LONDON -- The founder of one of Britain's national energy suppliers has a new company, and he intends for it to offer inter-city flying taxi services that take off and land vertically within four years.
Vertical Aerospace, led by CEO Stephen Fitzpatrick, and with ex-Airbus and Boeing engineers on staff, just completed its first successful test flight of an unmanned prototype vehicle.
"We've focused on the market of short distance travel between cities," he said in an interview. "We expect our piloted vehicles will take people from one city to the next by leaving closer to people's homes, not necessarily at airports."
Fitzpatrick's firm, which he has financed personally, is by no means the only player in the global race to produce vertical take-off and landing vehicles, and many of his competitors have bigger head starts. A Deloitte study published in January described research and prototyping of passenger drones and flying cars dating back to the early 1980s, almost all of which aren't yet in production.
Airbus and Boeing have well-advanced plans for flying taxis, with Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg saying in January that "real prototypes" are being built with a view that self-piloted crafts could be hovering above city streets within a decade. Japan's government has set its eyes on a similar timeframe, as has Uber's CEO.
But Fitzpatrick, who's also the CEO of Ovo Energy Ltd., isn't new to the world of cutting-edge vehicle technology and is confident his team of engineers can deliver on his ambition. In 2015, a year before founding Vertical Aerospace, he bought the Manor Marussia Formula One team, days before administrators were to auction its racing cars after it ran into financial crisis.
"I saw a business opportunity in applying Formula 1 technology to aviation to transform short-haul travel and make routes like London to Madrid shorter by getting rid of the need to take off from a runway," he said.
The company said the test flight of its unmanned all-electric prototype, which looks like a car-sized version of many popular consumer drones, was successfully demonstrated at a small English airport in June. It could only fly for about five minutes, a spokeswoman for the startup said, but is capable of forward speeds of up to 50 mph. Piloted production models with a small number of passengers are targeted to travel distances of 500 miles.
The U.K.'s Civil Aviation Authority granted permission for Vertical Aerospace to conduct its test flight, but tremendous regulatory headwinds exist for any company investing in this technology. For example, what is a reasonable amount of backup energy to require for flight-capable electric vehicles? Will pilots need a license? In what part of the sky can they fly?
"We've taken the view that it'll take a long, long time before regulators and passengers are okay with this," Fitzpatrick said. "Proving that the technology works is very different from proving that it never fails, which is what aircraft regulation requires."
The authors of the Deloitte study concluded that the regulatory challenges might be daunting, but aren't unsolvable. The aerospace and related industries have navigated similarly complex challenges before, they said, citing the development and deployment of commercial airplanes.
Fitzpatrick wouldn't say how much has personally invested in the business, but said the company is now talking to outside investors "to accelerate" research and development over the next four years, before being able to take initial orders.