features With Osaka Expo as a goal, Japan gets serious about electric air taxis

A public-private task force is working to launch eVTOL air taxis in Japan in time for the Osaka-Kansai Expo in 2025.
Avatar for Elan Head By Elan Head | July 13, 2021

Estimated reading time 7 minutes, 58 seconds.

Since London’s Great Exhibition in 1851, world fairs have served as a launch pad for futuristic technologies, introducing audiences to marvels like the telephone and color television. At Expo 2025 in Osaka, Kansai, Japan, organizers hope to make a splash with another invention straight out of science fiction — electric air taxis.

The Japanese government recently established a task force to ensure that these “flying cars” will be ready for commercial operations by the time the Expo opens for an expected 28 million visitors in April 2025. It’s not just a gimmick. Japan sees Osaka as a natural springboard for eVTOL technology that could ultimately revolutionize transportation, and a growing number of partners are coming together to make that a reality.

“A major event like Osaka Expo [could be] a breakthrough in terms of public acceptance and regulatory reforms,” explained Yuki Horie, advanced air mobility (AAM) project leader for ANA Holdings, the parent company of All Nippon Airways. “It will be a good opportunity for us to start operations.”

Japan air taxis
The members of the Public-Private Council for Air Transportation Revolution see strong potential for eVTOL aircraft in Japan. METI/Ken Okuyama Design Image

ANA isn’t the only company looking to launch air taxi services in Japan, which ranks behind only the United States and China in terms of national gross domestic product. Last month, China’s EHang performed autonomous trial flights of its EH216 in Okayama Prefecture with a local partner, MASC. Japan’s native eVTOL developer, SkyDrive, is working toward operations at the Osaka Expo, as is Germany’s Volocopter, which is cooperating with Japan Airlines, one of its investors.

Volocopter is a new member of Public-Private Council for Air Transportation Revolution, which was established in 2018 to develop and pursue a “roadmap” for the introduction of eVTOL passenger aircraft. Other new members include California-based Joby Aviation and its major investor Toyota Motor Corp. Although Joby is currently focused on four launch markets in the U.S., “we would consider Japan as one of the key markets when looking at potential future international operations,” a spokesperson told eVTOL.com.

Whereas EHang, SkyDrive, and Volocopter plan to enter the market with compact two-seat multicopters, Joby is developing a five-seat winged eVTOL with greater speed and range. Such an aircraft would be a better fit for ANA’s business model, according to Shigeru Takano, a former official at the Japan Civil Aviation Bureau (JCAB) who is now executive advisor for ANA Strategic Research Institute.

“We’ve been talking with the manufacturers which can offer an aircraft [for] more than one passenger,” he said, explaining that ANA plans to use eVTOL aircraft initially for airport shuttle services in Osaka, Tokyo, Nagoya, and Okinawa Prefecture. Having bases at those airports will make it easier for ANA to offer shuttles, he said, plus “the people flying on the airplane value quick service; they want to travel very quickly, door to door.”

ANA plans to operate the aircraft itself through a subsidiary company, although Takano indicated that it may have partners in the effort. From 2026 onward, the airline expects to start adding intercity and intracity routes in its key Japan markets, integrating its services with public transportation options including subways and railways as it grows into a provider of large-scale urban air mobility (UAM).

Volocopter VoloCity Japan
Volocopter and Japan Airlines announced their collaboration on urban air mobility in September 2020. Volocopter Image

It’s an ambitious vision, and it faces many of the same regulatory and public acceptance hurdles that AAM players are grappling with in other parts of the world. Kazuma Komikado is assistant to the director of the Planning Office for Advanced Air Mobility, a new division established by the JCAB in April with the goal of enabling eVTOL operations in Japan by 2023.

According to Komikado, the office is developing the concept of operations and flight standards for UAM as well as unmanned aircraft systems. “We think that it is important to develop flight standards for specific conditions of eVTOL (e.g., aircraft charging, battery swapping, and vertical take-off and landing),” he told eVTOL.com by email, explaining that the JCAB’s Type Certificate division is meanwhile developing certification criteria for the aircraft specifically.

Komikado said that the JCAB’s approach is closer to that of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration than the European Union Aviation Safety Agency, although the JCAB is exchanging information with both of those regulators in order to harmonize standards. It is also sharing information with Japanese research institutes that are members of the Public-Private Council and also participate in international standards organizations such as ISO and ASTM.

Nevertheless, establishing standards for aircraft that are still under development is challenging, Komikado said. For example, many eVTOL aircraft will have novel flight controls and cockpit interfaces, making it difficult to define competency requirements for pilot licensing.

“We are exchanging information with UAM [companies] such as Joby Aviation, Volocopter, and Lilium,” he said. “We are cooperating with them for developing type certificate criteria and flight standards in Japan. We are also considering flight standards for UAM with Japanese operators that will be into commercial services by UAM in the future.”

ANA Osaka Expo eVTOL routes
ANA is focusing on these three main routes for eVTOL air taxi services at Japan’s Expo 2025. ANA Holdings Image

Once the standards are established and aircraft certified, eVTOL operators will still need to convince the public of their usefulness and safety. ANA’s Yuki Horie noted that safety will be a concern not only for passengers of the new aircraft, but also for people underneath them, who might worry that “someday something will be dropping from the sky.”

Here, too, the Osaka Expo could serve as an ideal venue for introducing the Japanese public to air taxis, as routes serving the event won’t need to fly over densely populated neighborhoods. According to Horie, “the main portion of our services will be from Kansai Airport to the venue of the Osaka Expo, [so] we will be flying over bodies of water.”

Takanori Ito of Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) told eVTOL.com that the “Osaka-Kansai Expo Flying Car Implementation Task Force” will help define flight routes that are safe and compatible with local airports, as well as suitable vertiports for the Expo.

Not every invention showcased at a world fair changes the course of human progress. The telephone certainly did, but the “convertible portmanteau” — a rubberized suitcase that could also be used as a bathtub, which was shown at the same exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876 — did not.

At their best, however, world expos are places “where new technologies and products are born, triggering greater convenience in our daily lives,” according to the organizers of Expo 2025. If electric air taxis live up to expectations, greater convenience is exactly what they’ll bring to our world in the decades to come — and Expo 2025 in Japan could be where millions of people see them first.

“I expect people from all over the world to experience eVTOL and life with eVTOL,” said Ito.

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2 Comments

  1. Empire Parking Systems will be invested in the “Air Mobility ” sector as we are looking to build the Veriports in Miami Fl. and in other parts of the world. We look forward to being in Japan in 2025 showcasing our projects.

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