The fabulous flying machines of the future

For more than a century, the idea of personalised flying cars has been no more than a sci-fi dream, but as EDGAR finds out, that is about to change.

Josh Sims July 13, 2015

The Germans do like their autobahns – fast and straight, they make the perfect roads for putting that national excellence engineering to the test. they also make for good runways.

When John Brown unveiled a near complete prototype of his vehicle at the aero Friedrichshafen aviation show in April, visitors may well have wondered what a car was doing there, even a twin-hulled car, made as such to give it good road handling. 

But a closer look at the machine – developed with funding from the EU and the German state of Lower Saxony – would also have revealed a pair of extendable and retractable wings. Once fixed in place, these allow the car to take to the air, and land, on just an 80m strip. small wonder then that brown – an Australian turned onto the idea of a flying car after meeting the racing driver and aerodynamics expert Jack Brabham as a teenager – has simply called his company: Carplane.

“The fact is that there is a real need for a transport alternative to the car,” says Brown, who aims to have a commercial vehicle ready by 2018 at the earliest. “This is not a toy, through certain people will buy it for recreational use or because it’s cool. It’s really for businesspeople who live in places where the streets are blocked 24 hours a day, as in the BRIC [brazil, russia, india and china] nations." 

"Man never set out to create aircraft to fly from airport to airport, but from A to B, and while the technology has not allowed that – which is why airports have had to get bigger and bigger and further and further away from cities – it does now. There will always be people who rubbish new technology, but the fact is we have the engineering to make personal aviation happen.” 

The idea of a flying car is not a new one. The first patent for a flying car dates to 1918, Henry Ford tried to launch a single-seat flying car in 1926 and Waldo Waterman’s Arrowbile craft was around in the ‘30s. Only five were ever made. Alfa romeo developed a car-plane in the ‘40s, yet it never took off commercially. But now technology and necessity are in better synch, with the dream of personal flight envisaged as belonging to the world of a distant future – such as depicted in the US ‘60s cartoon series The Jetsons, or in Bladerunnner – a genuine prospect. And perhaps sooner than one might imagine. 

“I think in two to three years time we’ll have a flying vehicle that will cost about the same as a car and be good for local commuting,” predicts Robert Beluga, the man behind the California-based Trek Aerospace, which has developed a fan-based engine technology – light but powerful – that has been tested through several aircraft prototypes, including in its own Springtail, and which is now being used in the development of a San Francisco entrepreneur’s two-seated ducted helicopter, among other projects.

Imagine flying door-to-door at your own convenience.

“You can now make a vehicle quiet enough to take off from your driveway without annoying the neighbours, or drivable enough that it could easily taxi to or from a local take-off area,” he adds. “If you consider the kind of rapid advances that Google has made in developing driverless cars, and how that is already changing our idea of what a car can be, then we can see the same kind of advances in personal aircraft.

"The fact is that it’s a hassle to fly – the security, the luggage, the waiting around. But imagine flying door-to-door at your own convenience. Sure, there are lots of off-the-wall concepts being explored now – nearly-buoyant aircraft, aircraft with flapping wings – but that’s because so many opportunities are being afforded by the advances in electronics, batteries and materials. The pace of change amazes me.” 

google-self driving car.jpg Google's self-driving car is paving the way for autonomous flying machines.

Recent deregulation has opened up the idea of personal aviation to the average Joe. Such vehicles can, by their weight, be determined as very light aircraft – a globally recognised category, although one that means they still require a private pilot’s licence to fly. In contrast, the standards set for a light sport aircraft, a category first introduced in the US just a few years ago, requires only a sport pilot’s certificate that can be achieved with as little as 20 hours' flight time. That is the same as learning to drive a car, in fact.

Carplane and Trek are certainly not alone in seeking to make this happen. There are any number of small, progressive engineering companies now taking different roads to the same goal: to get us all into the air as simply as we get on the road. Recent years have seen the development of, for instance, Icon Aircraft’s Icon, a two-seat, folding wing flying boat for which several hundred orders have already been placed – by many, the company notes, who have no flying qualification, simply seeing flying as the mass-market recreational activity it was initially conceived as being.

New Zealand’s Martin Jetpack has its very Bondian machine, Holland’s Pal-V is a car-come-helicopter. One of the closest to becoming a reality is Terrafugia’s Transition, an idea akin to that of Carplane. If all goes to plan the first is due for delivery next year, with its second model, a car-helicopter-plane hybrid, due on the market during the 2020s.

Pal-V flying machine.jpg The Pal-V car-come-helicopter.

Of course, there are still obstacles to this vision of taking to the skies. One reason why Carplane has developed the vehicle it has – “rather than something you get in and take off from a supermarket carpark,” as Brown puts it – is that, providing the company meets the regulatory framework imposed for both cars and light aircraft, “no politician can tell us it’s something we can’t do!”

These craft would offer the next best thing to having wings of your own.

