You sit in your car, stranded in gridlock on the express way. In between choking your steering wheel and pounding on it, you imagine your car rising up and flying above the traffic. Unfortunately, despite Back to the Future’s promise, a flying car won’t be an option anytime soon, but flying above traffic may not be far off.
AirSpaceX says it has the answer – a flying taxi.
Back in 2010 Jon Rimanelli, founder and CEO of AirSpaceX, a subsidiary of Detroit Aircraft Corp., noticed a problem. In cities such as Detroit urban populations were growing, and with them the strangle hold of traffic. Detroit is a prime example now that more and more people are living, working and playing in the city.
The growing traffic problem also wastes fuel and increases carbon emissions.
Last year, U.S. drivers wasted an aggregate $300 billion in fuel and productivity sitting in traffic jams, yielding 38 billion pounds of carbon emissions, the company says.
“There is an urgent need for innovation in urban mobility, and I believe on-demand air mobility will go a long way toward reducing pressure on roads while improving the quality of life for commuters on the ground,” says Rimanelli.
It is only natural, given a background in aeronautics and as a pilot, he would look to the sky to release the grip traffic has on our lives.
The plan is to develop a fleet of automated, electric, flying passenger vehicles called MOBi.
AirSpaceX, which is headquartered at the Coleman A. Young Municipal Airport, introduced a sub-scale model of its first vehicle, called MOBi-ONE, at AutoMobili-D during the North American International Auto Show.
“MOBi-ONE will offer clean, quiet, and connected on-demand air mobility to the mass traveling public at an affordable price,” says Rimanelli, “Our vision is to mass produce aircraft leveraging lean automotive design and mass production techniques so our vehicles are affordable to the mass traveling public.”
The vehicle is designed to autonomously takeoff like a helicopter, fly like a plane, and transport passengers or cargo between urban centers, suburbs, and airports within 50 miles. MOBi-ONE will fly at a top speed of 250 mph leveraging existing electric vehicle architecture and autonomous technologies.
This will allow faster public transportation and could potentially open up the city and suburbs to more people without cars. For example, elderly people who need to get to medical specialists would have a new, easier way to get there rather than relying on children, buses, taxis and the like.
“The reality is that everyone believes traffic is a problem,” Rimanelli says, “The auto companies have not been focused on automation to reduce traffic and emissions.”
That leaves the door open for AirSpaceX and MOBi.
A major question that would come up is just where would the vehicles land?
What many people don’t realize is there are 15,000 airports in the United States, but only 150 are commercial. More could be opened up and MOBi vehicles could land there.
There is also the possibility of building landing ports, or even just designating them in already standing areas like the top of parking garages. For both pick up and landings, you need only a 45×45 ft. area for take offs and landings.
Using more airports and building landing ports could lead to robust economic development in those areas.
Neighborhoods nearby need not worry about noise pollution. MOBi is a single motor electric vehicle and no louder than a UPS truck. Its motor will be inspected every 100 hours of flight and replaced every 8,000.
MOBi, which could take you from Cobo to Ann Arbor or Brighton, will actually be able to learn. Equipped with six seats, only five will be available for passengers. One will be saved for the safety pilot.
Part of the job of the safety pilot, aside from the obvious, is to help the aircraft improve with every flight. Each time it takes a trip, the pilot will be on constant communication with the vehicle, sharing data.
“As the machine learns, it will take cues from the safety pilot,” explains Rimanelli.
AirSpaceX participated in AutoMobili-D where more than 50 startups showed off mobility innovations at this year’s North American International Auto Show (NAIAS). The company showed a smaller version of its air taxi. The exhibit helped AirSpaceX make connections with other local businesses and form mutually beneficial relationships.
All this may seem like something out of the current copy of Fantasy and Science Fiction, or at best just another “concept” we never see outside the auto show at Cobo.
But Rimanelli is confident the vehicle will be ready for demonstration by 2020 and up and running in the 50 busiest cities in America by 2026.
The following video gives us a look at the takeoff and landing technique of a proposed second model planned for 2025 with a detachable payload. The version due out in 2020 doesn’t have a detachable payload.
“Our goal is to deploy 2,500 aircraft at the nation’s 50 largest cities by 2026, targeting existing infrastructure at first,” says JP Yorro, chief commercial officer at AirSpaceX. “The MOBi development program will be capital intensive, but air mobility as a service could generate billions for the economy. We are considering a broad array of financing options, including potential fractional ownership interest and profit sharing models.*
Despite this planned expansion into other cities, Detroit is home to AirSpaceX. Access to local companies already working on electronic and automated vehicles and their resources could be invaluable.
All of AirSpaceX talent is homegrown, Rimanelli says. A dozen people already work on the project. Some work at the headquarters on Detroit’s east side, others work in Dearborn, Farmington Hills and Ann Arbor.
AirSpaceX plans to manufacture MOBi in Detroit where much of the infrastructure is in place, Rimanelli says. That could very well translate into jobs because so many people in Detroit are already trained in manufacturing. Rimanelli points out, however, the final decision will be based on what is best for the business.
Future plans don’t just stop with manufacturing. The company is community-minded and hopes to help revitalize the area around the Coleman Young airport.
“We have a very nice space, the area needs to be (nice as well),” Rimanelli says, “If we can set the proper deals with the state and city, we plan to revitalize.”
AirSpaceX’s plan is certainly another sign Detroit continues to assert its role as a global mobility epicenter. It has a long history of advancing mobility with innovation, which includes developing and manufacturing aircraft.
Every school kid learns about the “Arsenal of Democracy” churning out planes in WWII. What many people don’t realize is Detroit was the first place in the world to produce a commercial airliner, the Ford Tri-Motor.
“Bringing back aircraft manufacturing to the city is essential,” says Rimanelli.
Before you jump for joy at the flying car finally being available, Rimanelli stresses MOBi is not a flying car, and he doesn’t think they are possible in the foreseeable future.
Still, this would be as close as any of us will get to zooming around Cloud City, heading to Voigt-Kampf with Deckard, or heading home to Jane Jetson. That alone would be enough to make Detroit and AirSpaceX a symbol of dreams come true.
Detroit certainly continues to be an innovation leader.