DETROIT — Weeds grow from cracks on the tarmac. Runways sit empty for hours. The last commercial passengers departed two decades ago.
Coleman A. Young Airport, better known as Detroit City Airport, seems like a crumbling remnant of a bygone era of Motor City greatness. But from his vantage point on the second floor of a dilapidated terminal building, Jon Rimanelli swears he sees the future.
"Look, there's 760 million passengers that enplane at the nation's top 50 airports every year, and there's like 13,000 airports that are underutilized in the United States," he says. "There's a gap in air mobility and vehicle platforms that connect the big airports to the small ones like this one and urban centers to suburbs. If you do that, you end up with a distributed network of air transportation and literally tens of thousands of new aircraft that will be pulled into the system."
Rimanelli intends to build those aircraft. He's CEO of Airspace Experience Technologies, or ASX, a Detroit startup creating the Mobi-One, an electric vertical takeoff-and-landing aircraft capable of carrying cargo and passengers.
Like the industry it's trying to help create, the Mobi-One doesn't yet exist. Smaller-scale prototypes are hovering around City Airport, a test mule should be ready in the next 60 days and a full-scale prototype should be operational by the fall of 2020.
Once aloft, Rimanelli says, the aircraft could usher in a new era of urban air mobility, linking travelers to key destinations five times faster than conventional modes of transportation do — at prices comparable to those offered in today's ride-hailing networks.
It's an ambitious vision.
Incumbent aviation manufacturers, he says, are ensnared by the high expenses associated with lower-volume production runs and the complexity of systems needed for higher-altitude flying. Simplifying systems for flights no higher than 3,000 feet and plans for high-volume production should hold down costs.
So will a novel approach — eschewing traditional aviation suppliers for automotive ones. Central to ASX's plan is relying on Detroit's traditional auto industry and supply base, and repurposing them for aviation use.
"We're not building flying cars, but we are assembling car parts that you can fly," says Rimanelli, a Dartmouth business school graduate who previously founded Nextronix Inc., an electronics design and manufacturing firm in Romulus, Mich. "The reality is the automotive industry is very interested in electrification, automation, lightweighting, safety and reliability. Those are all the same things I'm interested in."