Could You Be Using a Flying Taxi?

A three-way collision is building between man’s historical pursuit of a flying car, fully-autonomous (driverless) vehicles and rapidly advancing drone technology. To be sure, history is rife with attempts at creating a flying machine that plies the skies as well as the road, and there have even been some minor successes (see the long list of tries at the bottom of this post). Indeed, if you have an extra $279,000 in your pocket, a Terrafugia flying car can be yours. Yet what is so terribly interesting about all of these technologies is their relationship to one another…and how they all appear to be converging.
 
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Around 100 people have already put down a $10,000 deposit to get a Terrafugia Transition when they go on sale. It’s expected to cost $279,000.

Image Courtesy: Terrafugia.com
 
And now look at this. Just unveiled by Chinese innovator Ehang, at CES 2016, is the first, human-carrying drone. While limited to just one passenger, this helicopter-like drone is making history by using the typical quad copter design seen in “regular” drones…however this time, scaled up for human cargo. One step closer to the flying taxi. If this machine were an autonomous flyer, or if it had more than one seat…well, just FAA clearance would be needed to allow the first flying taxis to blast into service.
 
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The flying, human-carrying drone from Chinese innovator Ehang. Dubbed the 184, once it goes into production, it will take off vertically (no need for a runway), and land similarly. When in the air, it’s capable of speeds of up to 62 miles per hour. The 184 can travel up to 11,480 feet, and it’s got a battery pack that’s capable of 23 minutes of flying time. It folds up as well, fitting just fine into a standard parking space.

Image Courtesy: Turner.com
 

Progress in Autonomous Vehicles

Google, Tesla and many others are making huge advancements in driverless vehicles…with planned releases just around the corner. My recent post, titled “Google’s Self-driving Cars…and Others Coming Soon” took a solid look at this industry’s state of the art, and it is indeed fascinating.
 
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Google’s driverless “Bubble” car…truly breaking new ground in the fully-autonomous vehicle industry.

Image Courtesy: Google.com
 
From the ground up, drones are getting bigger and far more capable, including the ability to fly themselves. And while the FAA has pushed back on Amazon in their recent bid to use drones for home and business deliveries, those obstacles will be overcome.
 
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Amazon’s planned drone delivery service has met some initial and expected obstacles with the FAA…however, time should yield positively for this exciting new use of drone technology.

Image Courtesy: forbes.com
 

Drone technology is a sector growing so fast that some see drone tech as a un-precedented gold rush. And as drones move from their smaller, GoPro-outfitted cousins into larger-scale, “heavy lifter” versions, it isn’t difficult at all to imagine a “fully-autonomous quad copter” capable of their carrying one or more humans from point A to point B.
 
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Drone taxis? Not all that hard to imagine.

Images Courtesy: Google.com, NyPost.com, NYCtaxi.com (composition created at Aventurine)
 

Issues with Flying Cars

Barring other regulations, one of the biggest problems with today’s flying cars reaching a point of both practicality and relative safety has, essentially, been the requirement that all operators be certified pilots…a process far more expensive, risky and technical than obtaining a mere driver’s license. Even still, the operators of motor vehicles are involved in over 1 million crashes per year in the US alone. Over 30,000 fatalities are the result. Further, cars operate in two dimensions. Adding a third dimension, as would be in the case of a flying car, well, it’s definitely an invitation for chaos.
 
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One of the biggest issues with flying cars is that, so far, drivers must be certified pilots.

Image Courtesy: Aeromobil.com
 
“Chaos in the skies” would be the likely result if there was a proliferation of human-controlled, flying cars. However, if the task and requirements of the pilot were (in most cases) taken away and the entire system of flight could be automated? That would be a very different story. We are, as noted, already seeing autonomous operation being applied to ground vehicles. And major airlines today are looking into the eventual employment of autonomous drone technology to operate cargo planes. Further, earlier this year, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos told a group of schoolchildren than drone taxis could be on the horizon.

