Energy company CEO leads successful test of flying taxi, but obstacles await


Tue, Sep 11, 2018 - Page 10

The founder of one of Britain’s national energy suppliers has a new company, and he intends for it to offer inter-city flying taxi services that take off and land vertically, within the next four years.

Vertical Aerospace, led by chief executive officer Stephen Fitzpatrick, and with former Airbus SA and Boeing Co engineers on staff, has completed its first successful test flight of an uncrewed prototype vehicle.

“We’ve focused on the market of short-distance travel between cities,” he said in an interview. “We expect our piloted vehicles will take people from one city to the next by leaving closer to people’s homes, not necessarily at airports.”

Fitzpatrick’s firm, which he has financed personally, is by no means the only player in the global race to produce vertical take-off and landing vehicles, and many of his competitors have bigger head starts.

Airbus and Boeing have well-advanced plans for flying taxis, with Boeing chief executive officer Dennis Muilenburg saying in January that “real prototypes” are being built with a view that self-piloted crafts could be hovering above city streets within a decade.

However, Fitzpatrick, who is also the chief executive officer of Ovo Energy Ltd, is not new to the world of cutting-edge vehicle technology and is confident that his team of engineers can deliver on his ambition.

In 2015, a year before founding Vertical Aerospace, he bought the Manor Marussia Formula One team, days before administrators were to auction its racing cars after it ran into a financial crisis.

“I saw a business opportunity in applying Formula One technology to aviation to transform short-haul travel and make routes like London to Madrid shorter by getting rid of the need to take off from a runway,” he said.

The company said the test flight of its uncrewed all-electric prototype, which looks like a car-sized version of many popular consumer drones, was successfully demonstrated at a small English airport in June.

It could only fly for about five minutes, but is capable of forward speeds of up to 80kph, a spokeswoman for the start-up said.

Piloted models with a small number of passengers are targeted to travel distances of 800km.

The UK’s Civil Aviation Authority granted permission for Vertical Aerospace to conduct its test flight, but tremendous regulatory headwinds exist for any company investing in this technology.

For example, what is a reasonable amount of backup energy to require for flight-capable electric vehicles? Will pilots need a license?

“We’ve taken the view that it’ll take a long, long time before regulators and passengers are okay with this,” Fitzpatrick said.