Being a Paris-based company, it was easy for us at Autonomy to attend the International Paris Air Show in June. The novelty of this 52nd edition was the showcasing of 100 innovative start-ups, in association with the international incubator Starburst Accelerator. That is how we came face to face with flying cars. They’re not exactly what we’d expected after watching The Fifth Element, but they’re here. Over 50 projects around the world are trying to conquer the sky, and several are already well-advanced in terms of technology and funding.
If that’s not enough to convince you that urban air mobility is really coming, then take a look at the city of Sao Paulo in Brazil. Airbus has already created a helicopter ride-hailing service called Voom, which allows the wealthiest urbanites to avoid congestion. Many cities across the globe, especially in developing countries, are terrifyingly gridlocked. In the European Union, congestion costs almost €100 billion a year, and in the USA, drivers waste on average 42 hours a year in traffic jams. Taking to the sky would mean saving money and time. Starburst Accelerator estimates that a city like San Francisco will need around a thousand flying vehicles, and that the global market will reach a figure between 200,000 and 400,000 vehicles over 20 years.
While we thought flying cars would look something like this:
Flying police cars chasing Bruce Willis’ taxi in The Fifth Element
They’ll probably end up looking more like this:
The Ehang 184 autonomous aerial vehicle © Ehang Inc.
And they won’t be called flying cars, but “passenger drones”. Autonomous, 100% electric pods, equipped with multiple small rotors. Several reasons are pushing manufacturers to take the drone route.
If we all had to fly 40 hours to earn a Federal Aviation Association-approved Private Pilot license (or its equivalent in other countries), there would be no market. Say goodbye to having your own personal flying vehicle parked in your garage, they will be on-demand and autonomous, like most vehicles in a few years time.
- Multiple rotors
The drone design favors distributed electric propulsion, which means that instead of one large rotor powered by a unique engine, there are several smaller propellers each powered by its own motor. This sacrifices lifting power and flight performance in exchange for mechanical simplicity and lighter weight: factors that could make the drones cheaper to operate.
- Vertical take-off and landing (VTOL)
Some companies, like Terrafugia and AeroMobil, have bet on cars with folding wings that need an airstrip to take off. But most constructors prefer the drone concept as it can take off from and land on a platform, thus saving space and allowing it to access more areas.
In terms of technology, one main hurdle persists: charging. Current battery life is quite low and so drones would need to land at least once per hour to recharge. Either we wait for a leap in battery technology, or we develop mid-air charging. Back in 2012, LaserMotive, a Seattle-based wireless charging startup, ran a test on a Stalker Unmanned Aerial System and managed to sustain its flight for 48 hours – a 2400% improvement compared to usual flight range. This feat was accomplished by targeting high-energy lasers at photovoltaic cells mounted on the vehicle.
Silent, eco-friendly, manoeuvrable, and efficient, drones are clearly the logical choice for urban environments in terms of air mobility.
Let’s take a look at some of the projects currently under development.
“We can’t keep overloading our roads but what we can do is take advantage of the space above us. Adding the third dimension to seamless multi-modal transportation networks will, without a doubt, improve the way we live, and how we get from A to B. ” – Mathias Fay-Thomsen, general manager for urban air mobility at Airbus, who will be giving a keynote speech at Autonomy 2017
Airbus has several urban air mobility projects under development, but the one which is getting the most attention is definitely Pop.Up. Created with the help of Italdesign, this two-passenger, autonomous, carbon fiber capsule is both an air and a ground vehicle. On the road, it is equipped with a set of four wheels, and if stuck in congestion, an eight-rotor air module clips onto the pod and whizzes it away. People will request a ride via the app, and the system will choose the best module for the occasion and work out the best way to drive it. Once the trip is over, Pop.Up returns itself to a charging station and waits for the next ride.
The advantage of such a vehicle is that, by jumping from one mode of transport to another, it offers users a door-to-door solution.
Last October, Uber, which will be participating in Autonomy 2017, released a white paper to present its concept of a network of on-demand, electric VTOL aircrafts: Uber Elevate. Their bet is that this network will be operational in ten years time. But they’re not planning to do it alone. Their goal is to bring together private and public actors to overcome technical and regulatory issues, and when all is set, provide the service, like they do with cars today. The recent hire of Mark Moore, aircraft engineer at NASA Langley Research Center and pioneer in VTOL aircraft designs, shows they are serious about the idea.
Nevertheless, the fact that passenger drones will become mass-marketed in the near future is questioned in the report:
“If VTOLs are expensive, then the market size will be limited due to poor value for consumers, which feeds back to further limit vehicle production. This snowballs into VTOLs being a cottage industry for the wealthy not unlike Lamborghinis. Although helicopters have existed for decades, their commercial appeal has not grown to the point of breaking out of the low production and high vehicle cost cycle. In fact, global non-military rotorcraft production is projected to total just 1,050 in 2016.”
© Ehang Inc.
The Ehang 184, a single-passenger, four-rotor, autonomous drone, was tested in Dubai’s sky early 2017. Matt Al Tayer, head of the city’s Roads and Transportation Authority, said they found the Chinese drone to be safe and satisfactory. The Ehang 184 is to be part of Dubai’s futuristic transport system which aims for 25% of all vehicles to be automated by 2030, and for a Hyperloop to link Dubai to Abu Dhabi.
But Ehang doesn’t just plan to transport VIP passengers in a rich emirate. They recently signed a $1 billion deal with Maryland based Lung Biotechnology to help automate organ transplant delivery. Speeding up the transport of organs and doctors to patients who need immediate surgery could help save some of the 22 Americans who die daily waiting for a donor.
Other names you may come across include:
- AirQuadOne, a manned flying quad developed by the European consortium Neva Aerospace
- The Lilium Jet, a VTOL drone equipped with three electric jets which can fly at 300 km/h and carry up to 5 passengers. A 20 km trip should take only 5 minutes and cost $36 initially and $6 on the long-term.
- Aurora’s eVTOL, an autonomous drone scheduled to start testing in 2020 in Dallas and Dubai
- Hoversurf Scorpion, which merges a standard motorbike design with drone quadcopter technology
- Sky Drive, a flying and driving car, developed by Cartivator, which is expected to take its first test flight in 2019. Toyota has invested several hundred thousand dollars in the project and hopes it will be ready in time to light the torch at the opening ceremony of the 2020 Olympic games in Tokyo.
- The Volocopter 2X, a manned VTOL drone, which automobile firm Daimler has invested in, and which will begin testing in Dubai at the end of this year
Safety and regulation
If cities like Dubai and Singapore plan to have drones conquering their skies by 2030, there are still many safety and regulation issues to be dealt with.
Can artificial intelligence really manage fleets of autonomous air vehicles safely and deal with unexpected events? Several research teams are working on this question, including one at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). They developed a multi-robot path planning algorithm able to control eight flying and driving drones around a mock-up city, while ensuring they don’t crash into each other or enter no-fly zones. But applying this to real life will be far more complex.
What about regulatory infrastructure? In the States, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has not issued guidance on passenger drones yet. But the rules they are currently establishing with NASA to manage smaller delivery and emergency drones could be tailored to fit passenger drone fleets. Most experts believe this aspect of air mobility will be the one to hold its development back for some time.
The final question everyone has in mind is: will urbanites accept passenger drones? Well, that’s really up to you.
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