The race for flying cars
- Big companies like Airbus and Rolls-Royce, but also start-ups like Germany’s Lilium, have developed small flying vehicles for transporting people. They could be operational by the early 2020s.
- Envisioning a democratisation of the skies, French start-up Wingly has launched a sharing platform for aircraft.
In science-fiction films like “The Fifth Element” and “Blade Runner”, flying cars stole the spotlight from the human stars. But soon such machines could fill our skies: 2018 saw a number of business and government initiatives aimed at creating various types of flying taxis. At the forefront of this trend, Japan recently brought together 21 companies to advance the design of flying cars, with the aim of getting them off the ground over the next decade. One of the attendees was California-based Uber, which plans to build a flying taxi that is midway between a drone and a helicopter. Initial testing is set for 2020, while commercial flights are scheduled to launch in 2023. Also present in Japan was the European aerospace company Airbus, one of the manufacturers spearheading the industry.
Through its A3 subsidiary, Airbus has developed Vahana, an electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft. The Vahana is 6.2 metres wide, 5.7 metres long and 2.8 metres high. Its take-off weight is 745 kg. By comparison, a civilian helicopter like the Eurocopter EC120 is 9.6 metres long, 3.4 metres high, and weighs about 1.7 tonnes. The electric-powered vehicle completed its first unmanned test flight at the beginning of 2018. Dubbed Alpha One, the very first prototype lifted 5 m off the ground in Pendleton, Oregon, and spent 53 seconds in the air. That flight time may sound brief by some standards, but Airbus management was happy to have achieved so much in the two years since the project launched. Designed for single-passenger travel, the prototype could be enlarged to transport a larger number, just like a taxi.
Britain’s Rolls-Royce has also joined the race for flying cars. At the Farnborough International Air Show in July 2018, the company unveiled its RR eVTOL, a hybrid autonomous aircraft that can carry up to five passengers over 800 km. Rolls-Royce plans to launch the RR Model 250 in the early 2020s.
Playing with the big boys
Big names in the aviation and automotive industries are not the only ones with their sights on flying cars. German start-up Lilium was created in 2015 at the initiative of four students from the Technical University of Munich. The founders were hoping to address the problems of urban congestion and pollution, while allowing people to travel freely. The Lilium Jet is packed with 36 small electric engines mounted along its wings. Flaps open and close depending on the flight mode: stationary, take-off or landing. When the aircraft is cruising through the air, the flaps are horizontal. The system can reach speeds of up to 300 km/h, vs. 50-80 km/h for large drones, and carry up to five passengers. “That means the Lilium can be more efficient flying around big cities, due to lower passenger loading times,” says Tara Harandi-Zadeh, spokesperson for the start-up. This flying taxi is set for commercial launch at the beginning of the 2020s. Whether as flying taxis or simple single-seaters, these machines should reduce road congestion. But not all experts agree that they are the best solution. Earlier this year, Tesla CEO Elon Musk criticised the idea of flying cars, saying they could be dangerous if not serviced properly and “noisy like a hurricane”. He says the solution to traffic congestion is public transport.
Taking aviation to the next level
While some companies are building flying cars for private use, others hope to improve flying in regular planes. Created in 2015 at École Polytechnique (l’X), France’s Wingly flight-sharing platform connects pilots and passengers, making it easier for people to book flights on traditional craft. Its three founders, Emeric de Waziers, Bertrand Joab-Cornu and Lars Klein hope to bring the sharing economy to the airways. “Our primary goal is to democratise the skies for everyone,” says de Waziers. “Although we’re not exactly into flying taxis, we’re contributing to opening up the aviation market and promoting its development to a larger public.” Like the paid car-sharing service BlaBlaCar, Wingly offers thousands of flights on its platform, mainly for excursions. Since it was founded, the start-up has completed more than 11,000 flights, half of them over the past seven months. “Our largest markets are Germany and France, followed by the UK,” notes de Waziers. Under current European legislation, however, the pilots are not allowed to make a profit; their income can only cover costs. But there is hope that laws will change soon as drones become more common. Then anyone will be able to take to the skies.