Do “drone taxis” really have a commercial future? Some major companies in the global aircraft industry are betting that they do. Chief among them may be The Boeing Company, which has invested more than $450 million in Wisk Aero, making the latter company the leading autonomous passenger vehicle developer in the world. Wisk has just forged a new partnership with Japan Airlines (JAL) to provide drone taxis that will shepherd JAL passengers from airports to their final destination. The two companies will also collaborate in the day-to-day maintenance and operation of Wisk’s new line of air taxis, which are self-flying electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) vehicles.
“We are excited to be partnering with Japan Airlines, a highly-respected leader in aviation both in Japan and globally,” Brian Yutko, CEO of Wisk, said last week. “Wisk and Japan Airlines share a commitment to safe, accessible transportation and to ensuring that our services provide long-term benefit to the communities that we serve. We look forward to working together to bring autonomous everyday flight to Japan and to further advancing Advanced Air Mobility in the broader APAC region.”
This isn’t Wisk Aero’s first major commercial deal – but it may be its largest and potentially most lucrative to date. Last year, the company announced a partnership with the city of Long Beach, California to develop a comprehensive two-year study for integrating air taxis into the city’s long-term economic development strategy. The study, which is currently underway, focuses on the likely impact of passenger drones on the metropolitan area’s economy and workforce development as well as challenges relating to integration of air taxis into current air and road traffic management systems, building business and community stakeholder support and securing available federal and state government funding.
In addition to Wisk Aero, several other start-up companies, including Archer Aviation, Joby and eHang, are in the forefront of new technology development for autonomous drone taxis, with additional industry investors also standing by. Joby, for example, is currently working with Delta Airlines to develop a similar plan for home-to-airport travel. Another start-up, Eve Air Mobility, recently signed a $15 million deal with United to produce up to 400 air taxis by 2026. However, Aero Wisk appears to have a distinct edge: it’s already conducted extensive field tests – about 1,600 – of its eVTOL vehicles, while the vehicles of its competitors are still largely in the planning and prototype stages.
All of these companies still face major roadblocks ahead, including fears that drone taxis, while technologically feasible, may not be commercially viable given their likely cost to consumers. Critics argue that air taxis will be perceived as a luxury service for business passengers and the affluent, many of whom already own private helicopters. There are also serious regulatory hurdles that must be surmounted for drone taxis to be integrated into existing air traffic management systems. In addition, many insurers, already concerned over the safety risks of commercial drones operating in populated areas, are worried about the additional liabilities involved with humans aboard autonomous vehicles.
Despite these obstacles, a number of countries, led by China, South Korea and Germany, are forging ahead with plans to develop a national drone taxi industry. A 2021 report by the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) and global consulting firm Deloitte estimated that the US advanced air mobility market could reach $115 billion by 2035 – a seven-fold increase. The report also estimated that the industry could create nearly 300,000 jobs over this same period.