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“Urban Air Mobility”: The future of mobility is in the air

Interview with Alexander Zosel, Cofounder and Chief Innovation Advisor of Volocopter GmbH

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European Business: A Germany daily newspaper recently featured the headline “Flying cars are coming” and reported on Volocopter in this context. To what extent does the description “flying car” even apply?

Alexander Zosel: We don’t identify with the description “flying car”. A car drives, and we fly. A car has wheels, and the Volocopter has skids. There are indeed so-called flying cars, but the term doesn’t apply to Volocopter.

European Business: “Urban Air Mobility” is seen as a trend in the metropolises of the world. Is it a matter of simply moving taxi traffic from the ground to the sky, or is there more to it?

Alexander Zosel: “Urban Air Mobility” is an invention of ours, so to speak. We’re pioneers in the field. The first manned test aircraft flew in 2011. Since then we’ve been trying to establish and improve mobility in the air. We used to be derided for it, but today, the whole thing is mainstream. The advantage of “Urban Air Mobility” lies in the low costs for building infrastructure. Other innovations are much more costly. We just need take-off and landing sites. There, we need some infrastructure – for instance to change batteries, service the aircraft and park. However, these costs are very low. That makes this kind of mobility so effective and ecologically worthwhile.

Alexander Zosel, Cofounder and Chief Innovation Advisor of Volocopter GmbH
“The advantage of urban air mobility lies in the low costs for building infrastructure.” Alexander Zosel

In the future, there will be a lot of different forms of mobility: For instance, cars could travel through tunnels. There will be places where these tunnels, as well as cable cars and overpasses, make sense. We’ve analyzed that mobility in the air is ecologically cheaper to achieve in large visions and large numbers. We also call ourselves “Infrastructure on demand,” meaning we can set up the first routes. If it then becomes apparent that the route isn’t useful after all, you can have the aircraft fly from the points in another direction or move it completely to another route. You need almost no infrastructure for it at all. That’s an immense advantage when testing the first routes.

European Business: At the moment, the Volocopter isn’t self-flying – even with conventional motor vehicles, this isn’t possible without restrictions. Are legal regulations hindering technical advancement here?

Alexander Zosel: Technical advancement isn’t being hindered at all. In aviation, autonomous flying is everyday business. All the airliners actually fly completely autonomously. That’s the reality because we can regulate airspace very well. That means that aircraft register where they are and to where they’re flying. All that is entered into and coordinated in systems. There will then be such systems downtown as well, for instance. So, the technology for the Volocopter already exists more or less. It just needs to be adapted.

 

At the moment, it’s still preferred to have someone on board who flies along and is responsible. But even the first piloted systems will already be highly automated. The pilot will be more of a control center operator. You have to be very talented to fly a helicopter. It’s comparable to a musical instrument: It’s not enough to be just an average percussionist. You have to feel it from your hands to your feet to be in control of it all even in critical situations. That’s no longer the case with highly autonomous flight systems. At the beginning, it does make sense to have a pilot flying along. But when you consider the overall safety situation, you can say: A pilot will always make more mistakes than a very safe, approved system.

For flying taxis, there is now a new basis for approval from the European Authority for Aviation Safety (EASA), for whom we have worked as a manufacturer. In it, it clearly states that aircraft can be operated autonomously or even controlled remotely from the outside. A year and a half ago, we didn’t expect there to be an international, commercial approval for remotely operated aircraft carrying passengers. The standards behind it have a very high level of safety. We have to demonstrate the same level of security as the commercial airliners. That means that a flying taxi that’s out and about downtown is as safe as an airplane.

Alexander Zosel, Cofounder and Chief Innovation Advisor of Volocopter GmbH
“We have to demonstrate the same level of security as the commercial airliners.” Alexander Zosel

European Business: With Daimler investing, Volocopter has a heavyweight in the automotive industry. How present is the corporation in your daily work?

Alexander Zosel: All our company cars are from Mercedes. The cars transport us from our plant to the headquarters and back every day. (laughing.) Intel is our shareholder, as well. They are large global corporations with different focuses. We’re very happy with Daimler because we get a lot of input and cooperate in different sectors. We frequently have access from expert committees and workshops with top people from Daimler. That helps us a lot. We hope that cooperation with such an automotive company will enable us to build large volumes of very high-quality aircraft there. We’re working on being able to produce the aircraft in large quantities in the future. The expertise that the automotive companies have – autonomous systems, battery technology for e-mobility and especially the large volumes that are produced – is exactly what we’re aiming for. That’s why Daimler is the partner of our dreams.

“We’d like to set up the first test routes on all continents of the world at the same time.” Alexander Zosel

European Business: A question to conclude: In your opinion, in what region or metropolis will we experience the first functioning flying taxi service, and why there?

Alexander Zosel: I’m afraid I can’t say, but for a good reason: We’d like to set up the first test routes on all continents of the world at the same time. At what point then the first test route will become a service that anyone can use depends of course on the conditions there. We’re starting to set up in Singapore and have already opened an office there. We’ve identified about 50 cities worldwide where we have contact with the authorities. Once everything is cleared with the authorities, we begin planning where and with which partners we want to cooperate in the town. We’re actually pretty far along in some cities already, but I can’t say anything concrete about it. Our focus is currently on cities of more than eight million inhabitants. In Germany, there are also suitable areas of high population density, for example in the Ruhr region. There are also problems here that could be solved with it. In general, we first aim at the large megacities. The Volocopter is not meant to circumvent the traffic on the freeway. There are other aircraft for that – but they’re also louder. In large cities there are a lot of places where you can directly integrate the Volocopter because there are massive traffic problems on short routes. These problems are everywhere, but with the Volocopter, we’re solving them in the city.

Interview: Aurelia Leppen | Photos: Volocopter

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