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  • Writer's pictureTech Forecast Digest

What’s a VTOL?

Vehicles in the future will have autonomous ground and air capabilities including self-driving cars and small vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft for personal human transportation and for package delivery.

The use of small commercial vertical takeoff and landing vehicles (VTOLs) may be one the most significant changes to our daily lives during the next 20 years. These VTOLs technologically and economically will be viable in that period. The challenges (and they are very significant) for the widespread use of VTOLs are operational.

In the year 2038, a 34 year old product manager, Kerry, orders a personal vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) vehicle and asks to be taken to her office. In route, Kerry engages in a collaborative meeting with co-workers via her heads-up hands-off virtual display.

She uses augmented information controlled by voice, hand, eye movements and basic brain-machine signals. Kerry and her colleagues manipulate and edit a virtual 3D image of prototype packaging for a new product.

The VTOL arrives at a public landing area near Kerry’s office and links to wireless inductive charging to recharge while waiting for its next ride request.

VTOLs will be enabled by strong and light materials; advanced battery, electric motor and propeller design; autonomous control systems; GPS; collision avoidance systems and ride scheduling applications. Large (e.g., Airbus, Bell Helicopter, Uber, etc.) and small companies already are producing concept vehicles and working prototypes of small autonomous VTOLs.

Several challenges must be overcome for small VTOLs to be practical. The confidence of users must be established.

Some are concerned about the safety of autonomous VTOLs. When compared to the 1.5 million annual deaths worldwide from car accidents, however, VTOL travel likely will be much safer.

Shared rides will be a significant use of small VTOLs, so personal security with fellow passengers also is important. Video and information systems will help secure shared VTO: passengers.

Government regulation of air traffic must quickly change to accommodate the presence of autonomous VTOLs. Even with quieter electric motors and propellers, noise from VTOLs will be difficult to manage especially in residential neighborhoods. Noise levels of 80 decibels or less (the noise level of city traffic) for the typical listener may be required along with time-of-day restrictions.

In addition, landing areas in residential neighborhoods (considering trees, sharing streets with cars, etc.) are a significant challenge. Residential neighborhoods have been designed for cars, not small VTOLS.

If the noise and landing area issues cannot be overcome, small VTOLs will be relegated to more public common areas making them less useful and prevalent (more like public buses or trains) than if the VTOLs can pick up passengers at their residences.


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