Paramedics with jetpacks, border police in flying cars and city workers commuting by drone all sound like science fiction - but the concepts are part of an advanced air mobility (AAM) market that is expected to be worth as much as US$17 billion by 2025.
As urbanisation leaves city streets congested and advances in technology allow for vehicles considered impossible just decades ago, using the sky for small-scale aircraft has become increasingly attractive.
"We can't continue to use road transport; 3D mobility is really important," Anna Kominik, Asia Pacific director at Wisk, said in an interview broadcast on Thursday at the Reuters Next conference.
Wisk, a unit of Boeing Co., has been testing Cora, an autonomous electric aircraft that takes off and lands like a helicopter, at its base in Tekapo, New Zealand, for four years.
Wisk is liaising with regulators to get approval for public use of the air taxi, which can carry two passengers up to 100 kilometres (62 miles) at speeds of up to 150 km/h (93 mph).
"Sixty-seven percent of the world's population will be cities by 2030, so that ground infrastructure can't keep up and is costly to overhaul," Kominik said in a panel discussion recorded on Nov. 5. "We have to move to the sky as a resource."
Netherlands-based PAL-V is keeping one foot on the ground while taking to the air. Its two-seat gyroplane road vehicle Liberty, which has a maximum speed of 180 km/h and a flying range of 400 km, received approval for use on European roads this year.
Delivery to customers will begin in 2023 after they complete the required training, said Robert Dingemanse, chief executive of PAL-V International.
He added that PAL-V had orders, including down payments, from 15 countries, with interest from 193 countries.
Kominik declined to put a timetable on when Cora would carry its first passengers.
"We don't expect we will be the first to market; we do expect to be the best," she said.
Developing and ecosystem
The advanced air mobility market could be worth almost US$17 billion by 2025 and US$110 billion by 2035, according to Allied Market Research.
The same report suggests the piloted segment will hold more than three-quarters of the market share in 2025, but the autonomous segment will grow fastest between 2025 and 2035.
Dingemanse said he expected the Liberty to be used for a range of applications, including pipeline observation, policing and health operations in remote areas.
Similarly, Richard Browning has already done trial runs of his Gravity jetpack with militaries in several countries and emergency response personnel in the United Kingdom.
With 317 pounds of thrust, the jetsuit can carry a person for about four minutes. The company is working on updates to extend flying time, and Browning has built up a dataset of the jetpack's use across 35 countries.
Kominik said the creation of an "ecosystem" of use cases is critical as the industry and technology develops.
"That requires a very different mindset from government policy, regulators and community," she said. "We have to create that, because it's not there at the moment.
California-based Wisk selected New Zealand because it was unique globally in allowing "beyond line of sight" trials of autonomous aircraft.
Dingemanse and Kominik said the pandemic had helped and hurt the industry.
Sales of the PAL-V slowed as in-person test drives became restricted, Dingemanse said, but the crisis has provided a boost to the private jet industry and reinforced the human need to meet face-to-face.
"In that sense, it is an advantage to our solution, which is personal space when you're travelling," he said.
Kominik said New Zealand's tight border restrictions had prevented some key personnel from entering over the past several months, but also spurred the opening of a new testing site in Australia.
Browning is keen to return to public demonstrations to inspire a new generation: "Landing a 1,000 horsepower jetsuit amongst a school - with an invitation of course - is a pretty good way to stop kids from looking at an iPad for a moment."
(Reporting By Jane Wardell. Editing by Gerry Doyle)