Why we need a start ban for air taxis in cities

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The next mobility hype comes at an inopportune time. In the industrialized countries we are currently in the process of reducing traffic noise with electric cars, and new forms of urban noise pollution are already being planned: From America to Europe to Asia, governments are vying to get air taxi and drone services into the air in order to open up the new market of to master three-dimensional individual traffic. But this is a wrong path for inner-city traffic, despite all promises.

Of course, this democratization of urban air travel is fascinating and enticing. Up until now it has been a privilege of wealthy travelers to watch the urban chaos shrink to Lego size from a helicopter and to simply fly over traffic jams and red lights. Air taxi services are now set to make this experience accessible to more people. Only a number of disadvantages outweigh the supposed advantages, as the megacities of Asia prove.

The potential noise pollution from drone fleets stands out as the first risk. The new multicopters will probably be quieter than a standard helicopter. But with mass, they should quickly make up for this potential advantage. Even bundling the mini-planes on special heavenly highways should not solve the problem out of the air, since no noise barriers can be erected in the sky, unlike on motorways on earth.

Martin Kölling lives in Tokyo and regularly writes about developments in Japan for Technology Review. In Asia he can let off steam with his weakness for technology. The only mistake of the hectic location: Because of the constant barrage of digital innovations, he doesn’t often get to end the days comfortably with a book.

Another problem could turn out to be that the air taxi and drone manufacturers, despite all the technical progress, of course, cannot remove the force of gravity. With multiple rotors there may be redundancies against engine failure. Sensors will help avoid collisions with other drones, high-rise buildings or power poles and lines. But with the frequency of air traffic, so does the risk that something will go wrong – and air taxis or drones crash in populated areas.

Delivery drones, which are due to go into commercial service in Japan in 2022, are not a real solution for online retailers either. The question of dropping parcels in cities has so far not really been resolved. And even if it were, drones do not necessarily increase efficiency from the customer’s point of view.

Japan has always tried everything possible with electronics – and often the impossible. Every Thursday our author Martin Kölling reports here on the latest trends from Tokyo.

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Up to now, parcels have often been brought to the front door or, in the case of absence, delivered in the parcel locker, which are already standard in Japanese residential complexes and also come to German cities. So far, drones cannot do both. Their use is therefore likely to be limited to suburbs, corporate customers and, above all, the more sparsely populated areas. The city remains drone-free.

The German drone manufacturer Wingcopter has already shown in southern Japan how its vertical take-off drone can ensure the delivery of small parcel quantities to more remote islands – and thus guarantee security of supply in the countryside. Now the German startup can help the Japanese airline ANA to set up a commercial drone service for the provinces.

My conclusion: In the cities, governments should invest more down-to-earth than looking for a way out of urban traffic hell in the sky. In better local public transport, for example, in cycle paths and completely new traffic concepts that could be offered with autonomous cars. The spread of new work and life concepts, which reduce work and individual traffic instead of maximizing it, also promise more broad impact with less noise and less risk of accidents than the vertical expansion of individual traffic. It will be exciting to see how different countries regulate the new industry.

Autonomous driving, the effects on the transport of people with robotic taxis, people movers, autonomous buses and the necessary techniques and regulations deal with us in a ten-part series.

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