American Airlines and United Airlines have both committed to flying electric vertical takeoff and land aircraft, or eVTOLs.
The helicopter-like electric aircraft aim to fly over highway traffic without onboard pilots.
Startups and aerospace giants are still deciding on how they'll get the public to accept the new technology.
United Airlines became the first major US airline to place an order for electric take-off and land aircraft, better known as eVTOLs, in February and its early adoption kicked off a trend in the industry. American Airlines soon followed with a $1 billion preorder with Vertical Aerospace for up to 250 eVTOLs.
Behind these high-profile orders is an industry of startups dedicated to making the dream of true air taxis a reality, even though countless hurdles stand in the way. Helping them along, however, are aerospace giants like Honeywell Aerospace that are developing the systems to power the aircraft.
The reality of eVTOLs flying paying customers, according to companies like Joby Aviation and Volocopter, will arrive as soon as 2024. It's a timeline that Stéphane Fymat, vice president and general manager, urban air mobility and unmanned aerial systems, at Honeywell Aerospace, told Insider is "realistic" and that if not by 2024, at least by the end of the current decade.
But the questions remain, who will fly them and who will fly on them? The compact flying machines are a brand-new technology that are often smaller than helicopters, powered solely on battery power, and intended to be flown autonomously with no pilot.
It's a proposition that will be entirely new to most travelers and Honeywell is already thinking about how to overcome hurdles in public perception, starting with putting pilots in the aircraft. While autonomous flying without any onboard pilot is the goal of most eVTOL companies, Fymat believes the first aircraft will need pilots to make customers feel comfortable.
"Consumer acceptance comes down to a few things, in my mind, it comes down to a sense of control and trust," Fymat said. "If we went immediately, automatically to completely autonomous air taxis with no pilot onboard, passengers would have no sense of control."
But with a resurging pilot shortage that the pandemic merely painted over, it hasn't been decided whether certificated pilots will be at the controls or rather, trained "operators." In either case, Honeywell is making cockpits that are easy to use as possible.
Fymat says eVTOLs will incorporate "simplified vehicle operations" in cockpit designs to make them "simple, intuitive, aesthetic," and "cool." The goal is to both enable a ramp-up of pilots or operators while hopefully easing the minds of flyers.
Honeywell is already leading the charge on advanced cockpit systems including multi-touch display screens and voice-controlled cockpits. Dassault Aviation's new Falcon 10X is powered by Honeywell avionics and designed to eventually fly with only one pilot during cruise flight, once regulations allow.
If flyers can understand what they're looking at in the cockpit, they may be more amenable to the idea of flying on the aircraft. Under the hood, however, will be existing fly-by-wire technology that's used on commercial airliners and makes dangerous maneuvers like high-bank turns or stalls nearly impossible.
Simplified, however, doesn't mean unsafe as safety will be paramount to the success of the new mode of transport. Many aerospace firms are choosing to comply with European Union Aviation Safety Agency certification requirements that have become stricter than the FAA's in the wake of the Boeing 737 Max scandal.
The public will soon become accustomed to eVTOLs as these startups near the finish line and begin to fly their products, just as the public has accepted small drones delivering packages, as Fymat pointed out, and autopilot on airplanes.
And for those on the ground, they'll barely notice the aircraft shuttling passengers above.
"These things, when they take off, the design target is as quiet as your dishwasher at home," Fymat said. "And then when they're flying overhead, you don't hear them."
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