Move over Star Wars – the future of flying is set to play out in the skies over Dubai.
With enough space for a pilot and four passengers, and with expected speeds of up to 322kph, Joby Aviation’s flying taxis – or electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft – could revolutionise not only air travel but the travel industry in general.
Dubai is one of the first cities in the world to commit to using flying taxis and work is under way to build vertiports or launch pads at four locations across the emirate.
But while some of the first commercial experiences of the flying taxis are expected to play out in Dubai, the building of these game-changing vehicles is happening in a surprising part of the world: last month, Joby Aviation announced a new, $500 million facility to build its eVTOLs – not in California, where it is headquartered, but in corn country in south-west Ohio.
The new plant, to be constructed close to an airport outside the city of Dayton, will employ up to 2,000 people and pump out 500 aircraft a year. Joby Aviation hopes to launch commercial flights in 2025.
But why Ohio, thousands of kilometres from established tech centres in Silicon Valley or New York?
The answer partly lies in history. America’s first plane factory was built by Orville and Wilbur Wright in Dayton in 1910, where the brothers turned out four planes a month.
Several years prior, the Wright brothers became the first people to successfully fly a manned aircraft at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, changing the course of human history.
“Dayton has a tremendous history in aviation – it’s the birthplace of flight where the Wright brothers worked to develop and test their revolutionary aircraft,” a Joby Aviation representative told The National.
Tradition aside, Dayton and surrounding cities have long-standing aviation infrastructure.
Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, the largest single-site employer in Ohio, has attracted a growing ecosystem of aviation and aerospace start-ups and other companies in recent years.
Dubai's flying taxi could connect emirate's major tourist spots – video
The US Air Force Research Laboratory, a key military research and development facility that is headquartered at the base, has played a key role in developing the flying taxis.
“We received tremendous support in Ohio at every level of the community. We have a history here, working in Ohio since 2020 through our [Department of Defence] contract,” the Joby Aviation representative added.
“The existing talented workforce played an important role, as did our ability to secure a site that’s on an airport, with an initial facility built and ready to go that is close to Wright-Patterson.”
Perhaps just as consequential are the generous tax breaks the state has promised Joby, thought to amount to more than $200 million through a range of programmes and avenues.
Ohio beat out bids from North Carolina, Michigan and California to host the new plant.
Joby has been testing its aircraft alongside Nasa engineers in Ohio for years. In nearby Springfield, the US Air Force has been involved in building a new National Advanced Air Mobility Centre of Excellence, which will serve as a working home for companies from South Korea and elsewhere.
The company’s stocks have soared in recent months since the US Federal Aviation Administration approved its flying taxis for initial testing. In 2020, the company received funding from Saudi Arabia's Jameel Investment Management Company.
But none of this means the revolution in transport will be quick and painless.
Like any airborne vehicle used commercially, safety requirements and regulations are likely to be extremely high.
Meeting such requirements is likely going to require highly educated and skilled workers, whether they are trained in-house or at local colleges and universities. Some experts believe that may be a challenge.
“I think a lot of these roles are going to be a lot more high-tech than what it was in the past,” said Annelies Goger of Brookings Metro, a Washington-based think tank, referring to the factories that built vehicles across the Midwest throughout the 20th century.
“The challenge is going to be how you find people who have skills.”
The history and culture of manufacturing in America’s Midwest may help: with world-leading vehicles and other technology produced in the industrial heartland for decades, there is an ingrained culture of production and innovation – at least among older residents – that companies such as Joby may look to revive when it comes to recruiting talent.
“Given the dynamics of the labour market right now and the demographics that younger generations are smaller than baby boomers, it’s going to be interesting to see how they message and recruit people and how they market the plant,” Ms Goger said.
Meanwhile, Joby Aviation has been moving closer to its end goal of getting paying passengers into its aircraft and into the skies.
Last month, it announced the delivery of its first aircraft to the US Air Force. This month, it released footage of the first manned flights of its eVTOLs in California – until now, the aircraft had been controlled remotely from engineers on the ground.
The company was recently feted as a solid investment stock, and a partnership with Delta Air Lines that would give customers travelling in New York and Los Angeles the opportunity to use the flying taxis to get to and from airports is sure to garner headlines.
From their eternal resting places on a hillside in Dayton, the original aviators, the Wright brothers, must surely be proud.