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A network of flying taxi stops that connects Dubai's major tourist spots, with a ride costing little more than the average Careem to hail — this is the ambition of the emirate's public transport chief.
While this is not the first time Dubai has set out its vision for the futuristic mode of travel, once pandemic-related delays and regulatory hurdles are cleared the dream of flying taxis could soon be realised, Ahmed Bahrozyan, chief executive of the Public Transport Agency, told The National.
In 2017, German mobility company Volocopter tested a pilotless two-seater drone in Dubai. It flew 200 metres into the air for about four minutes before descending back down to Earth.
“The significance of [that flight] was Dubai wanted to announce itself as one of the governments that was very keen to introduce such an urban air-taxi service in the city,” Mr Bahrozyan said.
At the time, Dubai authorities believed it would take about five years for that vision to become a reality.
“Since then, we've been following the industry, we've been talking a lot to the main players, we feel that the project is back on track,” he said.
While no contracts have been signed, US mobility company Joby Aviation, which makes the aircraft, and UK company Skyports Infrastructure, which develops the take-off and landing spots, have a big presence at the Government Summit (WGS) in Dubai this week, alongside the Roads and Transport Authority.
Bringing all three together — manufacturer, infrastructure and regulator — “helps us move markets forward”, Duncan Walker, chief executive at Skyports, told The National, on the sidelines of the summit, adding that the company is “working on” a partnership with RTA.
A model on display at WGS shows an air-taxi station next to Dubai International Airport, the world's busiest. It has two parking decks below the take-off and landing field with spaces for electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft (eVTOLs) to recharge their batteries before taking off again.
Mr Bahrozyan said Downtown Dubai, the Marina and The Palm Jumeirah would be the first to build the infrastructure because of their population density and tourist attractions.
The Joby prototype is a silent, battery-operated aircraft with seats for a pilot and four passengers. It can fly for more than 240km before needing to be recharged. This would put Abu Dhabi and the Northern Emirates within range of Dubai, the transport chief pointed out.
The aircraft takes off and lands vertically — while its rotors tilt forward in flight — and can reach a maximum speed of 320kph. The company says it has completed more than 1,000 successful test flights.
“We've been promised flying taxis since the '60s,” Oliver Walker-Jones, head of communications at Joby, told The National. “The future really is in touching distance now.”
Joby is in the process of being certified by the US aviation oversight body, the Federal Aviation Administration, which has the most stringent safety standards in the world. Once it is passed, the UAE would grant a reciprocal certification.
“We feel that in the next three years, we will have aircraft that are certified internationally,” Mr Bahrozyan said.
Dubai is not the only city with flying ambitions. France opened a testing ground for electric air taxis at the end of last year, aiming to provide the world's such service in time for next year's Summer Olympics in Paris, Bloomberg reported at the time.