The Volocopter is a vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft designed to complement public transport systems in megacities as an autonomous electric air taxi. DirectIndustry e-magazine interviewed Alexander Zosel, co-founder and CIO.
DirectIndustry e-magazine: It seems flying cars are longer science-fiction. How did you push the concept and manage to enroll investors, big companies like Intel and countries like Dubai?
Alexander Zosel: When we started developing the Volocopter in 2011, we were absolute pioneers in the area. Most people could not yet imagine that our proof of concept flight on a yoga ball marked the beginning of electric air taxis in cities. By now, the topic has become mainstream and the whole world is excited by the prospect of escaping rush hour.
Two of the key factors in convincing investors have been our diligent commitment to safety, and that as pioneers in the field we are approximately three years ahead of most projects regarding testing and data collection. This experience has allowed us to improve our technology continuously. And rest assured: Intel and Daimler test the technology and team to the core before putting millions of euros in any company.
DirectIndustrye-magazine: One of the strengths of your vehicle is its redundant system.
A.Z: All critical flight elements of the Volocopter exist several times over. We can lose any one of our nine batteries, several of our 18 rotors and even a flight control while still continuing to fly safely. Only a very safe system will be licensed by authorities responsible for mass transport and commercial flight, especially over highly populated areas.
DirectIndustry e-magazine: Your VTOL is also 100% electric. Did this help convince the public authorities?
A.Z: It is a combination of clean and quiet. We believe these two aspects are quintessential for gaining acceptance as a means of mass transport in large cities. Any new transport mode introduced to cities will need to be environmentally conscious considering the current impact of pollution. The kind of noise and noise levels also need to be considered. Take a helicopter, their sound travels fast and has a very aggressive signature. A city full of thousands of aircrafts that are loud and high on emissions will not be tolerated by inhabitants or city authorities. Our Volocopter is comparatively quiet as it has several smaller rotors and produces a low buzz sound not unlike a beehive.
DirectIndustry e-magazine: Is the plane connected to an air-traffic controller?
A.Z: Think of the commercial airlines we use today. They are all connected to an Air Traffic Management system (ATM). A new system will need to be developed for the lower air space inside cities. Companies, regulators and institutions across the world are already working on such a system, which not only tracks Volocopters, but also delivery drones, professional drones and construction sites for example. All participants of the system will communicate with one another as well as with a control center to ensure safe travels.
A.Z: As holds true for any aircraft, the Volocopter will not be able to fly in extreme weather conditions such as storms or hail. It is equipped with dozens of sensors constantly checking for turbulence and winds. All information gathered is sent directly to the motors so they can counteract them instantly by adapting the rotor speed. The pilot or autonomous flight system is at that point only responsible for giving directions. A smooth flight is already ensured by the system itself. If the conditions are such that it is unsafe for flight, the system will realize that itself and land at the nearest port.
DirectIndustry e-magazine: There is no complex mechanics involved. How did you manage to make this flying vehicle so mechanically uncomplicated?
A.Z: The Volocopter was inspired by toy drones that started to be sold in toy stores around 2010. Mechanical simplicity is key to drone technology; as it is for us. In fact, with drone technology the complexity of flight moved away from mechanics and towards software. An area our co-founder Stephan Wolf is an expert in. With his know-how we were able to scale up and improve the individual components of a drone to make our current Volocopter. This involves many sensors registering and processing vast amounts of data about the position of the aircraft and its surroundings. This information is turned into commands for the motors to adapt rotor speeds and ensure a smooth flight.
DirectIndustry e-magazine: The Volocopter will soon be deployed in Dubai. How many vehicles will your expected fleet include?
A.Z: The number of necessary vehicles per city varies according to the number of inhabitants, the already existing infrastructure and the geographical characteristics. For megacities we do expect there to be fleets of thousands of Volocopters that can carry hundreds of thousands of passengers each hour.
DirectIndustry e-magazine: Do you expect to have Volocopters deployed one day in cities like Paris where there are a lot of traffic jams?
A.Z: In the next few years we will see the first Volocopter point-to-point routes. This will most likely be in a city where mobility can only be added in the sky, because there is no more space to build roads, tunnels or bridges. Within 15 years, Volocopters will be available as a mode of transport in most mega cities. Infrastructure is required in any case with spaces to take-off and land as well as to charge the exchangeable batteries. This infrastructure can be built in a matter of months, much faster and at lower costs than streets for example. Autonomous air taxis are coming and they are coming much faster than you think.