Updated: Feb 5
We aren't seeing flying cars in our skies just yet but electric gliders, and drone and hovercraft taxis are very real and already in use.
Advances in materials science (getting a vehicle light and efficient enough), battery energy density (to allow vehicles the power to get off the ground and fly), and computer simulation (AI GPS technology for navigation) have all encouraged the development of a range of personal flying vehicles. Electric propulsion dramatically reduces noise emissions and increased battery power enhances range
Most of the technology is designed with rotors rather than wings to allow for vertical liftoff and landing; much like the smaller drones used in recreation and now for deliveries. Tilt rotors allow for horizontal propulsion and multi rotors reduce noise in hover flight.
Let's look at some examples of current designs which have prototypes already being tested.
German company Volocopter is claiming the first commercially licensed air taxi, with room for a single passenger. It is a high cost per ride (currently expected to be €270 per ticket) but the company wants to build confidence before moving to a fully autonomous electric, wingless taxi powered by nine batteries. Passengers will be transported between cities from a planned network of 'vertiports' starting from next year (2022).
Joby Aviation (Uber Elevate)
A piloted taxi, the Joby electric aircraft has a 240km range for 4 passengers. The company claims the rotor technology is quiet enough to pickup and deliver clients from suburban streets. The company recently aquired Uber Elevate and envision the use of the vehicle in ride sharing system. The US Air Force granted Joby its first ever eVTOL airworthiness certification in 2020.
Japanese startup SkyDrive has teamed with Toyota for a test flight of its all-electric air taxi, currently the world's smallest. The company is looking to develop a sized vehicle for 2 people, at a similar cost to a standard automobile. At the moment the mileage is only 20-30km. For the test flight in late 2020, a pilot was at the controls but the company is working on the computer assisted control system. It's likely that this vehicle (expected to be available by 2023) will still require a pilots license for its driver.
Boeing NeXt is developing the prototype for their VTOL model, which was successfully tested in 2020. The craft, which is 9 x 8.5m, integrates propulsion and wing systems to hover and advance like a helicopter. The vehicle is expected to be autonomous; not requiring piloting by the passengers. A large, unmanned cargo vehicle is also being developed.
Aurora is a Boeing subsidiary working on the PAV (passenger air vehicle) - an eVTOL aircraft or air taxi. PAV is able to autonomously transport passengers, plan routes, respond to contingencies, and detect and avoid unexpected obstacles. To navigate complex and busy urban environments, the aircraft is designed to operate with a vertiport system which will safely and quickly board and exit passengers.
The Lillium Jet is a very smart looking 4-passenger and piloit vehicle ablet o fly at 300km/h for a 60 minute flight time. The company is putting together a customer booking system for Germany, to start with, and has already agreed to a partnership with Cologne and Dusseldorf airports with less than 60-minute inter-Europe flights expected. "Launch" is expected in 2025.
Another Boeing JV, Wisk's fully electric, 2-person "Cora" has had more than 1000 test flights since 2010. Passenger transport trials in New Zealand received the go-ahead, possibly to start in 2021. Th range is currently 40km with a speed of 160km/h.
For something a bit different, this company recently partnered with the Great North Air Ambulance Service in the UK for search and rescue missions using their jetpack to illustrate the delivery of critical care services to remote locations.
The TF-2 and the Transition from US company Terrfugia are the first hybrid flying cars; literally a 2- or 4-seater car that drives as normal along a road then can take off as needed. The vehicle, already on sale, takes off like a helicopter, flies like a plane and drives like a car. The TF-2 Air Vehicle propulsion system is comprised of 8 electric motors, powered initially by a turbine generator and ultimately powered by batteries as technology advances. The TF has a range of 300km and can hold up to 544kg. However it looks more awkward than the rotor vehicle systems, and its hybrid system may make it less efficient that other VTOLs. On the other hand, it allows for ground transport when required. Folding wings on the Transition mak for a heavier vehicle and teh TF-2 has three components which will make i much more expensive than other options. Both vehicles require drivers with pilot licenses.
Another hybrid drive and fly vehicle is from Slovakian company Klein. The innovatively named AirCar looks a bit snappier than the TF-2 but needs a runway. It has some advanced James Bond level fold out systems for the flight mode, including wings and a tail. The company is looking at 3- and 4- seaters and an amphibious mode. Along with the runway requirement, the AirCar also requires a driver with a pilot license.
Other designs to keep an eye on
Hyundai UAM S-A1
Jaunt Air Mobility
Current Limitations for Flying Vehicles
There are a whole ecosystem of factors that have to be dealt with to get fully autonomous and eventually AI powered flying cars off the ground literally and figuratively.
Apart from the technology itself, there is also concerns about cost, airspace, infrastructure, community integration, weather patterns, GPS, noise standards, maintenance, supply chain, and parts acquisition. There are many and not always obvious problems that must be resolved before aerial taxis at scale (and a low enough cost) can become a reality.
For full navigation automation, with digital tracking of flight paths, VTOLs have to have a common awareness of other flights and may require air corridors and possibly sky harbours, obstacle avoidance technologies (skyscrapers, electricity lines, birds, other flying vehicles) plus a set of laws and regulations along with responses for bad weather.
With regulations, safety and public willingness also factors, we are likely to be waiting a few more years yet to get between cities in minutes!
Pod Technology (the flying transport of the future) features heavily in the world of the Tangle; I hope we get there in my lifetime!