As audiences worldwide await the release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, a few recent developments in transportation technology are taking cues (directly or indirectly) from the technology of a galaxy far, far away.
Last week, the opening ceremony of a new ride at Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, the Star Wars themed land at Walt Disney World, included actual flying X-Wing starfighters, built from Boeing-made drones. There are two important things to take from this development: (1) Boeing is apparently now a supplier for General Leia Organa’s Resistance, and; (2) Boeing is confident enough in their “Cargo Air Vehicle” drone to allow a highly-publicized public display. The all-electric Cargo Air Vehicle flew for the first time earlier this year, and is designed to carry up to 500 lbs. of cargo at a time. I’ve written about aerial delivery drones before, in October and September, but this new Boeing vehicle has a much higher carrying capacity than the smaller drones those articles focused on. Of course, a highly controlled environment like a major theme park is perhaps not as challenging an environment as the vehicles would face elsewhere, the visibility of this deployment raises interesting questions about Boeing’s future plans for the testing and deployment of the vehicles.
Another emerging technology that is attempting to recreate the Star Wars universe here on Earth is flying taxis. A number of prototype flying taxis have been revealed over the past few years, though none have the smooth lines of those seen in Star Wars, or the retro-styling of another sci-fi mainstay, the Jetson’s car. In June, Uber showed off the design of their proposed air taxi, an electric vehicle they will be testing in LA and Dallas in 2020. Industry boosters see a future with many such vehicles crisscrossing major metro areas (hmmm…where have I seen that before…). However, there are a number of challenges:
- How do you make them cost-effective? Aircraft are expensive, and the proposed air taxis are no different. So how do you make them efficient enough to justify their cost? Will making them electric do the trick, or will the cost of batteries and other equipment sink the concept?
- What is the economy of scale for this type of transportation? Right now, Uber offers helicopter flights from Manhattan to JFK Airport for $200-225 a person. If an air taxi ride has similar costs, how many people will really take advantage of them?
- What infrastructure will they need? Where are they going to land? Uber has mocked-up glossy “skyport” designs, which they say will combine street-level mobility with their aerial offerings, but how many of these will be necessary if more than one company operates in a given metro area? Will skyports proliferate? In some cities, like London, there is already a scramble for roof space to transform into landing pads for air taxis and drones.
- How do we regulate these vehicles? Between the aerial taxis and delivery drones, the skies would seem to be primed for traffic jams. Does the FAA retain full control over everything flying, or will states and even municipalities have to step in to help regulate a proliferation of flying vehicles?
Just like connected and automate vehicles, air taxes mix promising new technology with a sci-fi edge. It remains to be seen if air taxis will actually prove cost-effective enough to function for anyone other than the wealthy, but if Disney World’s use of drone X-Wings is any indication, a new hope for aerial vehicles may be just around the corner.
P.S. – Those who are skeptical of self-driving vehicles may have found a new patron saint in The Mandalorian, who turns down a droid-piloted speeder in favor of one driven by a person (also, apparently Uber service in the Outer Rim involves flutes?). To be fair, Mando later has some issues with his adorable companion playing with the controls of his ship, proving that humanoid controlled vehicles are still prone to problems (Han could have told him that).