Autonomous flying taxis being developed in Bay Area

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Thursday, September 21, 2023
Autonomous flying taxis getting lift from Bay Area tech talent
Hyundai-owned air mobility company Supernal is building autonomous flying taxis with a goal to launch by 2028.

FREMONT, Calif. (KGO) -- Here on ABC7, we've covered autonomous cars on the roads. But there's another movement happening with autonomous flying taxis. A new company just opened an office in Fremont, where autonomous aircraft are being built.

Supernal is an advanced air mobility company, part of Hyundai Motor Group.

The vision is to create an air taxi that would allow people to skip the commute on the roads.

Ramona Stefanescu is the lead research manager.

"Going from a hub like an airport or again downtown San Francisco or San Jose to Palo Alto or something in between, that can be done in a short trip with an air taxi. Not being stuck in traffic, not spending 40-50 minutes. We want to give people more time to spend with their families," she explains.

Stefanescu and her team are in the process of designing a first generation aircraft. It would seat four people and at first, be piloted by a human, going about 120 mph with a 25-30 mile battery range.

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"You're going to have the thrust of the aircraft that the rotors will now help you propel forward. You're going to see a lot of movement in the rotors. You're taking off vertically, you fly as a plane forward and you land back vertically. So it's a mix between a helicopter and a plane," Stefanescu says.

When asked about the challenge of building a vehicle this new, Stefanescu says Supernal is building on top of existing technologies and existing manufacturing process for civilian aircraft and general aviation aircraft.

Part of the process is developing batteries that are lightweight and powerful, building the air frame, rotors, sensors as well as an ecosystem for these vehicles to take off and land. Something they're calling a vertiport.

"It's going to be a dedicated structure, we can draw analogies with a helipad right now, a similar structure where we need to land vertically. But yes it's going to have charging stations, this is an electric aircraft powered by batteries so it's going to have availability for charging stations for cars, for aircraft but also to park our cars, our bikes and like I said, hopefully we can walk to a vertiport," Stefanescu says.

So what it does it take to build something this future forward?

Niraj Nath, head of facility strategy and management, says a big part of it is attracting silicon valley tech talent, with the help of an innovative and welcoming work facility.

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"At the highest level we were given the direction from HMG and our leaders to build an office space that is better than home. To provide all the amenities you have at home but better. To build a space where they want to come to work and not forced."

The sustainability focused facility includes many spaces that promote collaboration for the 140 employees who come into work.

That includes a gym, entertainment room, free lunches and more.

"Part of the research showed the generation of today and tomorrow this is what they want, flexibility, choice, be able to rely on technology and be able to work as you are working from home comfortably and have choices," Nath says.

The timetable for Supernal employees in Fremont and across the company to get the aircraft into service is 2028.

"We are working towards that, we want to be able to build and have the aircraft and ecosystem available to us. All the technologies that we are bringing together it needs to go through a tight process. And this process safety as the core. It may take a few years and we may not be the first or second to market there's something the company is dedicated to, the safety of our aircraft," Stefanescu says.

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The vision is to have multiple Supernal aircraft flying at the same time, knowing that they're not going to be the only ones flying.

Supernal is actively working with the FAA to certify the eVTOL aircraft to the highest commercial aviation safety standards. They also have an active early application file with their Emerging Technology Coordination Office (AIR-611) as part of their proactive approach to establishing rules and standards for eVTOLs.

But the immediate priority is building a prototype vehicle.

The target markets to start are Los Angeles, Seoul and Miami and eventually the Bay Area.

Supernal wants to make this aircraft ride affordable, as expensive as an Uber X for a 45 minute ride.

The aircraft will fly at lower altitudes - 1,000 to 2,000 feet.

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