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Highways in the Sky

Air Taxis May Be Closer than You Think

By James Martinez 

With the proliferation of drone technology and e-commerce, there’s an effort to build highways in the sky – a system of lowaltitude flight routes at between 40 and 400 feet where lightweight air vehicles would fly, carrying everything from Amazon purchases to automotive parts.  

This new advanced air mobility industry is taking root at the Detroit Region Aerotropolis, the economic development organization that encompasses 6,000 developable acres in Wayne and Washtenaw counties in a prime transportation network that includes railways, highways, Detroit Metro and Willow Run airports and the American Center for Mobility. Currently, Aerotropolis is building and testing the digital infrastructure needed to integrate drones safely into national airspace and local communities at scale via LAANC (Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability), a partnership between the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and private industry.  

This work focusing initially on transported goods, could potentially clear the way for air taxis flying people at low altitudes – bringing Jetsons like fantasies into reality and changing the way people move through the air. The Detroiter magazine interviewed Aerotropolis Executive Director Chris Girdwood recently. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.  

Q: WHAT DOES ‘HIGHWAYS IN THE SKY’ REFER TO?  

We think the future is in low altitude airspace between 40 and 400 feet. When you look at some of the use cases for drones or other aerial vehicles, it comes from an ecological and sustainable perspective. Why continue to widen roads when we can move traffic to the sky? Why is a two-ton truck driving a five-pound part 45 miles across Metro Detroit when that five-pound part could be flown in low-altitude airspace from a parts depot to an advanced assembly plant? The goal is to take lightweight high value cargo off the road and move it into low-altitude airspace. 

Q: WHAT TYPE OF TECHNOLOGY DOES THIS REQUIRE? 

We’re taking air data from the airport authority and the FAA’s LAANC program and we’re building out this robust software technology stack to find out where we can fly between 40 and 400 feet safely. To enable this technology, we need to have authoritative data. We need to have infrastructure that communicates with each other, and we need to have recreational and commercial drone pilots using this LAANC program to get (FAA) authorization. We’re getting to that point.  

Q: WILL PEOPLE SEE THE ‘HIGHWAY IN THE SKY’ FROM THE GROUND?  

We’ve been very focused on that question because when we’re working with municipalities, they ask that question, and if there is going to be noise pollution or safety issues because residents won’t want to have drones flying over their home or in their neighborhood. We are looking at existing infrastructure and how to use it to adapt this new mobility revolution. And we’ve started to focus on rail and if the future highway in the sky can be above rail lines initially, because there’s already some noise associated with rail and it connects our industrial corridors, which is where high value cargo moves to.  

Q: DO YOU HAVE ANY SENSE OF WHEN A REGION MIGHT BE UTILIZING A ‘HIGHWAY IN THE SKY’ AT SCALE?  

I think industry is going to be able to do this in the next three years. Consumers will be able to go onto their favorite retailer and get a 15-minute drone delivery within the next five to seven years. And I think maybe in the next 10 years, you’ll be able to fly an air taxi from a parking deck in Ann Arbor to a parking deck in Detroit. 

Q: LIKE PEOPLE ACTUALLY RIDING IN AN AIR TAXI?  

Of course. That technology is coming along very quickly. I have four- and sixyear-old kids, and I think they’ll be able to fly in air taxis in their late teenage years. That technology is coming quickly. •  

James Martinez is editor of the Detroiter magazine and a content creation consultant.