THE SKY’S THE LIMIT
Back in 1962, American television began broadcasting a novel cartoon show called The Jetsons.
The show portrayed a family, and the society of which it was a part, that lived in a technologically advanced future that included being able to make video calls, access instant on-screen news, wear smartwatches, use robotic assistants, drones, augmented reality and, of course, flying cars.
In 1962, this was wild stuff, wacky science fiction, the imaginings of fertile minds that were being exposed to the titanic tussle of the space race between the USA and the Soviet Union and who had recently heard President Kennedy announce that the US ‘should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth’.
That sentence, even uttered by the President, must have seemed pretty jaw-dropping at the time, but 60 years later not only can 12 sets of footprints be found on the Moon but pretty much everything in the list that was dreamed up for The Jetsons has come to fruition too.
And yes, that includes flying cars.
While they may still seem like a bit of wishful thinking to many of us, the truth is that flying cars are already here and there is a budding industry developing around them with several prototype vehicles having been recently tested and some already on sale.
The makers of these craft say there are good reasons to look at their creations as a solution, or part of the solution, to transportation problems. And the logic behind the argument for their inclusion in conversations about future transport needs is impeccable. For example, in a world in which cities become more crowded and traffic snarls often reach epic proportions (who hasn’t sat and fumed through a slow-moving traffic jam on their daily commute?) the case for a mode of personal or taxi-like transport that can fly swiftly above the congestion seems clear cut.
But while the congestion reason is the one with which the public can most obviously identify, there are other arguments to be made.
Steve Baxter, Queensland’s Chief Entrepreneur and a proponent of the flying car concept, explained recently in an interview with ABC Radio that such vehicles not only offer a way to beat road congestion but could also reduce the heavy financial cost to the taxpayer of building new roads or maintaining old ones. After all, as more people travel by air, the need for such investment in roads lessens.
Baxter also highlighted the societal change that such technology can bring. Being able to travel 100km in half-an-hour by air taxi or flying car means there is no need to be anchored to tightly-packed city suburbs close to where you work. If, for example, your job was based in Brisbane but you wanted to live in the rather pleasant city of Toowoomba 125km away, well, no problem, a commute of a smidge over 30 minutes is nothing.
It’s an idea that could change our cities and the way we live our lives – an ‘urban revolution’ as Baxter calls it.
While the arguments for flying cars are solid, the vehicles themselves have, in the past, been less so. Developing a working, and safe, flying car has been somewhat difficult and it is only in recent years that the technology – in construction materials, safety measures, computing power and economically viable power generation – has become such that flying vehicles can be discussed seriously.
And the discussions certainly are serious, with big business taking a big interest in the sector.
Last year, Uber announced that it had partnered with a company called Aurora Flight Sciences to develop electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft for its Uber Elevate Network – a flying ‘taxi’ network that will allow short-distance travel for commuters and which the company reportedly aims to have in service in Los Angeles by 2020.
Technology giant Intel has partnered with German company Volocopter whose Vertical Take-off and Landing (VTOL) vehicle recently conducted test flights in Dubai. Meanwhile, Airbus, the European aerospace giant, has flown into the fray with its Vahana flying taxi vehicle that was successfully tested in January. Airbus has also developed a radical transportation concept called the Pop.Up.
Automotive companies are getting involved too. Toyota has invested in a start-up company called Cartivator that is developing a small, one-person vehicle called Skydrive, while Chinese company Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Co., owners of Volvo, last year bought American flying car developer Terrafugia.
As has been proven with the enormous investments being made in the development of electric and autonomous vehicles, the possibilities offered by new technology and concepts helps draw in the influence, expertise and money of industrial heavyweights, and already there is the whiff of inevitability about flying cars becoming part of the fabric of our society – and not in some dim and distant Jetsons-like future.
There are, of course, issues that the flying car industry must tackle before it can get truly off the ground.
Regulatory issues must be addressed – questions about safety, licensing, autonomy, flight paths and so on must be answered at a governmental level.
And there is also the issue of public acceptance – no new idea has a chance of becoming a reality if the public do not embrace it. But there is evidence that the public is excited about the possibilities. A 2017 University of Michigan survey of public opinion regarding flying cars yielded some intriguing results and among its key findings were that most respondents had a desire to use them, and while many cited safety concerns, a hefty majority – 70 per cent – were either very positive, positive or neutral about the technology.
That’s pretty encouraging.
Read the survey here
Where we’re going we don’t need roads
At the end of the film Back To The Future, the character of Doc Brown, at the wheel of his flying DeLorean DMC-12, says, ‘Where we’re going we don’t need roads’, and it is possible that a future in which the sky is filled with drones, flying cars, flying taxis and the like is one that will come to pass.
So, what will these vehicles look like? Well here are just a few of the many concepts and ideas currently being developed or being tested.
Unveiled in 2015, the Ehang 184 is an electric-powered Autonomous Aerial Vehicle (AAV) from Chinese company Ehang. The company says the 184 – which stands for ‘one’ passenger, ‘eight’ propellers, and ‘four’ arms – uses multiple independent flight control systems to automatically navigate passengers from one point to the next and these systems combine real-time data collected from sensors throughout the flight to automatically plot the fastest and safest route.
