The world’s first passenger-drone services may debut in Asia — but the technology behind these flying taxis will be largely European.
Volocopter GmbH of Germany said Thursday it will open a landing facility in Singapore later this year for trial flights, while Austria’s FACC AG is working to produce hundreds of passenger drones for Chinese partner EHang Inc. by the end of next year.
While the bulk of air-taxi projects are based in Europe and North America, and several nations say they’re eager to see the craft enter service, there’s concern that progress may be slowed by regulatory hurdles. In Asia, EHang is controlled by state-owned AVIC, while governments in Singapore and territories including Dubai are enthusiastically embracing autonomous transport.
Volocopter, backed by Intel Corp. and Daimler AG, has partnered with U.K. developer Skyports to build a 1.5 million-euro ($1.7 million), 550-square meter “Volo-Port” in Singapore after conducting test flights in Dubai and Las Vegas. Chief Executive Officer Florian Reuter said the facility in the city state will be “accessible and convenient.”
FACC, best known as a maker of light-weight composite parts for Airbus SE and Boeing Co., reckons the move into flying taxis could double annual sales to 2 billion euros ($2.2 billion) within a decade, according to CEO Robert Machtlinger.
The company was recruited by EHang to help lighten the Chinese firm’s 216 drone by at least 15% — or about 60 kilograms — to eke out improvements in speed and range. By the end of next year, FACC will have produced the first batch of 300 units on its Austrian assembly lines.
The 216, which sells for 300,000 euros, can currently fly for 70 kilometers (44 miles) at speeds of up to 160 kilometers an hour. In addition to urban shuttle services, it could carry tourists, serve offshore oil platforms and provide support flights after natural disasters. The seating area could also carry cargo.
EHang, which has already logged 7,000 flight hours with prototypes, has several thousand pre-orders for the model, and is developing a test range with FACC for flights in Linz.
Volocopter will use the Singapore site to test both flight and ground operations and begin validation of a design that features 18 rotors and, like its EHang counterpart, will be able to carry two passengers in autonomous flight mode.
There are more than 100 different electric-aircraft programs in development worldwide, according to consultant Roland Berger. Another is Lilium GmbH, based near Munich. The company says Germany and Europe provide ready access to both the expertise and supply chain necessary to urban air vehicles.
Rather than Asia, it’s has so far been publicly linked with operations in cities including Miami and Geneva, and its electric-powered, jet-engined, five-seat model has a range of 300 kilometers — enough to get from New York to Boston or link cities in France and England.
That extra distance is achieved by taking off vertically before swiveling its 36 jets to the horizontal and flying like a standard plane, using just 10% of the energy of multi-rotor designs.