Tech news: What if cars could fly?
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By Louis C H Fourie
ALTHOUGH the Covid-19 pandemic brought many tragedies and immense hardship, it also brought many new innovations. Probably because people were able to focus on the task at hand.
One of the innovations is the long-standing dream of a flying car that was predicted by Henry Ford in the year 1940. Many attempts followed since then, but apparently the year 2020 became a very significant year towards making cars fly.
Could it mean the end of traffic jams and long hours on the road during rush hour? Will crossroads, traffic lights and roundabouts disappear since the traffic in various directions would be separated by altitude?
On October 27 last year, science fiction became a reality when a flying sports car took to the skies. KleinVision, the Slovakian flying car manufacturer, was founded by Professor Stefan Klein who devoted the past 20 years of his life to making his flying-car dream come true.
After various predecessors such as the Aeromobil I and II, Klein founded KleinVision in 2017 and developed the AirCar with a unique way of transformation from aircraft to car and vice versa at the push of a button. The transformation takes a mere three minutes.
Eventually a flying prototype of the Aircar was realised and successfully completed two take-offs, flights, and landings at Piestany airport, Slovakia, in October last year The maiden flight AirCar was powered by a BMW 1.6 litre engine of 140 horsepower, but future versions will be powered by a 300 horsepower ADEPT Airmotive engine from South Africa with a travel range of 1 000km.
The AirCar (V5) that looks like a futuristic racing car, has an aerodynamic fuselage to ensure great lift characteristics during flight, while providing enough space for the passengers. Some of the major innovations are its retractable wings, folding tail surfaces, and parachute deployment system. The folding tail contributes greatly towards the longitudinal stability and take-off characteristics of the AirCar.
The Aircar is intended for leisure, self-driving journeys, and as a commercial taxi service. It is envisioned that the AirCar will, in future, be available in two-, three- and four-seater versions, as well as twin engine and amphibious versions.
Its major convenience is that the AirCar can be used along a road or in the city as a normal car but, when needed, transformer mode can be engaged, which extends the spoiler further towards the back and unfolds the wings horizontally to the sides.
AeroMobil, where Stafan Klein and some of his colleagues originally worked, is also working on a four-wheeled “ultra-high-end” two-seater flying vehicle that they intend launching in 2023 after successful test flights from September to December last year.
Like the AirCar, the AeroMobil’s wings fold back while on the road and fold out in three minutes when taking off into the sky. The developers say it has a driving range of 520km with a top speed of 160km/h and a flying range of 740km at a cruising speed of 260km/h.
Electric Vertical Take-off and Landing vehicles
But KleinVision and AeroMobil were indubitably not the only companies working on flying cars, although their prototypes are some of the few models that closely resembles four-wheeled cars.
The category where much more innovation is happening, is the Electric Vertical Take-off and Landing (eVTOL) category. eVTOLs rather resembles manned drones than road cars. They do not have wheels and they take off vertically, just like drones and helicopters.
Also last year, the Toyota backed Japanese company, SkyDrive, showcased its small one-seater SD-03 air taxi taking flight and hovering above the ground for four minutes. After its first manned flight in the beginning of this year, SkyDrive plans to have the Flying Car on the market by 2023.
The German company, Volocopter, is working hard on the use of eVTOLs in future as autonomous air taxis. It is possible for interested riders to book tickets for 15-minute flights at a whopping R5 059 on the VoloCity air taxi, a two-seater eVTOL with 18 rotors that looks like a helicopter-drone hybrid. The VoloCity is much quieter than a helicopter since the 18 electric rotors acoustically operate within a narrow frequency range and cancel each other out. The company tested the Volocopter 2X successfully at Helsinki airport and envisions that commercial flights will take off in Paris and Singapore next year.
In China, the company Ehang also developed a two-seater self-flying taxi, the Ehang 184. It has eight arms that fold out like a drone, on which the rotors are mounted. It can be summoned through an app like that of Uber. On June 4 this year, Ehang announced that their autonomous aerial vehicle, the Ehang 216, made a successful test flight carrying passengers.
Other well-known companies involved in the development of VTOLS are Airbus with their Vahana, Uber in collaboration with Karem Aircraft, Lillium, Wisk, Joby Aviation, Bell, and numerous others. The roadable PAL-V Liberty gyrocopter is in mass production.
The development of a flying car is not as easy as some people may think. The Chinese company Ehang, mentioned above, was supposed to launch a self-flying taxi service, in Dubai in partnership with the Dubai Roads and Transport Authority, in July 2017, succeeded only in flying its autonomous aerial vehicle in June this year only.
A typical challenge is that roadworthy wheels, suspension, brakes, transmission, and steering are heavy on four-wheel cars and make the flying of the vehicle unwieldy and difficult. It is just as difficult to turn eVTOL passenger drones into cars legalised for public roads.
The reliability of flying cars will also have to be above any suspicion, since unlike a normal car, the driver or pilot cannot just shut down the engine in mid-air and wait for a support vehicle to arrive. Vigorous testing regimes are thus necessary from the start.
An aerial transport system with eVTOLs and flying cars may indeed reduce traffic congestion and slow rides during rush hours in the cities, but if numerous flying cars and taxis will be taking off to the skies, the skies will become just as crowded with an increasing risk of mid-air collisions.
Much wider airspace control than is available will have to be instituted to approve flight plans prior to taking off in crowded areas. Although commercial aircraft are monitored by human controllers, due to the complexity of future air traffic we will probably have to look at Unmanned Traffic Management with digital tracking.
Unfortunately, the eVTOLs and flying cars such as the Aircar, AeroMobil and even the Toyota-backed low altitude Skydrive, would also require some competence in flying and a pilot’s license, which is a costly endeavour. Malfunctions and unexpected weather deteriorations, Clear Air Turbulences, icing, hail, and bird strikes create an infinite range of hazards that will have to be handled by a trained and experienced person.
A matter of time
Flying cars are real and they could shape how we commute, work and live in the coming years. Major advances in battery development, material science, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and autonomous decision-making have spurred the development of a wide range of flying vehicles. Despite the challenges and difficulties, just the sheer number of companies working on flying cars and eVTOL solutions, suggests that it is probably a matter of time for it to become reality.
However, it will be expensive, and you will have to be a qualified pilot with a motor car license. I therefore doubt if we will see many of these flying cars and taxis in the immediate future. But as Kopardekar said “One mile on the road can take you one mile. One mile of aviation can take you anywhere.”
Prof Louis C H Fourie is a technology strategist
* The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL. or for title sites
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