Robots and flying cars: Unveiling the next generation of tech

The concept of flying cars is catching on.

As we discussed in the pages of Motor Trader a couple of months ago, there is an entire industry steadily growing around the idea, and a handful of vehicles have already been tested, with some ready to be sold to hardy pioneers with an eye on the future.

The argument for the flying car concept is clear – point-to-point travel via personal flying vehicle will be swift and congestion free – and manufacturers in Europe and the U.S. have embraced the logic and are steaming along in flying vehicle development. Australia, it seems, has been slow in latching on to the idea.

That, however, is about to change.

At the Myriad festival, and as part of the MTA Queensland-sponsored Garage presentation, Queensland-based company NXG3N Robotics will unveil an electric-powered, autonomous flying car concept that could be a real game-changer.

While the concept at Myriad will be in scaled-down form – with a one-tenth scale flying model and a one-quarter scale static display model offering a detailed look at its features and characteristics – a full-size vehicle is very much in development and there are some unique ideas within the concept that make it a very different proposition from its competitors.

The most obvious difference is its appearance. Whereas many designers have created concepts that are more aeroplane or helicopter than car, NXG3N has taken a different tack.

“Flying vehicles are a hot topic around the world when discussing mobility” said Neil Luu, co-founder of NXG3N Robotics and chief designer on the Pegasus flying car project. “But most of these vehicles look like helicopters or airplanes.

“We wanted to literally design a car that can fly – a vehicle that looks like a car and that can fit into a garage, a driveway, or a space at a shopping centre car park, and actually fitting into our current lifestyles without too much change.”

The result is just that – a two-passenger vehicle that looks like a car. But, while it’s a smart-looking vehicle, the really clever stuff, and the really clever thinking, is all happening under the shell.
NXG3N’s concept, like other flying cars, is designed mainly as an eVTOL vertical take-off and landing machine that uses battery power and electric motors to drive its lift-creating propellers. However, with government regulations regarding flying cars yet to be set (there will surely be regulation around flight paths and other matters) and with electric power and battery technology advancing at a furious rate, NXG3N’s concept is more than just a ‘take-off from your driveway’ vehicle – it can be driven and has a modular and uniquely adaptable design allowing elements to be replaced with ease, simplifying the assembly line as well as future maintenance and upgrades.

“Realistically, governments will likely introduce no-fly zones,” said Neil. “To deal with that scenario, the car needs to be able to get to a spot where it can take off, so our vehicle can be driven if needed.

“As for the technology, batteries and charging systems continue to advance, so much so that it can now take less than half-an-hour to charge a system when it used to take nearly a day, and there are even automatic battery swap-out systems that would mean no charging at all.

“I think very modularly, so everything I design has a core that other elements can plug into. This means they can be easily repaired, easily serviced, and easily deployed. For me, the motors and the batteries of our flying car are disposable, and it is the flight navigation systems and other elements that are the core of this design.”

A modular design built around a universal chassis that allows for elements, including the bodyshell, to be swiftly removed and upgraded, means the flying car concept can be easily tailored for other work too – a distinct advantage in what will be an exhaustive testing phase.

“It is designed as a two-passenger machine that will be completely autonomous, but we are also looking at it as a logistics solution and its first use will be in transporting cargo,” said Neil. “That will allow us to prove the technology and after perhaps a year we will be ready for passengers.”

Neil and his brother and NXG3N co-founder Nathan, have pulled together a well-credentialed team to help with the project. They include Dr Toby Low, an expert in robotics and artificial intelligence, and Dr Thuc Vu, an ex-Googler, Silicon Valley-based entrepreneur, creator of the Ohmnilabs telepresence robot (see page 26) and CEO of Kambria, a decentralised Blockchain Open Robotics and AI Platform.

The development of the software that runs the flying car will be undertaken through the Kambria Open Innovation Platform. An open and decentralised Platform, Kambria engages a Global community of developers and programmers and is designed to accelerate the development and adoption of robotics and AI. It means that the software technology developed for the NXG3N Pegasus flying car will be available on an Open Innovation Platform, like the Raspberry Pi.

Put that together with NXG3N’s physical, modular vehicle, and what you have, said Nathan, is a vehicle that itself becomes almost open-sourced, with technical details one day to be available to anyone around the world on Kambria.io.

“Using an open platform means what we develop can be iterated and anyone could become involved,” said Nathan. “A bunch of students in a Robotics Lab in Vietnam could literally build a flying car with the components we are building now. It’s an open innovation marketplace. And that’s at the core of what we are doing – pushing the speed of innovation, pushing a paradigm shift in thinking and pushing the capacities of collaboration and what we can humanly do.”

The Pegasus flying car project is the latest in a series of ventures that Neil and Nathan have embarked on over the years, with the innovative, entrepreneurial-minded brothers starting their first business in 1996 – a car modification and customisation business called Ares Speed: Autostyling, Motorsport & Development that focused on the car modification sub-culture made famous in the film The Fast and The Furious.