Infrastructure will be an issue, but that too is already being tackled. “It’s hard to estimate the value of personal flight before the infrastructure is in place to make it feasible. But there is already an element of infrastructure – in fact, it’s way ahead of where roads were when the car was first proposed – and flight is accepted as a means of travel,” argues Paul Moller, founder of Moller Aircraft, whose ethanol-powered, 200mph VTOL (vertical take-off/landing) Skycar is not only the most retro-futuristic personal aircraft proposed but, thanks to a tidy AED 293 million investment, is one step closer to being put into production. While developing the Skycar, Moller has picked up some 50 patents, including those for a ground-breaking composite fan technology and a computer stabilising system.

Moller cites the convenience such a craft would bring, as well as other wider benefits for society: if personal flying crafts were used to make the 50 per cent of all car journeys that are more than 50 miles, that would massively ease road congestion. “The demand is there [for such a vehicle],” he says. “But of course, people’s belief in personal flight is partly emotionally driven – after all, these craft would offer the next best thing to having wings of your own.”

Terrafugia Transition.jpg The Terrafugia Transition taking flight.

Predictably, the most pressing consideration is likely to be that of safety. Given our experience on the roads – the kind of knocks and scrapes which, were they to occur in the air, could be fatal to all involved, not to mention possibly to people on the ground – the idea of filling the skies with flying cars is daunting for some, less so for others. As Beluga says: “You know what the streets are like. You don’t want all those people in the sky!"

“Nobody is going to accept a vision of personal flight in which these vehicles are hurtling towards each other at 300mph,” as Moller puts it. But, he says, the autopilot technology to ensure collision-avoidance is already operational – airlines have computer systems with a very good record to this end – “so i don’t see it being a real issue,” he says. “It will just take time to build the trust that allows the technology to do it for you.”

Looking at maybe 15 years into the future, Beluga has proposed the ideal scenario of driverless car-planes ordered on demand in a way akin to the taxi company Uber, and points to recent advances that see drones self-organise to fly safely in formation. Somewhat optimistically, one NASA study has suggested that 25 per cent of the US population will have access to some kind of personal air vehicle by the end of the decade.

Martin Jetpack.jpg The Martin jetpack could be straight out of a Bond film.

Quentin Smith, one of the world’s most experienced helicopter pilots and one-time World Helicopter Stunt champion, has argued convincingly that we, mostly successfully, pass within a few feet of an accelerating, on-coming tonne of metal on wheels when driving and do so with little concern; in contrast, the three dimensions of airspace actually means that collisions between airborne vehicles would be extremely rare, given just how much room there is up there to move about in.

“Besides,” adds Brown, “flying is statistically 100 times safer than driving, so my view is to just throw the issue back. The air is where personal travel should be. In a car when things go wrong it happens so quickly there’s no time to react. But for a small aircraft there’s time to parachute the whole vehicle out of the situation.” This kind of ballistic parachute system is, indeed, already mandatory across the EU for any ultra-light aircraft. It is, in fact, the kind of parachute deployed in an emergency during a test flight by Aeromobil, another flying car maker, over Slovakia in May.

People have been thinking about personal air vehicles for decades. Now the barriers to entry as a pilot are lower than ever. 

Even the cost of buying such an aircraft is likely to drop rapidly, much as cellphones were once for the wealthy few but soon became ubiquitous. Sure, flying will, initially, be expensive, “but then so is skiing, or scuba-diving or motorsports. And plenty of people take part in those,” says Richard Gersh, Vice President for Business Development at Terrafugia.

aeromobil_3_perspective_view_car_configuration_in_hangar_counterlight.jpg The AeroMobil currently has to hit 130kmh before it can take off.

“The challenge to more general aviation to date has been not only the high-cost – be that the purchase price of an aircraft, the hanger rental or running costs – and the skills required to pilot a craft, but also practical issues (moving the aircraft around on the ground, dealing with bad weather etc.). But with prototypes like [ours], and the others in development, each tackling the problem with different solutions, access to flight is coming down all the time. People have been thinking about personal air vehicles for decades. Now the barriers to entry as a pilot are lower than ever.”

In short, objections are falling one by one. Inevitably perhaps, the only thing that looks to really stand in the way of personal flight becoming a new norm is investment. Developing any kind of aircraft does not come cheap, let alone one that seeks to revolutionise our conception of what flying can be. Moller has already spent more than AED367 million in research and development since he first set up his company during the 1960s. But the first affordable, accessible, practical, reliable personal aircraft would be not only a game-changer, but a money-spinner. As John Brown has it, “My motive for getting involved in this sector is purely commercial. It’s to make money.”

“It takes a lot of money to create a vehicle like this, but you end up with something unique,” adds Robert Dingemanse, the CEO of Pal-V. “That frustration at not being able to fly door-to-door is a universal one, with pilots and non-pilots alike. Our intent is to create a whole new industry between flying and driving, with a new customer. That will include pilots, of course, but also people who have never thought about becoming pilots themselves – they just see this type of vehicle as a solution to their transport problems. They see that this kind of vehicle just makes sense now.”