Flying cars are commonly seen in science fiction movies. But screenwriters will soon have to come up with something new. No longer a visionary idea, airborne cars are a reality today – and they're ready to add a third dimension to the future of urban mobility. The race is on to mass-produce the world's first autonomous flying machine capable of airlifting passengers.
The pioneering spirit is high and the dynamic optimism reminds us of a time more than a century in the past. When Otto Lilienthal, the Wright brothers, and other ingenious inventors launched the first experimental flights over bumpy terrain, many people thought they had gone mad. The concept of a flying machine seemed too visionary in 1900. But things turned out much differently. Now, anonymous urban air travel is ready for take-off.
The concept of Autonomous Aerial Vehicles (AAV) is experiencing a major innovation thrust. Experimenting with different approaches, developers around the world are competing for their place in the history books. Their visions take to the air at airfields in Southern Germany, on a lake in North Carolina, or in front of a replica of the Paris Opera in China.
Many of the new concepts are less inspired by the automobile than they are by helicopters and drones. Companies like Carplane, Terrafugia and AeroMobil are working on hybrids that can drive on the road and have folding wings to fly. But today's most promising prototypes rely on rotors and vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) capabilities.
New Mobility. No New Roads.
The key advantages are obvious. Hybrid airplanes and flying cars require long runways for take-off and landing. Drones can take to the air and land almost anywhere – on the roof of a high-rise building, near a busy intersection, or on a beach. A few dozen square meters of space is all they need. Passenger drones demonstrate their key strengths in densely populated metropolitan areas, like Tokyo, Shanghai, Mumbai, or Mexico City.
Emission-Free and Autonomous.
A common denominator for all drone designs is the use of electric motors for quiet, emission-free mobility. This makes them lighter and smaller than helicopters – they are also easier to operate with less complicated technology. The new 'flying cars' will be designed for autonomous operation. Passengers can simply enter the vehicle, specify a destination, and off they go. This will help prevent accidents caused by human error and reduce costs for commuters.
A Clearer Overview.
When it comes to autonomous 'driving', the sky is even more suitable than the road. In the air, there are far fewer complicated situations that require software to 'learn' new details – for example, children playing alongside the road, country-specific traffic regulations, one-way streets, or blind intersections.
The cameras and sensor systems used in today's autonomous cars provide a much clearer overview in the sky, where there are no hedges or parked cars to restrict the field of view. And there are no construction zones or tunnels. But the ability to recognize and avoid other flying objects or high buildings must work perfectly. Unlike a car, a drone can evade an obstacle in three dimensions. The autopilot function in commercial airliners proves that air travel is safe without human control. This is guaranteed by comprehensive flight safety systems. If two aircraft are approaching at close range, the Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) automatically warns pilots of an impending collision. High-end camera drones can autonomously evade trees, lanterns, and other drones. Multiple sensors provide a 360° view by scanning the immediate environment for possible obstacles and changing direction in case of danger.
Volocopter Available in 2019.
Two German start-ups are at the forefront of AAV concept development. The Volocopter design resembles a helicopter. It has runners, a cabin for two passengers, and a circular frame with 18 small rotors. Eight rotors would be sufficient, but 18 make the vehicle safer and quieter. The Volocopter concept has been continuously refined since 2011. Powered by an electric motor, the Volocopter reaches a top speed of 100 km/h (62 mph). It can remain in the air for up to 30 minutes, and has a range of about 30 kilometers (18.6 miles). This makes it ideal for short urban flights. Testing has been successful so far and market launch is expected in two years. Daimler supports Volocopter and, together with other investors, is contributing capital totaling €25 million. These funds will be used to add another 30 members to the Volocopter team and drive series production forward.
An unmanned maiden flight was successful, but the accompanying video doesn't show the transition from ascending to horizontal flight. Lilium has attracted well-known supporters, including the European Space Agency. Atomico, an investment company headed by Skype co-founder, Niklas Zennström, has provided €10 million in funding. This enabled Lilium to hire experts from Tesla, Airbus, and Gett. It is still unclear when the Lilium Jet will be available on the market.
The Drone Olympics Have Begun.
The main challenger from China is a company called Ehang that completed a test flight of its 184 AAV at the end of 2015. The single-passenger drone is powered by eight rotors. Autonomous flight begins after the destination is entered on a map displayed on a tablet computer. With a maximum flight time of 25 minutes, the Ehang drone – like the Volocopter – will be primarily used for urban transport. The latest AAV developments are being closely monitored in Japan, where a team from Toyota is working on SkyDrive. With three wheels, four rotors, and compact dimensions, the single-seater will likely be the smallest flying car. The first prototype is expected in summer 2018. And if everything works right, the SkyDrive will be used to ignite the flame at opening ceremony for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
Industry giant Airbus is also in on the AAV action. A team working in Silicon Valley is currently developing several prototypes. While researchers at Vahana are linking into the Lilium idea with pivoting flaps and rotors, the Pop.Up project is completely new. A passenger capsule can be transformed into an autonomous electric vehicle or drone in a matter of minutes by adding a modular system consisting of a chassis and an element with four rotors. In close proximity to Airbus, two more start-ups are working on visionary ideas: Kitty Hawk has a flying motorbike concept in mind and Zee.Aero is focusing on a narrow VTOL aircraft. Both companies have impressed Google founder Larry Page so much that he decided to invest $100 million in private funds.
Dream Team Uber and Dubai.
Dubai plays a special role – not only in Uber's plans. By 2030, the city wants to shift a quarter of its passenger transport to autonomous vehicles and is already making substantial headway on its plans. An agreement has been reached with Volocopter to launch a series of tests later this year.
Only a Matter of Time.
The evolution of autonomous aerial vehicles is moving forward at lightning speed. But, similar to electric cars, the batteries currently available only provide enough power for a quick flight. Vertical take-off requires a lot of energy – the Lilium Jet consumes as much as a hyper car. Nevertheless, a glance at the history books shows that flight pioneers back in 1900 made considerable progress in just a few years. The first successful flights conducted by the Wright Brothers in December 1903 lasted only a few seconds. Five years later, they kept their biplane in the air for up to two hours. Frenchman Louis Blériot crossed the English Channel for the first time in summer 1909. Today, air travel is a commonplace activity that attracted nearly four billion passengers in 2016.
Although it may still be hard to imagine, it's only a matter of time before AAVs will be capable of carrying passengers all day long on a single battery charge. Even Wilbur Wright had his doubts in the beginning: 'I must admit that in 1901, I told my brother that no one would be flying anywhere in the air for the next 50 years.' Just two years later, the brothers succeeded.
Authors: Christian Geiss und Jens Wollweber