Boeing, the US aerospace giant, conducted the first flight test of its prototype unmanned air taxi it calls a passenger air vehicle (PAV) on January 22 in Manassas, Virginia. The unspectacular flight test — takeoff, hover at about 50 feet, and landing — lasted less than a minute, but successfully demonstrated the aircraft’s functioning autonomy and ground control systems. The pusher propeller behind the fuselage, for fast and efficient winged flight, was not engaged during the test. The company says the transitions to and from vertical and forward-flight modes (so-called outbound and inbound) are typically the most significant engineering challenges for any high-speed Vertical Takeoff and Landing (VTOL) aircraft; transitions will be tackled in future flight tests.
The air taxi is 30 feet (9.14m) long and 28 feet (8.53m) wide, with 8 rotors arranged on two booms using distributed electric propulsion providing vertical lift. The target range is 50 miles (80 km) on a full charge. There are two passenger seats; the vehicle was unoccupied for the test flight. The landing gear on this version are four small pads, necessitating dollies for positioning the aircraft on its pad, although the long booms supporting the rotors could conceivably be outfitted with wheels, skids or even pontoons.
Boeing’s NeXt division has been tasked with leading the company’s urban air mobility (UAM) projects while Aurora Flight Sciences, the subsidiary acquired in November 2017, had already flown a quarter-scale model of the prototype earlier that year in April, including transitions. Aurora is a partner in the Uber Elevate program which seeks to accelerate air taxi adoption in the US and elsewhere; other partners include Embraer, Bell Helicopter, Karem Aircraft which replaced Carter Aviation/Mooney, Pipistrel Aircraft, and ChargePoint. Boeing NeXt is also working on a cargo air vehicle (CAV) with a 500 lb (227 kg) payload, which has flown with tethered power inside a hangar and will have outdoor flight tests this year, according to Boeing.
NeXt is also spearheading for Boeing the complex challenge of working with government regulators to develop the rest of the ecosystem necessary for manned and unmanned eVTOL (Electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing) flight. Airworthiness certification with system redundancies and safety equipment such as vehicle parachutes, Unmanned Air Traffic Management (UTM or U-space) integrated in the national airspace (NAS), ground infrastructure such as heliports with charging and maintenance facilities, all with major software components, will be necessary before passengers can reserve ridesharing in air taxis on their smartphones.