Uplink ALPA - The Voice of Aviation

The New Zealand Air Line Pilots' Association Newsletter.

Flying Taxi reality calls for unique approach to regulation

Once the stuff of science fiction and The Jetsons cartoon series, small aircraft ‘taxis’ could be operating commercially in New Zealand skies within six years, calling for a regulatory approach the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) believes will be “unique within the global aviation environment”.

Last month, it was revealed that a new type of autonomous, electric ‘flying car’ prototype named Cora had been covertly tested in Canterbury since October last year. The trial attracted considerable media and public attention, including an enthusiastic Government who’d helped to get the trial literally off the ground.

The Cora prototype can carry two passengers and will be flown by self-piloting software with human oversight from the ground. It has a range of about 100 kilometres and travels up to 150kmh. Cora’s lift propellers cut out once the vehicle gets up to speed, meaning the vehicle is quiet in flight.

Commenting on the trial, NZALPA President Tim Robinson said that while NZALPA supports the development of new technology and innovation in the industry, “We need to remain vigilant to ensure that this technology integrates into our industry and airspace safely and in a well-structured manner.”

This will also mean working with government agencies on both regulation and workforce matters.

“NZALPA supports new advancements in technology and realises the opportunities that they can bring. As with any new technology, we want to make sure that its introduction is appropriately managed to minimise any safety risks and risks to pilots and air traffic controllers,” Robinson said.

Cora’s backers had been talking with New Zealand officials for over 18 months, with multiple government agencies working to pave the way for the trial. For its part, CAA was working to “define a bespoke set of certification requirements” to be applied to Zephyr Airway’s first commercial operation - an approach believed by Deputy Director of General Aviation, Steve Moore, to be unique within the market.

Moore told a Stuff reporter that the 2015 Civil Aviation Rule on unmanned vehicles provided a legal framework and a “sound basis” for operating unmanned aerial vehicles but there were “significant” regulatory challenges still being worked through around how a service would share airspace with other aircraft and how the rules would work when the vehicle was out of sight of those overseeing it.

The project is backed by the US-based Kitty Hawk Corporation, with those involved in its development including former staff from Google (including the so-called ‘Godfather’ of the driverless car), NASA, Boeing and Honeywell.

The New Zealand operator is Zephyr Airworks, headed by Fred Reid. With a long career in aviation, Reid is the former Chief Executive of Virgin America and President of both Lufthansa and Delta Air Lines.

Their intention is for people to eventually use the flying vehicle for trips they typically take by car, to combat the growing problem of vehicle congestion on the ground.

Both Kitty Hawk and Zephyr are convinced this new type of vehicle is the future of transport. Reid told Stuff that the concept would be commonplace “10 or 20 years from now”.

A Kitty Hawk spokesperson said that, compared to road traffic and frequent congestion in many cities, “The air is incredibly big and incredibly empty.”

Reid said he envisages his vehicles initially operating as a fleet managed by Zephyr Airworks, running on set routes under close supervision.

Even though this type of vehicle has never been certified for commercial use anywhere in the world, Kitty Hawk are not the only ones who see potential in an unmanned air taxi. Reportedly Uber are working towards a trial of an air taxi service in Los Angeles, Dallas and Dubai by 2020. German drone company Volocopter started unmanned test flights last September and Airbus plan to test air taxi prototypes by the end of the year.

To read more about the trial and view the video see HERE.

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