‘Flying cars’ are being hailed as the future of urban transportation, although not everyone is convinced. We look at some of the aircraft in the race to launch futuristic services soon.
Proponents of flying cars say they have the potential to help alleviate road-based traffic jams and get people from A to B in the city quickly.
There are challenges to overcome first, from regulation to air traffic control on a brand new scale. A whitepaper from Gartner last year concluded that: “High costs, safety concerns and regulatory burdens are likely to limit the use of this overhyped technology.”
Despite this, the race to get things off the ground goes on. We look at some of the companies leading the way.
At Paris Airshow’s Paris Air Labs in summer 2017, one of the main draws was the AeroMobil flying car. The company’s CEO, Juraj Vaculik, told us the AeroMobil is “the ideal combination of the car, the computer and the plane. We believe that this innovation will transform and revolutionise personal transportation on a global scale.”
The big question on everyone’s lips, though, is: When?
Maybe sooner than you think. Vaculik said that taking off at Farnborough International Airshow (July 2018) is the plan for AeroMobil. He commented: “We will be happy to come to Farnborough Airshow and to demonstrate not just on the ground but also in the air.”
Bell Helicopter’s Bell Air Taxi
At the CES tech show in Las Vegas in January, Bell Helicopter showed off the cabin of its electric flying taxi, which is in development.
The company, which claimed to be the first helicopter manufacturer to present at the hype-heavy event, said it plans to unveil the full vehicle at a later date. The preview of the cabin was intended to provide a flavour of the passenger experience.
Scott Drennen, Bell’s director of innovation, was quoted as saying: “We’re just keeping our particular propulsion system in configuration to ourselves right now, to keep our competition on their on their heels.”
Tomasz Krysinski, SVP, Research & Innovation at Airbus Helicopters, called the Airbus Racer hybrid helicopter a “breakthrough concept”. He said it flies “50% faster” than traditional helicopters, but at a lower cost. Airbus’ ‘flying taxi’, CityAirbus, is another strand of the company’s strategy to “change transportation”.
By 2030, Dubai has a target that 25% of personal trips will use autonomous vehicles. This includes introducing the Volocopter ‘flying taxi’.
The fully electric two-seater has 18 motors and will be capable of transporting people without human intervention or a pilot.
The aircraft is now in the testing phase. It took off on stage during the CES event, concluding a presentation from Intel. The two companies announced an ongoing partnership at the show. The Volocopter has already completed manned and unmanned test flights but was able to demo to a US audience in Las Vegas. The aircraft was tethered to the ground and behind bars for the take-off, reports note.
Airbus says that through Project Vahana it intends to “open up urban airways by developing the first certified electric, self-piloted vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) passenger aircraft”. It envisions Vahana being used by everyday commuters as a cost-comparable replacement for short-range urban transportation like cars or trains.
Vahana is aiming at speeds 2-4 times faster than cars and a flight range of about 50 miles (80 km). Safety is a core premise of this project, using automation and sense-and-avoid technology to enable higher safety levels though minimising human error. Airbus says: “There is no other project that we know of that incorporates this much automation in vertical flight.”
Airbus recently reported that Vahana had successfully completed its first full-scale flight test.
Workhorse’s SureFly passenger drone
Workhorse says SureFly is “reinventing the helicopter”. It is a personal helicopter/VTOL aircraft with eight independent motors each driving a single carbon fiber propeller, a backup battery power system, and a ballistic parachute to safely land in the event of emergency. The company is targeting a price of $200,000.
Workhorse received an experimental airworthiness certificate and approval for flight from the FAA. The company says light rain thwarted the planned maiden flight of SureFly at CES but it expects to fly the eVTOL “soon.”
AirSpaceX, a subsidiary of Detroit Aircraft Corp, recently revealed a sub-scale model of its autonomous, electric VTOL aircraft, MOBi-ONE.
MOBi-ONE is designed to “autonomously take off like a helicopter, fly like a plane, and transport passengers or cargo between urban centres, suburbs and airports within 60 miles.” It will fly at a top speed of 250 MPH.
The company plans to deploy 2,500 aircraft in the US’s 50 largest cities by 2026.
Uber first introduced its plan to bring ride-sharing to the skies in a whitepaper in 2016. It is developing an autonomous, electric VTOL aircraft. The company says it hopes to pilot the air taxis from 2020 in LA, Dallas and Dubai.
Uber has also teamed up with NASA to develop software to manage the routes of its Uber Elevate flying taxis.
Passenger Drone launched in October with a test flight with passengers. The aircraft is slightly larger than a small car and composed of specially created carbon fibre composites. The avionics, stability systems and electrical control systems have also been custom-designed for the vehicle.
Using a touch-screen, passengers select their destination and sit back as the drone takes over, with the ability to travel up to 80 km/h. It has 16 electric engines and, according to Passenger Drone, is a low noise, high speed and economical mean of transportation which emits zero emissions.
The company says: “Its engine system sheds the complexity of most quad-copters providing enhanced safety, performance, greater payload and range, and less noise than anything else available on the marketplace.”
It’s not just cars but bikes too. At GITEX late last year, Dubai Police unveiled a flying motorbike. The battery-powered ‘hoverbike’, developed with Russian drone manufacturer Hoversurf, could be used in future for responding to emergency situations, especially during busy traffic.