Jun 10, 2022 - Technology

Flying taxis, delivery drones and more are finally taking off

Illustration of a taxi in the sky with small molting wings

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Once far-fetched dreams for the future of transportation — delivery drones! driverless trucks! air taxis! — are starting to become reality, thanks in part to huge capital investments and technology advancements.

Why it matters: We're still in the very early stages of a historic transformation in the movement of people and goods. But some of the pioneers in that climate-driven revolution are notching unmistakable progress in their quest to reinvent mobility.

Driving the news: Axios got to be a fly on the wall this week at UP.Summit, an exclusive confab of 250 transportation entrepreneurs, corporate executives and wealthy investors in Bentonville, Arkansas.

  • Their shared mission is to make transportation cleaner, faster, safer and cheaper — whether it's on the ground, in the air, at sea or in space.
  • Now in its fifth year, the private event is hosted by investment firm UP.Partners, Walmart scions Steuart and Tom Walton, and businessman Ross Perot Jr.
  • Why Bentonville? Arkansas dreams of becoming a global leader in the future of transportation. (It helps that the state is home to Walmart — the world's largest company by revenue — which is piloting a number of cutting-edge transportation technologies, including drone delivery and autonomous trucks.)

Just a few of the things I saw or learned about:

  • Germany's Volocopter, an air taxi developer, said its new VoloConnect aircraft completed its first flight in May.
  • Dronemaker Zipline unveiled new acoustic-based detection and avoidance technology it says could speed the rollout of autonomous drone deliveries.
  • Connect Airlines, a new private jet operator, said it plans to convert 75 regional airplanes to hydrogen in partnership with Universal Hydrogen Co.
  • A company called Airspeeder is even launching an electric flying car racing series in an effort to accelerate the tech's development.

My thought bubble: I've long been skeptical about drone delivery and flying cars. But my interviews this week with startups, big company CEOs and venture capitalists have me reconsidering that stance.

  • "This is real. We're done with the what-ifs," Adam Woodworth, CEO of Alphabet's Wing drone delivery business, told the group. "This is a real service, and we're ready to scale this out across the planet."
  • "Things that were crazy schemes 10 years ago are really happening," aviation veteran John Langford told me. His next-gen aerospace company, Electra.aero, is among those designing cleaner aircraft for a new era of advanced air mobility. This week it acquired a competitor, Airflow.aero.
  • "I've been doing this for 30 years," Alaska Airlines CEO Ben Minicucci told me. "This thing is transforming at a rapid rate in front of my eyes. Four years ago, you wouldn't have seen that." His company's venture arm, Alaska Star Ventures, is backing emerging technologies like hydrogen aircraft.

Reality check: While some ideas are maturing toward commercialization, most of these technologies have a long way to go.

  • Many of the people I spoke with acknowledged that regulatory hurdles remain and access to capital is tightening as economic uncertainty grows.
  • "Not everyone here is going to be successful, and some of these won't have long lives," said Steuart Walton, an aviation buff who founded his own aircraft manufacturer, Game Composites.

Yes, but: The UP.Summit was all about celebrating the milestones, like Beta Technologies' recent 1,400-mile journey from Vermont to Arkansas in an electric plane. (Never mind that it had to stop seven times to recharge.)

  • Or to promote companies like Stoke Space, which wants to offer daily, low-cost shipments of goods to space on reusable rockets.
  • And there were words of encouragement for Flyboard's Franky Zapata, the French personal watercraft pilot who was supposed to give a demo of his jetpack but crashed a week earlier, breaking two ribs.
  • "Keep going," emcee and UP.Partners co-founder Cyrus Sigari said, as he wrapped his arm around Zapata's shoulder.

The bottom line: A visionary's crazy idea is often nothing more than a science project until like-minded investors show up with the money to commercialize it. Even then, it can take a decade — or two or three — for revolutionary ideas to become true innovations.

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