Air taxis fly over Jerusalem for 1st time as Israel builds airspace network of drones

Dronery, a subsidiary of Israeli drone delivery fleet operator Cando, operates demo flights of China’s Ehang two-seater air taxi taking off from Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital

Sharon Wrobel is a tech reporter for The Times of Israel.

Israel on Wednesday expanded test flights of air taxis to urban areas in Jerusalem as it prepares the airspace for a drone delivery network of passengers and heavy cargo to ease traffic congestion on the country’s roads.

During the demonstration, which is part of a NIS 60 million ($15.7 million) two-year government-led pilot project, also known as the Israel National Drone Initiative (INDI), experimental flights of an autonomous flying vehicle, a Chinese-made electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft with long-distance capabilities, took off from Jerusalem’s Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital, flew over the hills of the city and landed back at the medical center’s premises after less than half an hour.

The overall aim of the project is to fly passengers and heavy cargo from one place to another and relieve traffic congestion on Israel’s busy roads by using drones, as well as provide commercial and public services, in particular in life-saving missions in emergency scenarios such as earthquakes with mass casualties, and for urgent medical supplies and tests.

“What we’re looking at here is how Israel’s National Drone Initiative is expanding its scope to move beyond transporting packages to transporting human beings,” said Daniella Partem, senior director at the Israel Innovation Authority. “We are looking to improve the economic viability of this model and advance connectivity in urban areas and further afield around the world.”

The cost of such flights is still difficult to estimate but it can be expected to remain relatively expensive for drones to deliver a “$5 plate of sushi,” according to Libby Bahat from the Israel Civil Aviation Authority.

INDI was established in 2019 to create a national drone network and prepare the sky for drone deliveries across Israel, together with regulators and private companies. As part of the second phase of the INDI project launched in June year, 11 drone operating and delivery companies are involved in tests and experimental flights throughout Israel.

Israel’s National Air Drone Initiative (INDI) unveils a drone air taxi at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem on September 13, 2023. (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

The initiative is a partnership between government entities led by the Transportation Ministry, the Israel Innovation Authority, Ayalon Highways Ltd., and the Civil Aviation Authority of Israel (CAAI).

Dronery, a subsidiary of Israeli drone delivery fleet operator Cando Drones, operated the Jerusalem demo flight of China’s Ehang two-seater air taxi drone which is being developed to carry passengers by Israeli air operators. The fully autonomous EH216 aircraft can carry a total of up to 250 kilograms (551 lbs) flying a distance of 30 kilometers (some 18 miles) using its intelligent command-and-control system. The test flight included real-time video transmission to control centers and emergency response teams.

“The possibility of flying the aerial taxi in the early stages within an urban area as complex as the Hadassah Medical Center is a practical realization of the Transportation Ministry’s belief”  in smart transportation, said Cando CEO Yoeli Or. “Cando and Dronery are the first in Israel to bring and fly heavy drones capable of flying significant distances and carrying over 200 kilograms.”

“This is a breakthrough,” Or added.

During a demonstration in June, the Pardes Hanna-based startup AIR flew its AIR ONE all-electric two-seater eVTOL, which can carry a total payload of up to 220 kilograms (485 lbs) for a distance of up to 160 kilometers (99.4 miles). It has collapsible wings for easy parking and can take off from or land on any flat surface and is suitable as an everyday alternative for short-distance commuting in the sky.

Other Israeli companies involved in the INDI project are Airwayz Drones, a provider of AI-based systems for the smart management of drone fleets; High Lander, a developer of an uncrewed traffic management system (UTM) for drones; and Robotican, a developer of ground and air-based mobile autonomous robotic systems.

AFP contributed to this report.

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