Flying to escape congestion is no longer merely the wishful thinking of commuters stuck in traffic.
Flying cars have long been part of our collective imagination, from Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Although the technology may now be ready, we still have to overcome major legal, safety and insurance hurdles before the dream becomes a reality.
A number of companies have moved forward with technology that morphs cars into aircraft. Some of these developments were on show at the 2018 Geneva International Motor Show (GIMS).
Pop Up is a project which was initially launched last year (see e-tech article Brave new car world issue 3, 2017) and results from the work of three different companies – a German automotive giant, an Italian design and engineering outfit and a major European aircraft manufacturer.
While the project remains conceptual, the technology behind it has greatly moved on from where it was a year ago. The aerodynamic design of the air module and the rotor ducts has been refined so as to improve performance and reduce fuel consumption in cruise flight.
A functional locking and latching system has been designed to couple the ground capsule with the air module. This is difficult to achieve because air and ground vehicles respond to completely different operating and safety dynamics.
A lot of work has gone into making the device lighter, using a feather weight mesh material.
Engineers at GIMS were also demonstrating a clever human machine interface inside the capsule, based on facial recognition and eye-tracking. “This is the second chapter in the story. We have worked with a third party to develop a personal assistant you will interact with in the capsule, using your eyesight to choose various travel and entertainment options,” explains Emanuele Rivella, a systems engineer at the Italian outfit.
According to Rivella, the ground capsule will operate like most other autonomous vehicles, using sensors, cameras, radar and LIDAR (light detecting and ranging) technology. It will also be fully electric. Data protection issues are also being looked into.
“We are researching quantum technology and its cryptography potential,” Rivella adds. He agrees that International Standards, such as the ones prepared by the IEC, should help move the project forward.
The flying Dutchman
A Dutch company was showing PAL-V Liberty at the Geneva show, claiming it to be first production model of a flying car. “We spent ten years developing the technology before getting to this stage,” says Carlo Maasbommel, the company’s vice-president of international business research and development.
One of the main technical hurdles was creating a car that is light enough to fly, yet robust enough for the road. “Around 45 engineers have been working on the project. Half of them come from the automotive sector and the other half from the aeronautical industry,” he adds.
The autogyro can take off and land on a runway as short as 90 metres. Turning it back into a car involves folding up its rotors, tail and propeller and takes around 10 minutes.
The dual engine propulsion drive train is based on two fully-certified aeroplane engines, produced by one of the leading manufacturers of aviation engines. According to Maasbommel, even if both engines fail, the device can still land using the rotors like a parachute.
Unlike the Pop Up concept, the flying car is neither autonomous nor electric. It has a driver and a passenger seat.
“Initially we are targeting it at government services such as police or fire-fighters. We already have sixty orders on our books,” he says. The PAL-V Liberty is expected to go into service in 2019, once all the various certifications have been obtained.
According to Maasbommel, the device has been designed to meet the legislation requirements of most countries by avoiding autonomous operation. Customers for the $350,000 PAL-V must have both a driver’s and a pilot’s licence.
An entirely different approach is for autonomous drones to become flying taxis, a project which has already been tested, notably in Dubai. A trial flight already took place last year, using technology developed by a Chinese company.
All three projects are based on very different strategies and assumptions. While many issues still have to be resolved, they clearly demonstrate that flying to escape congestion is no longer merely the wishful thinking of commuters stuck in traffic.
(IEC experts prepare International Standards for the components found in technologies related to flying vehicles, including but not restricted to the following areas: semiconductors; power interfaces for automatic sensors; multimedia for digital cameras; cloud computing, data protection and cyber security; power charging for electric vehicles; aircraft batteries; and electroacoustics. Find out more here.)