NASA Considers “Air Taxi” System in New Study

Where’s my flying car? Everyone who’s grown up with the idea that you could commute to work in a “The Jetsons”-style flying car in the future might have asked that question. You could even call an Uber-like flying car with an app if you want somebody else to do the driving.

NASA is working with aviation industry professionals to help create an “air taxi” system that will at least get you from the airport to wherever you’re going next. Data from the study is being shared with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to help inform regulation of any future “flying cars” that may have to share airspace with other vehicles like drones and privately owned aircraft. It calls its collaboration the Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) mission.

The Advanced Air Mobility mission could help with development of personal-sized “flying cars” that can provide transportation to and from major installations like airports and hospitals. They could help passengers skip the ground traffic when they travel between cities. They could also deliver goods and even help people with disabilities with their mobility needs without having to hassle with a typical parking lot for ground-based vehicles.

NASA’s AAM is looking into design and operation options, including aircraft landing and takeoff, manufacturing, maintenance, and power sources. NASA is studying air traffic management, automation, noise and safety. The AAM also studies ways that the aircraft can be made more accessible to people with disabilities. NASA’s statement on AAM cited the Americans with Disabilities Act, which sets requirements for services and systems that people living with disabilities may want to use.

As the below video shows, the AAM has already run through several potential scenarios that may impact “flying cars” if and when they become mainstream. It has taken a closer look at possible variables like airspace, ground risk, and air traffic.

Flying cars can exist. Systemic barriers are getting in the way.

NASA cited the more than 5,000 airports in the United States. Many of them might be suitable as a “parking lot” for privately owned aircraft that are only expected to carry the pilot and maybe a passenger or two. However, they do not often come with ready access to parts of their cities that most people might want to walk to from the “parking lot.” That includes downtown areas and hotels.

A 2019 Reportlinker report listed the following barriers to full adoption of flying cars:

  • Regulatory barriers
  • Certification process
  • Technological challenges
  • Performance & reliability
  • Cost issues
  • Battery technology
  • Safety
  • Pilot training
  • Semi-autonomous and autonomous technologies
  • Emissions
  • Landing infrastructure

Would it be possible to build parking garages equipped for flying cars near the downtown area? It could work it they are equipped with VTOL technology and maybe some “parking assist” software for the aircraft so a pilot wouldn’t have to eyeball it. Then the aircraft could taxi to a designated parking spot in one of the upper levels of the parking garage. Just don’t forget where you parked.

Another concern: What happens if you’re trying to land at the parking garage and miss? It’d be easy to hit a nearby building. Some of the issue could be mitigated with collision-avoidance tools, but even they can go so far. It could lead to a regulatory requirement that aircraft-equipped parking garages can only be built so close to tall buildings that could get hit if an aircraft misses.

This potential issue is just one of several potential safety issues. According to NHTSA statistics, driver error is already one of the most common contributors to fatal car crashes. It’s why awareness campaigns make such a big deal about distracted or drunk driving. The issue could get worse if “drivers” have to think in three dimensions instead of just two.

NASA thinks that at least some of the safety issues could be mitigated by having “highways” for flying cars. It recently collaborated with private industry, academia, and other government agencies on tabletop exercises to begin developing the concept of aerial routes for aircraft. The tabletop exercises aimed to develop a better understanding of technical, operational, and regulatory gaps related to flying cars.

“A big advantage of flight tabletops is we have the ability to think through a whole mission from a holistic standpoint and examine every piece that’s required to make it work. The answers arising from these exercises are what will allow these revolutionary new forms of transportation to operate in the real world,” said AAM National Team flight engineer Brad Snelling.

It’s not that “flying cars” that you could park in your garage like your ground car can’t exist. Delorean Aerospace wants to make it so you don’t need roads with its DR-7 concept. Airbus, Audi, Kitty Hawk, and Toyota are working on them. Elon Musk floated the idea of an electric flying car capable of vertical takeoffs and landings, though that may have been waylaid by other important things like getting manufacturing for the Tesla Semi up and going. Uber has expressed interest in the “air taxi” concept.

The below video shows a potential contender that is humorously called the “Jetson One.” It’s a fully electric aircraft that looks suitable for a single pilot.

Planes like the Jetson One could perhaps be flown by someone with a license similar to the FAA’s sport pilot license. This license puts the most restrictions on what a pilot can do, but could be seen as not much different from a typical person’s driver’s license.

NASA is definitely interested in helping solve at least some of these issues with its Advanced Air Mobility mission. It could help solve some of the accessibility, infrastructure, and regulatory issues by taking on some of the work and communicating with regulatory agencies like the FAA.