BERLIN – In a series of talks with inspirational mobility leaders, we are picking the brains of some of the most influential opinion-makers in the industry. We had the pleasure of catching up with Alex Zosel, the Co-Founder of Volocopter, skater legend and air travel visionary. Discussing the future of air taxis, we take a peek at what our cities’ skies could look like in the future.
In 1981, aged just 15, you construed and built one of the first half pipe skate parks in Germany. When you studied civil engineering, you developed your first patent. Now you’ve also built the world’s first autonomous air taxi to take off — and you were the one to fly the prototype! How was that?
I had been waiting for three years to fly it. It was a hard time to wait for the permit and then I could finally do it. Flying the air taxi itself was incredibly different from flying small planes. It was so stable — like you were nailed in the air. It didn’t feel like flying but more like sitting on your sofa at home. It was cool, calm and silent.
The business idea that led to Volocopter was sparked in 2011 when you were working as a paragliding teacher. The thought was to upscale drone technology so that it could actually carry a human. In 2018, you announced inner-city flight tests in Singapore which commenced this year. Is Singapore going to be the first city where air taxis are running as regular fleets?
We cannot say which will be the first city to start application of air fleets. Singapore is a pioneer of new mobility and in comparison to other projects, it is more about finding the first commercial routes and how we can connect them to other mobility services. We are looking at several cities other than Singapore. A lot depends on the permits, what the digital infrastructure looks like and how the air space is integrated. Our aim is to have ten cities up and running in the near future.
What cities are you looking into?
We have a top 50 list. Here we are talking to the authorities of transport and civil society. It is a question of political will. We want to do it worldwide with megacities that have more than eight million inhabitants. But we already have some projects in Europe as well. We have concluded a partnership with Fraport for example, where we are looking at the ground procedures and at how to integrate air taxis into an international airport. We are looking at solutions where we would have air taxis connecting people from their hotels to the airport directly, and making the arrival and check-in process smoother.
As an air taxi visionary, you must have come across a lot of people telling you that your idea would never work, or that it could not be implemented at scale. There are still a lot of voices who are expressing those thoughts today. What would you be telling them?
I tell them concrete stories, and show them what it actually looks like. We published an explanatory video demonstrating how our ecosystem works, displaying different parts of the infrastructure. This video also shows you what a Volocopter hub will look like with parking, battery changing, and people getting in and out of the machine in really short time frames. This makes it all very concrete.
With the vision of aligning air taxis as part of existing transportation systems, I guess that this involves not only physical but also a digital infrastructure connecting different systems. Could you outline what your initial infrastructure proposal would look like and what the timeline is for this?
We have had a fully digital air traffic management in higher air space for years already. Now it is about implementing that in lower space. We would actually need a very similar technology: a 5G net, and perhaps an additional ground-based GPS system. When we made the first autonomous flights in Dubai, our hardware in the air taxi was connected to the Emirates’ system. Our small Volocopter was integrated into their larger system, next to all the gigantic airplanes. So the technology is there, it’s just about defining standards for us. And of course, different countries have different regulations.
If we look at using Volocopter at scale, you talk a lot about operating hubs and ports. Could you explain what this means?
First, we need to build an infrastructure for the battery exchange. Then, we will develop a network with fixed routes, parking, etc. We will also build on-demand ports with landing platforms on hotels or malls for example. Another way is to have ports where you only need some space on the ground. We also believe that you don’t have to fly everywhere with a flying taxi. We only want to fly where it makes sense to do so, and where it is more efficient than any other solution. Our initial goal is to cover the distance between the city center and the airport. In 80% of megacities, this distance is less than 20 miles (ca. 32 km), and we can definitely fly this with our Volocopters today.
What are the perfect use case and target group for Volocopter?
A typical use case is, for example, routes to the convention center or a soccer stadium where you have a lot of congestion or spaces with bridges and tunnels with height differences which makes it very difficult and expensive to change the infrastructure. There, we believe that flying taxis would be useful for commuters, but also maybe for tourists in general. We expect the prices of the batteries to go down in the next 10 or 20 years, which would make it affordable for everybody to use the service.
If we look at the aerial mobility, there are not so many players. Despite this, it seems like design is a key aspect for Volocopter, as is branding. How important is this for you as a company?
In terms of branding, what is very important for us are the authorities. The message we want to bring across is focused more on safety and trust than on having an aesthetically pleasing machine. We want the end consumer to know that Volocopter is safe and comfortable. It’s all about the experience, this will define the brand.
Is Volocopter providing its service directly to the consumer or would you rather use the middle hand?
We want to provide the service directly, but we need partners. So, for example, in Singapore, we control the operations of the aircraft, but we have a partner taking care of the 5G infrastructure. In every city, it will be a different approach, but it is clear that we want to have full control over the safety and quality of our service.
Founded in 2013, Trafi is a Lithuanian tech start-up. Trafi is working shoulder-to-shoulder with cities, countries, and companies worldwide to create the best in class Mobility-as-a-Service alternative for congested cities. Trafi offers cities the possibility to connect all mobility services into one single platform where users can check itineraries and also book their tickets and trips.
Trafi’s mission is to empower cities’ urban transportation with technology and know-how and encourage citizens to use more sustainable modes of transportation by accessing all services into one single platform. Trafi is currently live in 4 continents around the world and 7 cities.