By Rodin Lyasoff · Flight junkie
Flight is about to get a lot more personal, says aviation entrepreneur Rodin Lyasoff. In this visionary talk, he imagines a new golden age of air travel in which small, autonomous air taxis allow us to bypass traffic jams and fundamentally transform how we get around our cities and towns. “In the past century, flight connected our planet,” Lyasoff says. “In the next, it will reconnect our local communities.”
I love airplanes. Oh — I love airplanes. So, when I went to college in the late 90s, it was obvious that I was going to study aerospace. And you wouldn’t believe how many people told me, “Oh no, not aerospace. Aerospace is going to be boring, everything in aerospace has already been done.” Well, they were a little bit off the mark. And in fact, I think the next decade is going to be another golden age for aviation. For one thing, and this is where I get excited, flight is about to get a lot more personal.
So, a little compare and contrast. In the last century, large commercial airplanes have connected cities across the globe. And 100 years ago, it would have been unthinkable for all of us to fly here from around the world for a five-day conference. But we did, and most of us probably without a second thought. And that’s a remarkable achievement for humanity. But on a day-to-day basis, we still spend a lot of time in cars. Or actively trying to avoid it. Some of my best friends live in San Francisco, I live in Mountain View, about 40 miles away. We’re all busy. At the end of the day, we’re separated by something like two hours of heavy traffic. So frankly, we haven’t seen each other in a few months.
Now, I work in downtown San Jose, which is near the airport. And there are actually days when I can leave work, get on a plane and fly to Los Angeles faster than I can drive to San Francisco. Cities are only getting more populated, the roads are full, and it’s really difficult to expand them. And so in a lot of places, there really aren’t a lot of good solutions for getting around traffic.
But what if you could fly over it? The sky is underutilized, and I would argue it will never be as congested as the roads are. First of all, you’ve got a whole other dimension, but also just safety considerations and air-traffic management will not allow bumper-to-bumper traffic in the sky. Which means, in many cases, flying can be a long-term, compelling alternative to traveling on the ground.
So imagine this: you call an Uber, it takes you to a nearby landing spot — we call these vertiports —there’s an airplane waiting for you there, flies you over all of the traffic in the middle, and on the other side, another Uber takes you to your friend’s house. And I said Uber, but I really think we need to congratulate the Lyft branding team for their forward thinking in choosing their brand.
So in that example, OK, there are a few extra steps, I admit. But it’s 30 minutes versus two hours, it costs around 60 dollars, and you get to fly. We’re not there yet, but we are a lot closer than you might think. So one of the first things we need is we need an aircraft that can take off and land in small spaces and quickly take you where you want to go. And helicopters can do that today, but traditionally, helicopters have been just a little bit too expensive, just a little too hard to pilot and just a little too noisy to be used for daily transportation in cities. Well, electric flight and autonomy are changing that.
Electric flight, in particular, unlocks new possibilities for vehicle configurations that we just could not explore in the past. If you use electric motors, you can have many of them around the aircraft, and it doesn’t add a lot of extra weight. And that gives you redundancy and safety. And also, they are cleaner, cheaper and quieter than internal combustion engines. Autonomy allows the transportation network to scale, and I actually think it makes the aircraft safer. Commercial flights are already automated for most of their duration, and I believe there will come a day when we won’t even trust an airplane that required a human to fly.
So, one of our teams at A3 wanted to see just how close this future really was. So they built and flew a prototype of one such vehicle. And they made a point of only using mature, commercially available technologies today. We call it Vahana. It’s fully electric. It takes off and lands vertically, but flies forward like a regular airplane. It’s fully self-piloted. You push a button, it takes off, flies and lands, all by itself.The prototype that you see here is designed to carry a single passenger and luggage. And it can go about 20 miles in 15 minutes.
And our estimate for a trip like that is it would cost around 40 dollars, which you can really build a business around. It has multiple redundant motors and batteries, you can lose one, it will continue flying and land normally. It’s pretty quiet. When it’s flying overhead, it will be quieter than a Prius on the highway. It’s intelligent and has cameras, lidar and radar, so it can detect and avoid unexpected obstacles. And the team really focused on making it efficient, so the batteries are small, light, and they last longer. For reference, the Vahana battery is less than half the size of a Tesla Model S battery. It’s about 40 kilowatt-hours. And you can hot swap the batteries in just a few minutes.
And I do think that in a few years, people will be comfortable getting by themselves in a self-piloted, electric, VTOL air taxi. But the team is busy working on the next version, which is going to carry at least two passengers and fly quite a bit farther. But more importantly, there are over 20 companies around the world working on vehicles just like this one right now. My best guess is in the next five years, you’ll start seeing vertiports in some cities, and little airplane icons on your ride-sharing apps. And it might begin with a dozen, but eventually, we could have hundreds of these, flying around our cities. And it will fundamentally transform our relationship with local travel.
CA: Yours is. I mean, someone comes out of their car, the door opens, they get in, there’s no one else in there. This thing takes off. Could we do a poll here? Because these are early adopters in this room. I want to know who here is excited about the idea of being picked up solo in an auto-flying — Well, there you go!
RL: So, one of the things we’re really focusing on is, really, the cost. So you can really wrap a business around that. And so, that’s why some of the features are really driven by price. And the 40-dollar price tag is really a target that we’re aiming for. Which should make it accessible to a larger crowd than this one.