Tech Updates

Future, fantasy and flying cars

On an average, a one-way road commute from New Delhi to Gurugram takes more than an hour. That is, if there are no traffic snarls. According to a December Hindustan Times report on a study by road design experts, Delhiites driving a distance of 40km during peak hours spend an average of more than 3 hours on the road.

What if you could avoid traffic jams by simply flying over them? Seated comfortably in a vehicle that will fly you to your destination?

It may sound fantastical but the concept of flying cars for urban transportation is catching on, with more than a dozen companies across the world—in the US, UK, Netherlands, Slovakia, China, France and Germany—working on the concept.

A working prototype of the Kitty Hawk flyer during a test run. Photo: Davis ElenA working prototype of the Kitty Hawk flyer during a test run. Photo: Davis Elen

The roadable aircraft

The Netherlands-based company PAL-V has designed a three-wheel vehicle that drives like a sports car, but flies like a gyroplane with the help of an aerodynamic tail design and rotor blades. In gyroplanes, the rotors are powered by the wind, not the engine. In driving mode, the PAL-V Liberty can reach speeds of up to 160 kmph and 180 kmph in flight mode, according to its maker. These speeds could vary depending on air density and weather conditions.

As a gyroplane, the PAL-V Liberty cannot stall since the rotor is always in auto-rotation. Even engine failure will not affect the vehicle—the speed of the wind and gravitational force will keep the rotor rotating. It will be like a deployed parachute, suggests the company’s website. The three-wheel design will offer safety during landing, especially when dealing with crosswinds, and the dynamic curve stabilizer technology will offer the vehicle better stability on the road.

With a fuel capacity of 100 litres, the PAL-V Liberty will have a max endurance—the maximum amount of time an aircraft can spend in cruising flight—of 4.3 hours and a max range of 400-500km.

The first PAL-V model to hit the market later this year and in 2018 will be the Liberty Pioneer Edition, which is expected to start at $599,000 (around Rs4 crore). To begin with, only 90 vehicles of this edition will be sold worldwide.

Aviation law experts say it is too early to discuss the prospects of flying cars in India. Even if they were to become available here, huge regulatory changes would be required. In terms of certification too, there is no specific category today for flying cars. They could, of course be classified the way small aircraft are certified: on the basis of weight, and whether it is a single-seater or single-engine aircraft. There will also be civil aviation requirements (CAR 21), to be met for different types of aircraft.

“Innovations out of India have met with a lot of roadblocks in getting passed on the civil channel. If there are innovations from Europe or the US (under the jurisdiction of reputable bodies like Federal Aviation Administration or European Aviation Safety Agency), then the Indian regulator is more sympathetic because they know the aircraft has already undergone heavy testing, but I am not saying it is going to be easy”, says Rishabh Sinha, counsel, TRA, a Delhi-based law firm which has represented new-technology aerospace and aviation companies.

Since the PAL-V Liberty uses the principles of a car and an aircraft, experts have also raised questions on the regulations such vehicles will follow. “Some vehicles are designed to fly from one point to another. The other scenario is that the vehicle flies for a certain distance and then lands and uses the road to reach a destination. If it’s the latter, then these vehicles will have to follow regulations for both aircraft and vehicles,” says M.S. Prasad, director, Amity Institute of Space Science and Technology. Looking at the pace of technological evolution, however, Prasad believes the flying-car technology is still almost 10 years away from India. “In developing countries like India, where the economy is not too affluent, owning a flying car will be a luxury,” he adds.

In order to “flydrive” the PAL-V Liberty, the driver will need both a driving and pilot’s licence and will have to use airstrips. Price will be the other hurdle.

The Lilium Jet during a test flight.The Lilium Jet during a test flight.

Air taxis

On-demand aviation could help provide the answer. Uber and Airbus have extensive plans to provide air taxis and infrastructure in a future where passengers will be able to book flying taxis, just the way they hail cabs through smartphones today.

Uber’s Elevate programme would feature a network of small, electric VTOL (vertical-take-off-and-landing) aircraft that will be supported through a combination of “vertiports” and “vertistops” in a city. “Vertiports” would be large multi-landing locations with support facilities, such as rechargers for the vehicle. “Vertistops” would be single vehicle landing locations where VTOL aircraft could quickly drop off and pick up passengers.

