With FAA Support, Joby Pushes Ahead with Drone Taxis

Are “flying taxis” a Jetsonian fantasy?  Or could passenger drones –with proper regulation – soon become an integral part of the urban transportation landscape?  The debate has raged for years, with naysayers pooh-poohing the idea on two counts:  First, the persistent air traffic risk of autonomous drone flights, especially ones involving human passengers, and second, the exorbitant cost of using a drone taxi service relative to existing mass transit.  If only the super-affluent can afford the new taxis, how will financially strapped cities already facing budget shortfalls to repair their decaying subway systems possibly justify major new outlays for flying taxi infrastructure on behalf of a privileged few?

Despite these apparent – indeed, obvious – obstacles the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is continuing to push ahead with the idea.  Several  companies are in the forefront of developing the needed know-how to design and manufacture passenger drones.  For example, just last month, Joby (formerly known as Wisk) obtained a fresh FAA certification that will allow it to move ahead to the second stage of prototype development, with full scale testing – following completion of all five stages – tentatively scheduled for 2025.

“Certification is an integral part of everything that an aerospace company does and with the achievement of this critical milestone, we’re now able to confidently focus our efforts on closing the remaining certification plans and completing the testing required to certify our aircraft,” said Didier Papadopoulos, head of aircraft original equipment manufacturing at Joby.

The FAA isn’t just looking to the United States to pioneer Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) options, including drone taxis.  In January, the FAA and the Korea Office of Civil Aviation (KOCA) agreed to partner on future AAM aircraft development and operations. The agencies’ “Declaration of Cooperation” – which includes sharing of technologies and criteria for  safety oversight, airworthiness, licensing, and operations – follows upon recent FAA partnerships with Japan, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand designed to harmonize national drone taxi certification criteria and integration plans.

“Collaborating with our international partners on safely integrating these new technologies will create more efficient, sustainable and equitable transportation options,” Acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen said earlier this month.

Other companies involved in the FAA drone taxi initiative include Uber and Delta Airlines, which appear to have dropped their own initiatives in favor of  future partnership with Joby.  Delta wants to introduce drone air taxis as an airport-to-city shuttle service.  The airline has already committed $60 million to the initiative but is standing by with another $140 million once Joby jumps through a few more hoops.  United Airlines appears ready to fund a similar initiative, with an upfront investment of $15 million in the San Jose-based drone company Archer Aviation.

Despite these latest breakthroughs, industry critics aren’t convinced that drone taxis will be filling the sky – even near airports – anytime soon.

“Right now this feels more like a Newton moment than an iPhone moment,” writes Devin Coldewey, in a recent issue of Techcrunch.

“The batteries are not there. The tech is not there. The regulations and oversight are not there. Nor is the demand, especially once the true cost of the systems became the customers’ burden instead of investors’.”

Still, with the FAA’s imprimatur, the apple has finally fallen.

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