Going up with air taxi service

April 14, 2021

Suchithra RajendranFlying cars are closer than ever to being a reality. But with this new technology comes operational questions that Suchithra Rajendran is attempting to answer.

Rajendran, assistant professor of industrial and manufacturing systems engineering with a joint appointment in the Trulaske College of Business, has been researching air taxi service (ATS) since 2017. Her research, though, dives into both the air taxi planning and operations, such as estimating the potential demand, and network design.

“People need to look at the operational side of things. For example, what do you do with air taxis once they’re built? At what time should air taxis be available?” she said. “That is something I am looking at right now, and not many researchers are doing that.”

Air Taxi Functionality

One possible method for air taxi service identified by Rajendran is a blend of ride in a vehicle with a public transportation system. A car would come pick you up at your home, workplace or other location, or you could independently travel to a nearby “vertistop” station. At this station, you would take off vertically, similar to a helicopter, but in a small vehicle. Next, the air taxi would travel to the closest station to your destination and land vertically. Finally, you could be driven to your destination or take another mode of transportation to wherever you are going.

Her research into ATS operations and urban air mobility leads her to believe one will become a reality somewhere soon.

“Several companies are looking at venturing into Los Angeles and Dallas. And in Dubai, they have a test facility already in place,” Rajendran said. “In 2023, Uber plans to venture into the market. In my opinion, though, after companies obtain security clearances and everything, it will be closer to 10 years.”

Large metropolitan areas are prime candidates because of current traffic congestion issues. She hypothesizes having an ATS could alleviate those issues on top of reducing commuters’ stress by reducing travel time. Air taxis could take you from one side of a city to another in minutes due to an average speed of 170 miles per hour. Additionally, these air taxis will be electric, providing for a cleaner environment due to fewer emissions.

Rajendran thinks an ATS system could be in Kansas City or St. Louis within 20 years, depending on consumer interest, required infrastructure and other factors. One factor that could lessen this time frame is if a market develops to take tourists up for an air taxi ride, similar to helicopter tours.

Researching Additional Transportation Modes

Beyond ATS, Rajendran researches other advanced modes of transportation, including European high-speed rail services and hyperloop, and how those services might work in the U.S. One trend she has noticed is that people have started to prefer high-speed rail in Europe over flying to their destination.

“This is primarily because there is a three hour wait for security checks, and also there is a restriction on baggage for airlines,” she said. “Trains don’t have those and there is the flexibility of being able to get up and stretch your legs. In addition, trains have low CO2 emissions compared to airlines.”

High-speed trains, by definition, travel at least 200 kilometers per hour (km/h), or 124 miles per hour (mph). Newer trains with newer tracks can usually go 250km/h, or 155 mph. So, a train rider could be up to 465 miles into their journey before a flight to the same location takes off.

As she continues to research and review literature for advanced transportation modes, Rajendran thinks ATS systems will be very impactful.

“With traffic going up every year and cities expanding, traffic congestion may never be solved,” she said. “I feel air taxi services has the potential to literally reduce the issue of traffic congestion.”