Of course, there are many regulations to overcome with the Department of Transportation, FAA and other local, state and federal agencies in all of these scenarios. As such, we won’t be seeing autonomous cargo planes, flying cars or people-carrying drone taxis in the immediate future. However, these innovative combinations of technology are likely inevitable. They just make so much sense.

 

The Need for Vertical Lift and Takeoff

With flying cars there is also the issue of practical use. Having to get to speed (usually in excess of 80 to 100 mph) to achieve wing-based lift off just doesn’t make sense for most people in most situations…particularly the parent looking for a quick trip to the market. It’s hard to envision Betsy or Bob doing 90 down a side street to take off, fly a few miles, and then find a suitable runout to make a landing. It might be fun…but the constraints of wing-based flight, autonomously-controlled or not, would not allow for much efficiency or adoption.

As flying car inventor Paul Moller has stated:

Unless the flying car can take off vertically, it is not going to change personal transportation.

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The M400 SkyCar with inventor Paul Moller at the controls. The engines rotate to allow for vertical take-off and landing.

Image Courtesy: huffingtonpost.com
 

Flying car inventor and enthusiast Paul Moller is a true “mad scientist.” Having spent more than $100 million working to perfect vertical lift engines through his company Moller International, which led him to bankruptcy at one point, he’s also made millions on spin-off technology developed in the process. His M400 SkyCar, which seems perpetually on the verge of being ready for sale, looks like a cross between a 1960’s Ferrari and a food processor. The M400 has four rotary engines that rotate up to allow for vertical take-off and landing. The engines rotate, in mid-air, to a horizontal position to allow for forward flight. In his latest testing, Moller has only been able to get the M400 around 40 feet off the ground…yet he’s been taking pre-orders since the 1990’s.

The M400’s main issue remains engine development. Located in Davis, California, his company has been working hard on creating the new technology itself, which is a tall task. However, the new wave of drone technology…and the MASSIVE investment taking place there…is causing drones, most surely vertical take-off and landing machines, to get bigger, faster and stronger. If Moller can’t get his car-based, flying machine to properly work, it’s almost certain that someone in the drone world will get there on their own. To be sure, drone’s already work well with vertical take-off and landing…so now, it’s just a matter of scale. Bigger drones, bigger lift. Autonomous features…version 6.0? Ready for human cargo? We shall see..
 

Finally, a Bit of History

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The 1947 ConvairCar Model 118…

Image Courtesy: Wikimedia.com

While this concept of “autonomous taxi drones” is intriguing indeed, there is no doubt that our fascination with flying cars is equally so. From the Flinstones to the Jetson’s to the movie The Fifth Element (and more recently Tomorrowland), flying car-like vehicles have long been a wonder and hope for many a dreamer. Thus, I felt it fitting to end this piece with a review of all of the flying car attempts done so far in history. The text descriptions for each are courtesy of a recent article in Popular Mechanics.

Click each flying car to view it and its description:

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Image Courtesy: ctie.monash.edu

William Samuel Henson and John Stringfellow–the Wright Brothers before the Wright Brothers existed–patented this flying car in 1841. The duo were never able to build a functional version of the monoplane, which had a wingspan of 150 feet.

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Image Courtesy: cdn.wp.driving.co.uk

Glen Curtiss’ Aeroplane debuted at New York’s 1917 Pan-American Aeronautical Exposition. The Autoplane had an aluminum body, plastic windows, and a heater for passengers. However, the first World War sidetracked Curtiss and the plane never flew.

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Image Courtesy: wikimedia.org

Autogyros are the true predecessors of flying cars and Harold F. Pitcairn’s PCA-2 was sold on the mass market. It was the first rotary-wing aircraft to achieve type certification in the United States, and in one promotional stunt landed on the White House lawn during Herbert Hoover’s presidency.

