What will the future look like, you ask? Well, if they figure it all out, short-haul flights with just a few passengers could be a feasible plan in a couple of years.
O’Brien’s research into electric aircraft led him to NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley where he had the opportunity to test the legendary Vertical Motion Simulator (VMS). The simulator has the largest motion range in the world, being capable of traveling up to 60 feet vertically and 40 feet laterally, according to NASA.
But engineers have to consider the logistics of it all before letting the new air traffic control scheme take off. There are security and safety concerns to address, such as monitoring the flights and dealing with the poor, unreliable GPS and cellular signals at low altitudes in cities.
Then there’s also the question of securely transmitting flight-related info across shared cloud networks.
Last but not least, air taxis have to be able to operate safely alongside conventional aircraft.
The ultimate goal is for air taxis to become autonomous, in other words, to be able to safely fly without the need of a pilot. They have to take off, navigate, land, and deal with emergencies on their own while being digitally controlled from the ground.
O’Brien’s trip to the Ames Research Center was broadcasted on Nova’s TV special The Great Electric Airplane Race, airing Wednesday night on PBS.