“Back then there was an emerging global trend in customising and modifying smaller capacity cars with aftermarket turbo kits and suped up Japanese rice racers that were quicker than most V8 Holdens and Fords,” said Nathan.

“There were these pockets of sub-culture all around the world and when the movie The Fast and The Furious came out, that really cemented the trend and what we were doing became quite a big movement.

“Ares Speed was a lifestyle proposition – ARES stands for Auto Racing Enhancement System. We created a platform to help people modify their cars to best represent their individuality, because not everyone wants to be a plain-Jane commuter.

“20 years on, we are actually aiming to do something similar with the Pegasus flying car – developing a multifunctional flying car prototype to be put on an Open Innovation Platform to essentially be customisable by teams in their own backyards around the world .”

The journey to here
So how did they get here? An entrepreneurial mindset, a passion for advancing society through technology, and the cumulative knowledge of a career in design and product development seems to be the answer.

Following a nine-year career in his own concrete construction business, Neil transitioned to a period working in product development for the Wagner Group in Toowoomba – the family enterprise behind the Wellcamp Brisbane West Airport –as their R&D, Product Development, Strategic Sourcing manager.

While there, he was asked to be a judge for the F1 in Schools challenge – an international STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) competition for school children aged 5 to 17 in which they must collaborate, design, analyse, manufacture, test, and then race miniature compressed air-powered balsa wood F1 cars. Teams must raise sponsorship and manage budgets to fund research, travel and accommodation.

“What F1 was doing to teach kids engineering, design, and the business side of things really inspired me,” said Neil. “I let myself get creative again and began doing lots of little projects on my own, and became friends with one of the other judges, Dr Tobias Low, who is a Mechatronic Lecturer at USQ: The University of Southern Queensland. I would have these crazy tech ideas, ask him what he thought, and he would help me polish them.

“Starting on Autocad in 1994 while studying Architecture, I progressed to 3D design on my projects, which led to more 3D simulations which led to products and so on. And when you put engineering, mechanics, manufacturing and electronics together, you get to robotics.”

A detour into software implementation services followed, all of which, said Neil, circled around inexorably once again to automation and robotics.

“I went to work as a SaaS implementer for a cloud base software consulting company called RYPE and I saw that with the right systems you could run a business off any computer, any iDevice or
Smart Phone, anywhere. That opened my mind to the software side of things. To realise what well designed, simple to use programs can do for business, and understanding the backend involved in doing that, led me to investigate a little bit more and that, once again, led me to robotics.”

Enthused by the current technologies, the NXG3N team developed the tree-planting robot that was part of the cohort at the first robotics accelerator program in Australia – the Advance Queensland, Softbank, QUT BlueBox Robotics Accelerator.

The three-month Accelerator program’s aim is to get start-ups commercially ready, and teams in the Accelerator must develop their market offering, pitch their business to potential customers, partners and investors in the start-up ecosystem with the top three teams winning funding for their projects.

As a successful participant in The QUT Bluebox Robotic accelerator program, this brought Neil and Nathan into contact with MTA Queensland, the MTAiQ Innovation Hub and, ultimately, the flying car project and Myriad.

“We came second in the hardware category of the Bluebox Robotics Accelerator with our tree-planting robot,” said Nathan. “With that success in our pocket and being part of the Queensland Start Up Ecosystem we were invited to come and check out the new MTAiQ innovation hub and immediately found ourselves a home.

“NXG3N Robotics signed on as one of MTAiQ’s members, where support, mentoring and opportunities including the topic of flying cars project and Myriad came up. We didn’t hesitate and moved quickly to pull a team together and here we are.”

While there is definitely a commercial side to the Pegasus flying car concept, Neil and Nathan hope that the Myriad experience will ignite something altogether more profound.

“20 years ago, we disrupted the modified car scene in Queensland and were part of a global movement that left a legacy on the automotive culture and today we are looking to do the same,” said Nathan. “We want to start the conversation right here in Queensland, to raise awareness in Australia and be part of the global disruption in mobility for the next 20 years.

“Someone has to do this! Australia is a very innovative country and we have created many things that are world-leading – for example Brisbane Airport is the world’s first cryptocurrency-enabled Airport, through a start-up called TravelbyBit.”

“The Pegasus flying car prototype and Myriad, for me, allows us to start the engagement and the conversation about the direction of transportation and mobility. With the help of MTA Queensland, we hope to make enough noise for all the other tech-heads to come on board, and this will once more put Brisbane on the global map.”
You will be able to view the NXG3N Pegasus flying car concept at the Myriad Garage, part of the Myriad festival that runs from May 16-18. Entry to the Myriad Garage is free.

Source: Motor Trader May Edition

4 May 2018