Flying taxis could soon take to the skies over British cities with the introduction of the first rules governing drone-style passenger operations.
The European aviation safety regulator has launched a consultation into plans to certify small electric rotor-propelled aircraft to enable passenger or cargo flights.
The reforms will clear the way for the operation of vertical take-off and landing aircraft that carry five passengers and weigh no more than two tonnes when fully loaded. Regulations will apply to aircraft with a pilot on board or those that are “remotely piloted” from the ground, it was announced.
Experts said that the move by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) marked a significant step in the development of the technology.
Last month Vertical Aerospace, a Bristol-based start-up, revealed that it had successfully tested an electric flying taxi at Cotswold airport in Gloucestershire — the first trial of its kind in Britain. It wants to launch flights within the next four years.
Another company, VRCO in Derby, is working on an electric-powered flying car that can take off vertically and land on water. It hopes to go into pre-production with its Neoxcraft vehicle next year.
The technology is at such an early stage that it is not yet recognised by safety regulators, which means existing flight certifications for helicopters or fixed-wing aircraft have to be adapted for drone-style vehicles. EASA, an agency of the European Union that regulates flight operations and airworthiness, said it had already received a number of requests for certification for vertical take-off and landing aircraft.
The agency’s powers may be transferred to the Civil Aviation Authority after Brexit but the CAA is almost certain to maintain close alignment to the European body.
The EASA will run its consultation until November 15. It said it was committed to ensuring “the highest level of safety standards for operations over cities and the commercial transport of passengers while also providing lighter standards to promote innovation for the initial phases of development”.
Standards for problems such as bird strikes, landing on water, being hit by lightning and excessive onboard vibration are set out in the regulations.
Fixed-wing aircraft will typically start to glide back to ground after a critical loss of power while the main rotor on a helicopter will keep turning because of wind pressure, but it is feared that a drone-style aircraft could plummet to earth.
The standards say designers must ensure that aircraft are “capable of a controlled emergency landing after critical malfunction of thrust/lift”.
Stephen Sacks, head of funding at VRCO, said: “The public announcement from EASA is great news for the entire aviation industry and is a show of just how near term the adoption of this new technology really is.”