Reaching for the sky: ‘Flying cars’ may soon be reality

Aviation companies foresee a lucrative market in one- and two-seat taxis that would carry commuters to work by hovering above city traffic, says Joan Lowy

EVEN before George Jetson entranced children with his flying car in the cartoon series, The Jetsons, people dreamed of soaring above traffic congestion. Inventors and entrepreneurs have long tried to make the dream a reality.

Nearly a dozen companies worldwide, including some with deep pockets, such as European aircraft maker, Airbus, are competing to be the first to develop an aircraft that will enable commuters to glide above crowded roadways.

A few of the aircraft are cars with wings that unfold for flight, but most aren’t cars. Typically, they take off and land vertically, like helicopters. Rather than a single, large, main rotor, they have multiple, small rotors. Each rotor is operated by a battery-powered electric motor, instead of a conventional, aircraft piston engine.

It’s no sure bet that flying-car dreams will turn into reality. There are many obstacles, including convincing regulators that the aircraft are safe, figuring out how to handle thousands of new, low-flying aircraft over cities, without collisions, and developing batteries that will keep them aloft long enough to be useful.

But entrepreneurs are moving forward. They see a vast potential market for ‘air taxis’ and personally owned small aircraft that will transport people from the fringes of metropolitan areas to city centres, as urban areas grow more congested and people spend more time in traffic.

They envision tens of thousands of one- or two-person flying taxis delivering passengers to the rooftops of office buildings, and to other landing pads, in city centres during rush hours.

“In as little as 10 years, products could be on the market that revolutionise urban travel for millions of people,” said Zach Lovering, the leader of Airbus’s project to develop an autonomous flying taxi, the Vahana. The name means the mount, or vehicle, of a Hindu deity.

Uber released a 98-page report in October, making the business case for air taxis, which it sees as the future of on-demand transportation. Uber doesn’t have any plans to develop a flying car itself, but the online transportation network is advising several companies that have aircraft in the works.

“The role we want to play is as a catalyst for the entire industry,” said Nikhil Goel, an Uber project manager for advanced programmes.

The Joby S2 is a two-seat fixed-wing aircraft. It has 12 tiltrotors spread along the wings and tail.

Some of the aircraft are drones that passengers will be able to programme for flight by using a smartphone. Others will be operated from the ground or a command centre, and some are designed for human pilots.

It’s unclear, yet, how much the aircraft will cost, although prices are likely to vary significantly. Some of the aircraft are designed to be individually owned, while others are for commercial use. Designers hope that, if demand is high, prices can be kept affordable, through economies of mass production.

Several, recent developments could make these aircraft possible. Advances in computing power mean the rotors on multi-copter drones can be adjusted many times per second, so that the aircraft would be easy to control.

Drones have also benefited from advances in battery and electric motor technology. Some companies, like Chinese drone-maker, EHang, are scaling-up drones to carry people.

Another aircraft, the S2, being developed by Santa Cruz, California-based Joby Aviation, looks more like a conventional plane, except that there are 12 tiltrotors spread along the wings and tail. And some, like the Vahana, which has a cockpit mounted on a sled and flanked by propellers in front and back, don’t look like any aircraft of today.

“In terms of what you can make fly in a reliable manner, the solution speed gateway that (computer) chips have gone through recently have opened the door to a whole new world of flying-machine possibilities,” said Charles Eastlake, an Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University professor emeritus of aerospace engineering.

But he said: “My best engineering guess is that people actually using autonomous air taxis in the next 10 or 15 years is possible, but definitely not certain. The challenges are big.”

Key will be the development of longer-lasting, lightweight batteries. Current batteries could probably keep an air taxi aloft for 15 to 30 minutes, before it would have to land.

Depending on how fast the aircraft flies, that isn’t enough to transport passengers between nearby cities or across metropolitan areas.

Another hurdle will be winning Aviation Administration certification for any radical new aircraft. Approval of even small changes in aviation technology can take years.

While further research is needed to ensure that autonomous aircraft are safe, “we believe automation technology already being prototyped in low-risk, unmanned aircraft missions, when fully mature, could have a positive effect” on aviation safety, the agency said.

The Vahana would take off and land like a helicopter, but current battery life is not sufficient for such ‘flying cars’ to be air-borne for more than 30 minutes or so.

Reducing noise is another challenge, since air taxis will be taking off and landing in densely populated areas. So is creating enough landing pads to handle many aircraft at the same time. A new air traffic control system would also be needed.

“It’s pretty clear that the existing air traffic control system won’t scale to the kind of density at low altitudes that people are talking about,” said John Hansman, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor, who chairs the FAA’s research and engineering advisory committee.

NASA is developing an air traffic control system for small drones that, perhaps, could be expanded to include flying cars.

“There’s no question we can build the vehicle,” Hansman said. “The big challenge is whether we can build a vehicle that would be allowed to operate in the places where people want to use it.”



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