Sky taxis land in time for the Paris Olympics - but will they take off?

VoloCity will whizz visitors around the French capital in the first commercial air taxi

Watch the VoloCity aircraft whizz through the sky

Watch the VoloCity aircraft whizz through the sky
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The prospect of tiny helicopters flying around cities first popped up in Fritz Lang’s 1927 science fiction film Metropolis, but has never truly taken off.

However, a desire by French President Emmanuel Macron to ensure Paris can be shown to be at the forefront of technology and enterprise when the Olympics come to town in 2024 has made it a reality.

While former British prime minister Boris Johnson stuck on a zip-wire was an enduring aerial image of the London Olympics, visitors to Paris may see Mr Macron take to the skies in a flying taxi.

They are expected to whizz passengers over the city's rooftops on a jaw-dropping journey past its historic buildings, below 500 metres, before gently landing them on a specially built pontoon beside the River Seine.

The battery-powered aircraft have been developed by Germany’s Volocopter and will provide the world's first commercial flying taxi service.

Technically known as an electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft, it has body of a conventional helicopter but instead of rotors, it is powered 18 whirling battery-powered propellers.

Dirk Hoke, Volocopter’s chief executive, believes the Paris debut of its air taxi will display technology to the world and mark the dawn of a new era of "urban air mobility".

“This will change the world as we know it,” Mr Hoke told The National.

“Even if it doesn’t happen in one or two years, we will see it slowly ramping up towards the end of the decade and we will see a full acceleration in the 2030s.”

There are now dozens of companies at various stages of developing the aircraft and investment bank Morgan Stanley estimates the market for such planes could be $1.5 trillion by 2040.

But it looks like the VoloCity will steal a march on them, flying two routes in Paris from five new "vertiports".

One goes right into the heart of the city and the other between two of its airports.

At each vertiport there will be passenger terminals, with the showpiece location being the platform by the river.

Mr Hoke is excited by the prospect of seeing the VoloCity take passengers on the memorable ride into the heart of Paris.

“The most thrilling one in my opinion is the one flying into downtown because helicopters are not allowed downtown,” he said.

“That’s spectacular and something that’s going to be really exciting. I’m really looking forward to it.”

VoloCity will have a pilot and just one passenger on board – like the world’s first commercial flight in 1914 – with just enough room for hand luggage.

The six air taxis, with a range of 35km, will operate eight to 10 hours a day with dozens of flights each during daylight hours.

Batteries can be swapped in and out in five-minute pit stops to keep the craft in the air.

In the meantime, Mr Hoke is confident VoloCity is on track to obtain a safety certificate from the European Aviation Safety Agency. It has so far undergone 1,500 test flights.

“There’s no risk that we can delay our certification into 2025 and I guarantee we will get our certification in 2024,” he said.

“And it's not just some ministers who expect us to fly at this time, it’s also the French President.”

Having an air-taxi service at the Games was an idea Mr Macron was keen on to promote France as a tech start-up country.

Mr Hoke said Mr Macron was taken by the idea of urban air mobility as a way of demonstrating that to the world during the Games.

He has been pictured beside a VoloCity plane along with Mr Hoke, who invited him to be an early passenger.

“If we are commercially certified, I can’t see a good reason why this could not potentially be the case,” Mr Hoke said.

But he admits there is work to do to convince an often-sceptical public about the safety of the VoloCity.

“We understand people might be scared but the only way to convince them is for them to see us, like in Paris," Mr Hoke said.

"We have always done surveys of people before test flights and afterwards, and before it’s 50-50 and after they have witnessed it’s above 80 per cent.”

Volocopter is a company with big ambitions. It already has 700 staff and has secured a reported $762 million in investment, with the company valued at $1.7 billion.

In April the company opened its first assembly line, near Stuttgart in southern Germany, capable of producing 50 aircraft a year.

German engineer Mr Hoke joined the company in 2022 from Airbus, where he was chief executive of its defence and space division. He says he jumped at the chance to make history.

"How often do you get the chance to say your company is the first to do a commercial flight of a new concept? For me it was one of the reasons I joined Volocopter."

In June, Volocopter completed a series of flight tests in Neom, the futuristic city being built in Saudi Arabia, as part of the kingdom's push towards sustainable and smart mobility.

By the end of 2026, Volocopter will have developed six-seat aircraft with the aim of offering commuters the chance to beat the traffic, said Mr Hoke.

By the end of 2030 it hopes between 5,000 and 7,000 aircraft every year will be rolling off the production line.

Mr Hoke says that with the world moving towards a situation where 70 per cent of its population will soon live in cities, these aircraft will meet the demand for clean transport.

“The problem is that many of these cities have no option to grow their mass transportation systems," he said.

“So they will need alternatives because their streets are not the solution.

“If everyone has one or two vehicles our infrastructure will not be able to cope with that, so we will need totally new mobility concepts and we will be one that allows you more freedom.”


Updated: August 18, 2023, 6:00 PM