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Image Courtesy: bredow.web.de

Waterman modified a 6-cylinder upright, 100 hp Studebaker to build this flying car in 1937. Only five Aerobiles were produced, though Waldo Waterman attempted to manufacture readable versions throughout the ’40’s and ’50s.

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Image Courtesy: wikimedia.org

The ConVairCar, Model 118 flying car was not a hoax, as evidenced by this test flight in California in November 1947. Theodore P. Hall designed this creation for the Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Company. The one-hour demonstration flight ended early due to low fuel, an emergency landing that destroyed the car and damaged the plane’s wings. Everyone survived–that is, everyone except the ConVairCar dream.

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Image Courtesy: carstyling.ru

Where the Ford Mach I Levacar is going, it doesn’t need roads. Shown at the Ford Rotunda in Dearborn, Michigan, 1959, the single-seat concept car scrapped wheels and touted a top speed of 500 m.p.h. None of the cars were ever built, much to society’s dismay.

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Image Courtesy: airfields.freeman.com

With its folding wings, the Aero-Car was the first promising road-to-sky vehicle. Prototypes could reach 60 m.p.h. on the ground and 110 m.p.h. in the sky. How close did we come to living in a flying car world? Disney even designed a character in its 2013 film Planes after the thing. The Aero-Car made it.

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Image Courtesy: hdnux.com

Weld a Cessna Skymaster to the top of a Ford Pinto and boom: you have a flying car. The AVE Mizar used both the aircraft and the car engines for takeoff, while four-wheel breaking allowed the car to land safely–in theory. A ’73 test flight followed by an ugly crash ended the AVE dream quickly.

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Image Courtesy: cdn.barrett.jackson.com

For $71,500 you could own the Sky Commuter concept car, developed by Boeing engineers in the ’80s. Run on a gas turbine engine and helicopter-like drive shafts, the Commuter was an alternative to planes-strapped-to-cars of the past. Boeing spent $6 million developing the car, though it only appeared in history books.

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Image Courtesy: gadizmo.com

Meet the true Jetson vehicle. A “VTOL” (vertical take-off and landing) flying car, the M400 is the life’s work of inventor Paul Moller. Unfortunately, the road to commercial success is still long (and bumpy). In 2003, the Securities and Exchange Commission filed civil fraud action against Moller for selling the unregistered shares of stock directly to the public via the Internet, raising approximately $5.1 million from more than 500 investors nationwide. Moller International was hit with a $50,000 fine, though it remains active today. The M400 is pictured here along with other prototypes.

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Image Courtesy: esq.h-cdn.co

Indian inventor A.K. Wishwanath swears his Flying Maruti can fly. Or will. The car, with a Suzuki hull, rotor blades affixed to the roof, and extended wheel archers that create a ‘vacuum section’ is the wishful thinking of Vishwanath’s company B’Lorean, a portmanteau of his home Bangalore and the DeLorean from Back to the Future.

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Image Courtesy: terrafugia.com

You can buy a Terrafugia for $196,000, but delivery will take a while. Since taking its first flight in 2009, Terrafugia has tinkered with the TRA’s specifications in order to meet Federal Aviation Administration standards. A third version of the craft that meets consumer needs should be built within two years.

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Image Courtesy: aeromobil.com

The AeroMobil website emphasizes its prototype’s beauty and simplicity. If flying cars were allowed on the roads, this is the one you’d want. Fitting into a standard parking space, using regular gasoline, and capable of taking off and landing using any grass strip or paved surface just a few hundred meters long, the AeroMobil 3.0 is a realistic future prohibited by laws. For now, AeroMobil is slowing winning over authorities. In 2010, the flying car received certification from the Slovak Federation of Ultra-Light Flying (SFUL) as authorized by the Civil Aviation Authority of the Slovak Republic.

 
As a bonus, check out this great promo video from Aeromobil…showing its 3.0 model…it’s pretty incredible to watch!
 

official video: aeromobil.com
 
Contact the author of this article here.
 

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