How small, flying vehicles could transform the way we move around cities 

Key Points
  • Small electric vehicles that fly could be the next form of urban transport to change way we get about.
  • The Volocopter is fully electric, and has 18 rotors.
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Small flying vehicles could transform the way we travel

Small electric vehicles that fly could be the next form of urban transport to be adopted by cities and towns worldwide, according to one business.

German aircraft manufacturer Volocopter has developed its Volocopter 2X — a fully-electric, 18-rotor vehicle that is operated by using a single joystick — with the intention of alleviating current congestion levels.

Florian Reuter, the company's CEO and managing director, told CNBC that "the Volocopter is an entirely novel type of vertical take-off and landing aircraft."

"By its DNA, it's a drone," he added. "So you can fly remotely controlled, it can fly all by itself or you can put a pilot in and have (it)… operated via the joystick."

Reuter said the Volocopter 2X was "all in all" an extremely safe, sustainable and "very quiet" vehicle.

The company's vision is intriguing. Hubs would connect sites including airports and business parks with city centers, with Volocopters taking off every minute to ferry passengers back and forth. This would help, the firm claims, to relieve the "strain" on areas prone to congestion: bridges, ring roads, tunnels and feeder roads.

In 2017, the Volocopter undertook a test flight in Dubai to demonstrate its capabilities. Plans are in place to conduct more tests, Reuter said. "We expect to see a number of demonstrations in relevant environments and cities in 2019." He added that first commercial operations were expected to take place in the next three to five years.

Malcolm McCulloch, associate professor in engineering science at the University of Oxford, told CNBC that the key to ensuring new transport systems were interoperable was making it easy for people to move from one mode of travel to another. "The way we do that is make sure that it's co-located," he said.

This would mean that when a passenger disembarks an airplane, for example, a Volocopter would be ready and waiting to take them to their destination. "And if we're really smart, we'd have the same tickets to enable us to do the complete end-to-end journey."

Could the skies above our street realistically become busy highways used for transport?

"In one sense, we already use the air a lot, for long-distance travel," McCulloch said. "If we're looking at intra-city travel, then I think there is a possibility that it might become more viable, especially as the density of batteries increases and we have high-powered motors — it allows these technologies to become more feasible."

"What the price point is going to be and whether we can get the regulatory environment in place, that's going to be the challenge."