The Ehang 184 weighs 200kg, has a load capacity of 100kg and is designed to carry a single passenger for 25 minutes at 100km/h with a cruising altitude of 500m.
The power system is composed of four arms and eight propellers and with the four arms folded, the craft occupies the same size parking space as a car.
Inside, in front of the single seat is a tablet console, through which passengers can input commands and select a location on a map before take-off.
In February, Ehang announced that the company had performed more than one thousand test flights, including a loaded test flight carrying approximately 230kg, a routed test flight covering 15km, and a high-speed cruising test that reached 130 km/h.
In 2017, Ehang announced a partnership with the Dubai Roads and Transport Authority to jointly promote the 184 with the aim to develop it for public transportation.
Founded in 2006, American company Terrafugia is already responsible for the working flying car called the Transition. A two-seat aircraft/car, the Transition is powered by 100hp Rotax petrol engine, has folding wings, can fit in a standard single-car garage and convert between flight and drive modes in less than a minute.
Following the development of the Transition, the company began work on the TF-X, an altogether different machine.
Designed to seat four, the TF-X will, the company say, be capable of vertical take-off using propellers at the end of each retractable wing, while thrust when airborne will come from a ducted fan at the rear. Power comes from a hybrid set up of two electric motors and a 300hp petrol engine. Speed in flight is estimated at up to 320km/h with a range of 800km.
As with the Transition, the folding wings of the TF-X will allow it to fit into a standard garage, making it a true, door-to-door flying car.
Terrafugia was bought by China’s Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Co., the parent company of Volvo last year.
The Liberty is the new vehicle from Dutch company PAL-V. A form of gyrocopter, the Liberty looks like a helicopter when its rotors are unpacked, but those rotors are not powered and instead use air-flow to create lift. Thrust is provided by an engine-driven propeller at the rear.
Able to carry two people, the three-wheeled Liberty’s rotors fold away when the vehicle is being driven on land and it has tilting technology, called Dynamic Curve Stabilizer, that allows the vehicle to lean into a curve, keeping it stable.
Switching from drive mode to flying mode takes around 5 minutes and the Liberty requires a bit of space, up to 200m, to take off. However, driving it to a suitable strip for that purpose seems like a minor inconvenience – you don’t have to keep it there, you can drive it there from your garage.
Lightweight and powerful, PAL-V says the Liberty has a top speed of 160km/h and a range of 1300km when driven, and a top speed of 180km/h and a range of 500km in flight.
Having already demonstrated their technology’s capabilities with a previous model vehicle – the PAL-V ONE – PAL-V will be debuting the Liberty at the Geneva Motor Show this month and are now taking orders for the vehicle.
A very slick-looking machine from Slovakian company AeroMobil, the latest model of the company’s flying car was unveiled last year.
The wings of the AeroMobil 4.0 fold back like an insect and switching between road and flying modes takes just 3 minutes. Power comes from a hybrid-electric system integrating a 2-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine and electric motors.
On the road the AeroMobil is powered by a dedicated electric front wheel drive system. During flight mode, AeroMobil has available power of 224 kW (300hp), delivered to the propeller at the rear.
The company says that safety and control are of paramount importance both in the air and on the ground. The vehicle’s cockpit is made from a high-strength monocoque structure and the vehicle incorporates vehicle recovery ballistic parachute technology, designed to bring an airborne vehicle back to ground safely should the pilot choose to deploy it. On the road the occupant restraint system uses pyrotechnic seatbelt technology in conjunction with dual-stage airbags.
On the road, AeroMobil claims a range of 700km and a top speed of 160km/h. In flying mode that changes to somewhere near 1000km and a top speed of 360km/h. You’ll need to get it to runway to take off but, like the PAL-V Liberty, running it from home to the runway doesn’t feel like much of a chore.
The Lilium Jet is a zero-emission electric vehicle capable of Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL). Developed in Germany by Lilium Aviation, the Jet is all-electric and capable of both VTOL and jet-powered flight, using its wings for lift, similar to a conventional airplane.
The company claims a range of more than 300 km with a maximum cruising speed of 300 km/h and, while in flight, the Jet’s power consumption per km will be comparable to an electric car.
A lightweight aircraft, the Lilium Jet is powered by 36 electric jet engines mounted to its wings via 12 moveable flaps. At take-off, the flaps are pointed downwards to provide vertical lift. Once airborne, the flaps gradually tilt into a horizontal position, providing forward thrust.
As with any vehicle, safety is an issue and Lilium says the Jet has been designed along the principle of ‘Ultra Redundancy’. The engines are individually shielded, so the failure of a single unit cannot affect adjacent engines, while the power cells are designed to continue delivering sufficient power for flight and a safe landing should part of the battery configuration fails.
A Flight Envelope Protection System prevents the pilot from performing manoeuvres that would take the aircraft beyond safe flight parameters.
The Lilium Jet completed successful flight testing in 2017 and garnered some seriously large interest from investors – raising $90 million in funding at the end of last year from a group of investors including the Chinese internet and technology behemoth Tencent.
Lilium aims to develop a five-seater version of the Jet for on-demand air taxi services.
8 Mar 2018