McLean startup raises $75M for air taxi network
Fritz Lang’s 1927 film “Metropolis” predicted cities with flying cars, while Hanna-Barbera followed that vision 35 years later with “The Jetsons” and its commuter “skyways.” Now, however, air taxis are close to becoming reality.
The industry could generate up to $16 billion in new business investments in Virginia and carry as many as 66 million passengers by 2045, according to a January report from the Virginia Innovation Partnership Corp. and the state commerce and trade secretary.
But those taxis will require management so they don’t crash into other aircraft. That’s where McLean-based AURA Network Systems Inc. comes in.
AURA — which stands for Advanced Ultra Reliable Aviation — is developing a secure, regulatory-compliant network that can control unmanned, remotely piloted aircraft on extended flights beyond an operator’s visual line of sight. In November 2022, AURA raised $75 million in financing from investment companies including Fortress Investment Group LLC and Mudrick Capital Management LP.
Fortress Investment Group Managing Partner Drew McKnight, an AURA board member, says the company will be a “critical innovator” in the infant industry.
According to AURA CEO and co-founder Bill Tolpegin, the company’s proprietary technology could eventually shuttle people through cities.
AURA, he notes, has an exclusive license from the Federal Communications Commission to operate its network on the 450 MHz band, which is reserved for aviation purposes. AURA’s secure, private network “doesn’t touch the internet,” he says, enhancing flight safety and reducing signal latency.
Thomas Alberts, an aerospace engineering professor at Old Dominion University, notes that AURA’s network signal frequency lets it travel through “trees and obstacles and longer distances.”
AURA tested its network in Maryland in July 2022. Pilots flew a Cessna 208 Caravan while the network tested its ability to switch control of the plane from one ground station to the other.
The next step is to build a network for specific companies. At first, that will probably be cargo companies, which will use the network for delivery routes.
Lance Sherry, director for the Center for Air Transportation Systems Research at George Mason University, says advances like autonomous cargo aircraft and air taxis will make communications systems like AURA’s “absolutely critical. … As we go into the future, the vehicles are going to be communicating more and more with each other to avoid collisions … [and] plan their routes so that they’re conflict-free.”