Uber predicts that with Uber Elevate, a 1-hour, 40-minute commute from Gurugram to Delhi could be cut to just 6 minutes. Imagine covering an on-road distance of 31km (in the air, the distance comes down to 20km) in 6 minutes.

The first partner cities for the project are Dallas-Fort Worth, US, and Dubai, where Uber expects to demonstrate the network by 2020.

The initial estimated fare for this VTOL aircraft service is pegged at $37, according to the white paper on Uber Elevate. But this is expected to come down. “We believe that over time and with scale, the cost of an Uber Elevate trip will be comparable to an uberX trip of the same distance,” says an Uber spokesperson on email.

Today, the cost of an uberX trip from Gurugram to Connaught Place is $9 (around Rs600). Uber is also partnering with aircraft manufacturers like Aurora Flight Sciences, Pipistrel Aircraft, Embraer, Mooney International and Bell Helicopter to develop electric VTOL vehicles for Elevate.

French aerospace firm Airbus has similar plans with Vahana, an autonomous flying vehicle platform for single passengers and cargo transport. Airbus sees Vahana—which has been featured at the ongoing Paris Air Show—as a breakthrough in urban air mobility that commuters could use in place of cars and trains.

Those who might not be able to afford flying cars or on-demand aviation can take heart from the fact that not all these projects are meant for urban transportation. Some of them, like the Kitty Hawk flyer, are designed as personal aircraft. Backed by Google co-founder Larry Page, Kitty Hawk has designed an all-electric aircraft, the first version of which is designed to fly over water. According to the Kitty Hawk website, a user will not need a pilot’s licence and can “learn to fly it in minutes”.

The working prototype was revealed to the public in April and Cimeron Morrissey, a California-based outdoor sports enthusiast, took the flyer for a spin during a test flight. “The prototype looks and feels a lot like a flying motorcycle. You mount the seat and lean forward, just like you would on a bike. The controls are built into a set of handlebars and work similar to buttons and joysticks on a video-game controller. It takes off and lands vertically, like a helicopter. But unlike a helicopter, the Flyer is 100% electric and powered by eight rotors,” Morrissey writes on online publishing platform Medium. The official flyer is scheduled to be available by the end of this year.

A concept image of the Airbus’ Vahana.A concept image of the Airbus’ Vahana.

Flying safe

There are countless questions about the safety of flying cars. The biggest and most obvious one is, how do you ensure these things keep flying? Even Tesla founder Elon Musk has voiced genuine concerns. “If somebody doesn’t maintain their flying car, it could drop a hubcap and guillotine you,” Musk first said in a Bloomberg interview.

“It is important to have secondary motors and electronic components. Even the latest drones have multiple gyroscopes, accelerometers and GPS devices. In the case of a flying car, if a primary component fails, the secondary device should kick in automatically to keep the machine in the air,” says Jaspreet Makkar, founder, WeDoSky, a New Delhi-based drone-data analytics solution company.

Another key component will be the battery. While some models, like the PAL-V Liberty and AeroMobil (the flying-car concept from Slovakia which is expected to be available to customers by 2020), run on fuel, most flying vehicles will be powered by batteries. Lilium, a Munich-based aviation start-up, has designed the Lilium Jet, a zero-emission electric plane capable of vertical take-off and landing. The two-seater prototype completed a flight test in April. Lilium is now developing a five-seater version of the jet for on-demand air taxi and ride-sharing services.

The longer these flying cars stay airborne, the more power they will need. More power can only be generated by bigger batteries. But most batteries that power electric vehicles are heavy. A flying car that weighs a lot won’t be able to clock too much flight time.

“Minimizing the size of batteries is a key parameter because they will be one of the biggest components in flying cars. Even Tesla has a massive investment in battery development. The charge per unit density of these batteries is pretty low. The moment this (the charge to weight density) increases, flying cars could become lighter,” Makkar adds.

We might be a good decade away from seeing hundreds of these aircraft crowd the skies above us, but as Dr Emmett Brown said to Marty McFly in Back To The Future: Part II (when they’re about to time-travel from 1985 to 2015 in the flying DeLorean): “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”

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