Image credit: Alaka’i
A flying taxi is once again taking centre stage as Alaka’i Technologies have developed the Skai prototype. It is a hydrogen-powered eVTOL flying taxi with an impressive 400-mile range that can comfortably seat five passengers. What’s more is that they are actually in the process of getting FAA certification which means it could be in our skies sooner than we think.
Hydrogen VTOL Flying Taxi
The Skai flying taxi has a hydrogen fuel cell powertrain that avoids the energy issue surrounding battery-powered aircraft. Thanks to Alaka’i Technologies’ hydrogen powertrain, it has a range of up to four hours or 400 miles (640 km). While hydrogen is certainly difficult to handle in an automotive context, it may just be the saving grace in the electric aviation sector. It could be exactly what we need to get VTOL multi-copter flying taxis off the ground.
At the moment, lithium battery technology doesn’t offer enough energy density which really limits the range. However, hydrogen can save the day offering up to 10 times more energy density along with gasoline-quick refuelling. There are challenges though in terms of the inefficiencies in producing, transporting and storing it. That said, these challenges could be better managed in an aviation model compared to a total roll out across the entire road network.
Building The Prototype
The Massachusetts-based Alaka’i Technologies has spent the last four years working their hydrogen-powered flying taxi which they recently launched in California. They are operating with funding from a sole investor who has helped it through design, development, prototyping and the current FAA certification. The certification should be possible before the end of 2020 because of the airframe simplicity says Alaka’i CEO, Steve Hanvey.
Next-Level Aircraft Design
The aircraft itself looks simple enough featuring a six-rotor multi-copter with big carbon propellers. It was co-designed by Designworks, the design innovation studio for BMW. There are no coaxial props, ducted fans, tilting elements, wings or pusher props as the Skai works more like a drone. It requires thrust at all times to remain airborne which suggests that future models with wing lift capability in forward flight will improve the range even further.
For the initial design and launch, the company preferred using an actual pilot instead autonomous technology. This means there is enough room for five occupants including the pilot. Alaka’i did confirm that they are definitely looking at making it pilotless in the future.
As with road vehicles, safety is always at the top of the list but even more so with a flying taxi. For that reason, the Skai has built-in redundancies with the six props where it can still fly even if a few of them fail.
In the unlikely event of total failure, it also has an “Airframe Parachute” to bring it down softly and safely. While this is an admirable concept, it’s still a parachute and even the best ones take some time to open and slow down a fall. That means it’s almost useless if has to deploy below a certain altitude which makes for an interesting debate as to how Alaka’i will deal with the “death zone”.
While there are many flying car concepts out there, Alaka’i says they are planning and designing “all touchpoints, digital, physical and service”. This shows that they are intent on owning the entire operation instead of tapping into a theoretical service much like Uber Elevate.
The prototype certainly looks the part and the powertrain has a genuine chance to beat the battery guys to the punch. Even more important is that the 4-hour or 400-mile range makes the Skai immediately viable, useful and profitable. Of course, all of this depends on whether it gets certified so all eyes are definitely on the Skai concept.
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