects.

The FAA is not the only federal agency pushing for expedited development of drone taxis.  Others include NASA, the Pentagon and the uniformed military services, especially the Air Force.  The Air Force envisions drone passenger vehicles functioning as troop transports while some NASA officials are hoping to incorporate them into low-altitude space exploration..

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