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TED2018

Rodin Lyasoff: How autonomous flying taxis could change the way you travel

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Flight is about to get a lot more personal, says aviation entrepreneur Rodin Lyasoff. In this visionary talk, he imagines a new golden age of air travel in which small, autonomous air taxis allow us to bypass traffic jams and fundamentally transform how we get around our cities and towns. "In the past century, flight connected our planet," Lyasoff says. "In the next, it will reconnect our local communities."

I love airplanes.
00:12
Oh -- I love airplanes.
00:14
So, when I went to college
in the late 90s,
00:16
it was obvious that I was
going to study aerospace.
00:19
And you wouldn't believe
how many people told me,
00:21
"Oh no, not aerospace.
00:24
Aerospace is going to be boring,
00:26
everything in aerospace
has already been done."
00:27
Well, they were a little bit off the mark.
00:31
And in fact, I think the next decade
00:33
is going to be another
golden age for aviation.
00:35
For one thing, and this is
where I get excited,
00:37
flight is about to get
a lot more personal.
00:39
So, a little compare and contrast.
00:41
In the last century,
00:44
large commercial airplanes
have connected cities across the globe.
00:46
And 100 years ago,
00:49
it would have been
unthinkable for all of us
00:50
to fly here from around the world
for a five-day conference.
00:53
But we did, and most of us
probably without a second thought.
00:55
And that's a remarkable
achievement for humanity.
00:59
But on a day-to-day basis,
we still spend a lot of time in cars.
01:02
Or actively trying to avoid it.
01:06
Some of my best friends
live in San Francisco,
01:10
I live in Mountain View,
about 40 miles away.
01:12
We're all busy.
01:15
At the end of the day,
01:16
we're separated by something like
two hours of heavy traffic.
01:17
So frankly, we haven't seen
each other in a few months.
01:20
Now, I work in downtown San Jose,
which is near the airport.
01:24
And there are actually days
when I can leave work,
01:28
get on a plane and fly to Los Angeles
01:31
faster than I can drive to San Francisco.
01:34
Cities are only getting more populated,
01:36
the roads are full, and it's really
difficult to expand them.
01:38
And so in a lot of places,
01:41
there really aren't a lot
of good solutions
01:43
for getting around traffic.
01:45
But what if you could fly over it?
01:47
The sky is underutilized,
01:51
and I would argue it will never be
as congested as the roads are.
01:52
First of all, you've got
a whole other dimension,
01:56
but also just safety considerations
and air-traffic management
01:59
will not allow bumper-to-bumper
traffic in the sky.
02:03
Which means, in many cases,
02:05
flying can be a long-term,
compelling alternative
02:07
to traveling on the ground.
02:10
So imagine this:
02:13
you call an Uber, it takes you
to a nearby landing spot --
02:14
we call these vertiports --
02:17
there's an airplane waiting for you there,
02:20
flies you over all
of the traffic in the middle,
02:22
and on the other side, another Uber
takes you to your friend's house.
02:24
And I said Uber,
02:27
but I really think we need
to congratulate the Lyft branding team
02:28
for their forward thinking
in choosing their brand.
02:31
(Laughter)
02:34
So in that example,
02:36
OK, there are a few extra steps, I admit.
02:37
But it's 30 minutes versus two hours,
02:39
it costs around 60 dollars,
02:43
and you get to fly.
02:44
We're not there yet,
02:46
but we are a lot closer
than you might think.
02:48
So one of the first things we need
02:50
is we need an aircraft that can
take off and land in small spaces
02:52
and quickly take you where you want to go.
02:55
And helicopters can do that today,
02:57
but traditionally, helicopters have been
just a little bit too expensive,
02:59
just a little too hard to pilot
03:03
and just a little too noisy to be used
for daily transportation in cities.
03:05
Well, electric flight and autonomy
are changing that.
03:10
Electric flight, in particular,
03:14
unlocks new possibilities
for vehicle configurations
03:15
that we just could not
explore in the past.
03:18
If you use electric motors,
03:21
you can have many of them
around the aircraft,
03:23
and it doesn't add a lot of extra weight.
03:25
And that gives you redundancy and safety.
03:27
And also, they are cleaner,
cheaper and quieter
03:29
than internal combustion engines.
03:31
Autonomy allows the transportation
network to scale,
03:33
and I actually think
it makes the aircraft safer.
03:36
Commercial flights are already automated
for most of their duration,
03:39
and I believe there will come a day
