Top Banner

Passenger drones and flying cars

Have you ever thought about a car with flying wings; a car that can be driven and flown in a new and practical way? It's a question that's haunted anyone who grew up watching sci-fi classics, and one American company claims they're coming sooner than you'd think.

The Federal Aviation Administration has authorized the flying car company Terrafugia to start testing out prototypes of a flying car. The company is building the first-ever unmanned prototype of its TF-X flying car that could someday fit right into a one-car garage, wings and all. They claim the vehicle will be ready for testing in 2018 and available for purchase by 2025.

As a first step, Terrafugia has been approved to test mini versions of their TF-X flying car. It weighs not more than 50 pounds and is a 4-seater that "will look like a large car with wings," Terrafugia spokeswoman, Dagny Dukach said. The roughly 35-member team based in Woburn, Mass., is building out their 2 ft. long FAA-approved models, and they hope to have them flying around the company's home base, outside Boston, soon.

It's worth mentioning that while flying cars have been a dream of carmakers like Henry Ford and engineers like Paul Moller for decades, no one's really been able to get out of prototype mode and into the consumer market yet. One French government-sponsored company has plans for a commuter plane called the Xplorair, which seems a bit more drone-like than car, and seats just one. They unveiled their half-size prototype at the Paris Air Show in 2013 and are planning to show off a full-size model in 2017.

Whereas, Terrafugia's been working on their own models and prototypes for roughly the past decade. Their TF-X is being engineered with semi-autonomous flight-the idea being that the flying car will require less training to fly than a professional airplane.

Moreover, making the car a reality is going to require some new techniques in battery technology too. The company is planning to build the car as a plug-in hybrid-electric, but the battery technology for flying cars hasn't been perfected yet. And of course, any full-scale model testing will require more rounds of approvals from the FAA.

The TF-X hybrid electric flying car looks mostly like a high-tech 4-seat sedan, except that it's equipped with fold-out wings that have twin electric motors on each side. These motors, powered by a 300 horsepower engine, can assume a horizontal position for flight and a vertical position for takeoff and landing. After using propellers to rise into the air, the vehicle would be capable of cruising at 200 mph for up to 500 miles.

Additionally, there will be no need for a driver to have a pilot's license, given that the car will be semi-autonomous. The driver can simply input the destination and allow the car to steer itself. The vehicle operator will have final say over whether the car should land in a particular area, and can abort landing at any time if the area seems unsafe.

The company has already received FAA approval to begin testing the TF-X, although construction of the prototype is still in progress. Terrafugia claims the vehicle will be significantly easier to learn to fly than a traditional aircraft, and that controlling it will be similar to simply steering a normal car. Owners would be able to operate the vehicle with a regular driver's license, combined with a short training program that's expected to take no longer than a weekend.

Another type of flying car that is in the making is the Ehang 184 passenger drone that was unveiled at CES this year.

It is as a giant-sized toy drone, built to fit a single passenger and autonomously transport them to a designated destination. Weighing in at 440-pounds, with a price tag of up to £200,000 and built with an eight-rotor system, wifi and aircon, the company claims that passengers can be flown in relative comfort to any point on Google Maps, with the ability to autonomously avoid objects and land safely. Ehang also claims that pilots sitting in custom built "command centres" will be able to take over and guide you to safety should any issues arise.

The idea behind the Chinese-built 184 is that users will simply get in, power it up, select their destination using a 12-inch touchscreen tablet display, then press the "take-off" button. The drone's automated flight systems will take over from there, managing tasks such as communication with air traffic control and other aircraft, obstacle avoidance, and of course navigation - it will always choose the fastest yet safest route between its present location and its destination.

Failsafe systems will reportedly take over in the event of malfunctions, plus passengers can get the drone to stop and hover in place if needed.

Furthermore, Ehang has big plans for its drone, and there are several compelling benefits. Starting by easing congestion: The company says such drones would alleviate traffic congestion on the ground. This is something we can all identify with - and it's only getting worse. As the global population rises, we'll see an even greater number of cars on the roads. Many places can't build new roads fast enough to handle the burden.

Sky taxis: Ehang plans to sell its drone both to individuals and companies. The companies it has in mind are taxi services that will pick up customers on demand. And given that most cab rides are short, local trips, this technology would seem to be a good fit.

On a side note, Ehang is already discussing pilot programs with government officials in its native Guangzhou, China, as well as Auckland and Los Angeles.

Military: It's believed that the superb level of flight automation and systems on the Ehang 184 can be upgraded and militarized.

In a way, the technology is similar to the robot K-MAX helicopter, which the Pentagon has deployed in Afghanistan to deliver cargo and supplies. But the Ehang is the latest in a long line of concepts of personal travel that has tried to create a future based around flight. For years man has obsessed over inventing transport that will free us from the traffic jams.

Take the Aeromobil flying car. As a car it fits into any standard parking space, uses regular gasoline, and can be used in road traffic just like any other car. As a plane it can use any airport in the world, but can also take off and land using any grass strip or paved surface just a few hundred meters long. A combination car and plane, with a range of 700km in the air (800km on the ground), the Aeromobil runs on regular gasoline fuel with room for two passengers. Aeromobil has been around since the early 1990s and has stuck to the same format as a concept since then.

Combining driving with flying in just one vehicle will be the news trend of the future. This significant transition, which looks much like a single seat plane with folding wings, will revolutionize the way that everybody gets around.