VTOL and Flying Cars: Fiction Becomes Reality
September 23, 2020
Flying cars may sound as if they belong in the movies, but technology is bringing them closer to reality than ever before.
Automobile and aviation enthusiasts have been dreaming of “flying cars” for decades. The belief is that flying can replace driving in cities around the world, saving considerable time as journeys that normally take hours would be reduced to mere minutes if taken by air. There have been several failed projects over the decades, but we may now be on the brink of this vision becoming reality.
Passenger drones and flying cars
These are concepts that have been under development since the 1980s and many prototypes already exist, with most of them being able of vertical take-off and landing (VTOL). A VTOL vehicle is an aircraft that takes off, hovers, and lands vertically and doesn’t require runways.
These vehicles, commonly known as flying cars or passenger drones, are designed to accommodate several passengers or the equivalent in cargo weight. They’re highly energy efficient, with reduced or zero emissions, and they can be substantially quieter than the traditional helicopter.
For many of these vehicles, the airborne trip could be just one small part of a bigger, multi-step journey. For example, you could be picked up by a ride-hailing car from your home in the suburbs and be driven to a “vertiport” before taking the subway to your destination. Passenger drones will develop where to cover the failures in other transport systems, and cities with higher traffic pollution levels naturally will be the ones where schemes like these are of most interest.
A challenging investment
However, despite these schemes being well on their way towards reality, there are still challenges to be faced when it comes to breathing life into this technology. These challenges can go from the simpler aspects such as infrastructure and public acceptance, to more complex ones like air traffic management and regulations.
Regulatory agencies must address the key requirements for passenger drones: is a pilot’s license required? What airspace can they occupy? What safety requirements are needed? Some certification options are already being discussed between manufacturers and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), with the latter believing that these vehicles should be manned at first, then autonomously assisted, and only then converted to a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle).
Pilots operating these vehicles would need a near-flawless safety record, covering both mechanical integrity and safe operations. As we can see with autonomous cars, any problem can draw significant attention to the technology and potentially halt progress. While achieving mechanical integrity could be easier in comparison, operating VTOL in urban and suburban areas poses unique challenges, some of which are related to infrastructure.
Constraints on this matter include proper take-off and landing areas, parking and charging stations. The required network of vertiports would demand either new infrastructure or the adapting of existing buildings to the new reality. Furthermore, additional infrastructure would need to be installed along predefined flight corridors to support high-speed data communications and geolocation. These changes would also require the collaboration of commercial stakeholders and urban planning authorities.
This has also happened with autonomous cars. The psychology of the people using these vehicles plays an important role on how successful the technology is, even more so when it comes to aircraft. The idea of flying in a pilotless aircraft might not be appealing to most people, out of fear or even simple suspicion. Furthermore, flying cars would have to be as regularly seen and as versatile as the bog-standard car: people should be able to fly these vehicles to a store, for example, and it should be able to cover longer distances safely.
The potential scope for businesses
Even though the widespread use of passenger drones and flying cars is still decades away, their arrival will dramatically reshape the mobility landscape as we know it today. So, what opportunities does this create for businesses?
- Traditional manufacturers are already in the game. Companies like Airbus and Textron are already considering tapping into this new market opportunity, with Airbus already building prototypes and Textron teaming up with Uber to develop electric vehicles.
- Automobile manufacturers are in as well. Companies like Toyota entered the flying car market by funding a start-up which is currently developing a flying car. Volvo’s parent company, Geely, also acquired a flying car start-up back in 2017.
- New VTOL start-ups are being founded. As the market shows more and more promise, new companies are already expressing confidence and disrupting traditional aircraft and automobile companies. Their focus is on capturing and using existing capabilities in these industries to produce state-of-the-art vehicles.
- Technology companies are due to play an important role. These vehicles will require high quality software and hardware, as well as certification activities to ensure that everything is up to scratch. Technology companies are bound to play a crucial role in this market as the race towards flying cars and passenger drones intensifies. Similarly to autonomous cars, technology such as computer vision, obstacle detection algorithms, vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V), vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I), or vehicle-to-everything (V2X) will be required to ensure that unmanned VTOLs are safe for people, infrastructure, and the environments in which they operate.
However, aerospace and technology companies aren’t the only ones to take advantage of this market. Many other players could also try their luck at it, including ridesharing companies like Uber, rental car companies, aircraft leasing companies, and even executive jet operators.
Ready to take flight?
A decade ago, driverless cars were little more than science fiction. Today, nearly every car manufacturer and many major technology companies are investing significant amounts of money into the development of these vehicles. Likewise, flying cars may seem like a dream today, but where will we be a decade on from now?
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