03:42
when we won't even trust an airplane
that required a human to fly.
03:45
So, one of our teams at A3
03:50
wanted to see just how close
this future really was.
03:52
So they built and flew a prototype
of one such vehicle.
03:55
And they made a point of only using
03:59
mature, commercially available
technologies today.
04:01
We call it Vahana.
04:04
It's fully electric.
04:05
It takes off and lands vertically,
but flies forward like a regular airplane.
04:08
It's fully self-piloted.
04:11
You push a button, it takes off,
flies and lands, all by itself.
04:13
The prototype that you see here
04:17
is designed to carry
a single passenger and luggage.
04:19
And it can go about
20 miles in 15 minutes.
04:21
And our estimate for a trip like that
is it would cost around 40 dollars,
04:23
which you can really
build a business around.
04:28
It has multiple redundant
motors and batteries,
04:30
you can lose one, it will continue
flying and land normally.
04:32
It's pretty quiet.
04:36
When it's flying overhead, it will be
quieter than a Prius on the highway.
04:37
It's intelligent and has cameras,
lidar and radar,
04:41
so it can detect and avoid
unexpected obstacles.
04:43
And the team really focused
on making it efficient,
04:47
so the batteries are small, light,
and they last longer.
04:49
For reference, the Vahana battery
04:53
is less than half the size
of a Tesla Model S battery.
04:56
It's about 40 kilowatt-hours.
04:59
And you can hot swap the batteries
in just a few minutes.
05:01
And I do think that in a few years,
05:05
people will be comfortable
getting by themselves
05:06
in a self-piloted, electric,
VTOL air taxi.
05:09
But the team is busy
working on the next version,
05:13
which is going to carry
at least two passengers
05:15
and fly quite a bit farther.
05:18
But more importantly, there are
over 20 companies around the world
05:19
working on vehicles
just like this one right now.
05:24
My best guess is in the next five years,
05:28
you'll start seeing
vertiports in some cities,
05:30
and little airplane icons
on your ride-sharing apps.
05:32
And it might begin with a dozen,
05:36
but eventually, we could have
hundreds of these,
05:38
flying around our cities.
05:40
And it will fundamentally transform
our relationship with local travel.
05:42
In the past century,
flight connected our planet,
05:47
in the next, it will reconnect
our local communities,
05:50
and I hope it will
reconnect us to each other.
05:53
Thank you.
05:56
(Applause)
05:57
Chris Anderson: OK, so when
these things first roll out --
06:05
right now, it's a single
person aircraft, right?
06:08
Rodin Lyasoff: Ours is, yes.
06:12
CA: Yours is.
06:13
I mean, someone comes out of their car,
06:14
the door opens, they get in,
there's no one else in there.
06:17
This thing takes off.
06:20
Could we do a poll here?
06:22
Because these are
early adopters in this room.
06:23
I want to know who here is excited
06:25
about the idea of being picked up solo
in an auto-flying --
06:28
Well, there you go!
06:32
RL: It's pretty good.
06:34
CA: That is pretty awesome,
06:35
half of TED is completely
stark staring bonkers.
06:36
(Laughter)
06:39
RL: So, one of the things
we're really focusing on
06:42
is, really, the cost.
06:44
So you can really wrap
a business around that.
06:46
And so, that's why some of the features
are really driven by price.
06:48
And the 40-dollar price tag
is really a target that we're aiming for.
06:52
Which should make it accessible
to a larger crowd than this one.
06:55
CA: The biggest blockage
in terms of when this rolls out
06:59
is probably not the technology
at this point -- it's regulation, right?
07:03
RL: That's probably true, yes,
I would agree with that.
07:06
The technology need to mature
in terms of safety,
07:09
to get to the safety levels
that we expect from aircraft.
07:12
But I don't think there are
any blockers there,
07:16
just work needs to get done.
07:18
CA: So, first, this is ride sharing.
07:19
Are we that far away from a time
07:21
when lots of people have
one of these in their garage
07:23
and just kind of, go direct
to their friend's house?
07:26
RL: My personal view is that ride sharing
actually allows you to operate
07:29
that entire business
much more efficiently.
07:33
You know, there are millennials
that say they never want to own a car.
07:37
I think they'll probably feel
even stronger about aircraft.
07:40
So --
07:43
(Laughter)
07:44
I really think that the network
scales and operates a lot better
07:46
as a ride-sharing platform,
07:50
also because the integration
with air-traffic management
07:52
works a lot better
if it's handled centrally.
07:55
CA: Cool. Thank you for that.
07:58
RL: Thank you.
CA: That was amazing.
08:00