All posts in “Flying Cars”

Behind the ambitious plan to build and race flying cars

Since Back to the Future, you’re far from alone if you’ve wondered where the heck your flying car is already.

Sure, we’ve seen pitches by the likes of Kitty Hawk, which is backed by Google co-founder Larry Page, and Slovakian startup AeroMobil — but the reality of a flying car still seems a way off.

An Australian startup called Alauda has an ambition to fast-track that reality with its electric, low-altitude aircraft, the Airspeeder Mark I. 

Alauda is founded by Matt Pearson, who also cofounded space startup Fleet. Over the past two years, Pearson has been working on the project as part of a team of five in a Sydney warehouse.

Unlike the DeLorean, Pearson’s Airspeeder Mark I is a quadcopter — essentially a bigger version of a drone, with a single seat for the pilot. 

“About three years ago I started to look at hover technology, and magnetic hovering. The problem with that is you need to build a track as well as the vehicle. You can’t just build a magnetic hover car and fly it on any road, you need to build the road,” Pearson explained to Mashable.

“Then I realised quadcopter designs were so much more versatile, so much more advanced, and so much more easier to work with.”

Image: alauda

Much of the Airspeeder is custom made: The wooden propellers, the 50-megawatt electric motors, and the aluminium frame. It’ll be powered by lithium ion batteries and will have a top speed of more than 200 km/h. 

The Airspeeder will have sensors to prevent collisions, but they’re also looking into a Mars Lander-type safety system, which uses airbags to protect the vehicle on impact.

While the dynamics of an Airspeeder might be different, the control surfaces are similar to a normal aircraft. Two joysticks will each control pitch and roll, as pedals control yaw and throttle.

Turning Airspeeder into a sport

Why just fly a car when you can race it? Pearson hopes to have two Airspeeders test-racing through a desert in the later half of 2018, with an aim to launch a Grand Prix in 2020. They’ll be unmanned at first, as the team works on the car’s safety systems. 

“We want to create a sport, not just a flying car. So Alauda is like Ferrari, and we have something called Airspeeder — that’s like Formula One, which is the category,” he explained.

“We want to create race regulations that say you can’t go higher than this, you can’t go lower than this, and we’ll build that into the software as well so it limits what drivers can do. That will be related to safety, but also crowd safety too.”

The races could be time trials around an aerobatics course, a la Red Bull Air Race, or an endurance sprint from point-to-point.

“It depends on how much space governments will allow us to have, and where it’s safe to do it. The good thing about Australia is that we’ve got a lot of open fields …  [but] one of the limitations are is that you can’t go that far without needing another battery, so I would say we’re thinking of starting something as small as a couple of square kilometres.”

Like in motorsports, Pearson envisages integrating the art of the pitstop in Airspeeder racing. 

“What we’ll have in the racing is a lot of pit stops, you touch down, the crew slides out the batteries and slides new ones in. So it’s going to be a really exciting thing to watch,” he said.

Great Scott! But it’s still early days

Alauda are still testing prototypes on a field within Australian military airspace, with government permission. 

Pearson is currently the company’s sole investor. The company has turned to a Kickstarter to help raise funds and gauge interest in the endeavour.

“We’re running this Kickstarter to go hey, if people are excited about this come join us, be part of this, the more money we raise the faster we can go,” he said.

“It’s engineering time to get the safety systems right, and the certification — this has to be certified like a normal aircraft and each part has to be certified individually. It’s a long process, and we want to get it started.”

They’re also looking for people who have a background as a racing driver, but also a pilot’s license, who might want to fly an Airspeeder (if you’re one of these people, you’ve used your time on this planet very, very well).

“You actually see that quite often through history, especially with Formula One drivers — those kinds of thrill seekers. It’s that mix of experience, because we’re blending those two fields. We’ve found a couple like that already and we’re excited about that,” Pearson said.

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Volvo’s parent company wants to sell you a flying car by 2019

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Volvo’s parent company envisions a world where in two years time, real-life flying cars could be hitting the open roads (and skies), finally fulfilling all of our sci-fi inspired fantasies of bi-modal travel.

Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, the Chinese parent of auto brands Volvo and Lotus, just finalized its latest acquisition to snap up next-gen transportation startup Terrafugia. The company is best known for its futuristic flying car designs, the Transition and the TF-X — and with the new corporate support from Geely, Terrafugia is ready to set new targets for the crafts to be ready for flight.

Terrafugia says that it will aim to offer consumers a shot at personal street-to-sky transport by releasing the Transition to the market in 2019, then following up with the more accessible TF-X rig by 2023. 

The two vehicles promise to offer drivers… er, flyers, different experiences to get in the air. The Transition, which has been in development since 2009, has retractable wings and requires a full runway to take off into the skies. Terrafugia has already shown off footage of a working prototype, which the company has flown in OshKosh, Wisconsin. 

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The company says the final production version of the craft will have a cruising speed of 100 mph, with about 400 miles of flight range. You can even reserve one now, if you’re willing to wait two years and fork over $10,000. Terrafugia founder Carl Dietrich told us the final cost will probably be around $279,000 back in 2013, however, so the down payment isn’t that much, considering. 

The TF-X is a different beast. The vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) craft is closer to the flying taxi designs shown off recently by Uber and flown in Dubai than the Transition, since it won’t require a runway to get airborne. Unlike those VTOLs, however, the TF-X retains the ability to drive on the roads, making it a true flying car. 

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Terrafugia says the TF-X will run on an all-electric system, with an estimated cruising speed of 200 mph and range of 500 miles. While the company says it’ll be more accessible to consumers by the time it’s fully developed, cost estimates haven’t been specified. For now, expect the TF-X to cost around as much as a high-end luxury car.

The plans to launch flying taxis by Uber and the city of Dubai depend on public programs to put the vehicles into service around 2020— but private crafts like these from Terrafugia and competitors like AeroMobil and Lilium could give wealthy enthusiasts a chance to get in the air first. Either way, our skies may be about to get more crowded.  

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Dubai’s self-flying taxis are primed for takeoff later this year

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The “Future City” is about to add another space-age service you won’t find anywhere else in the world: autonomous passenger drones. 

Dubai’s much-hyped autonomous aerial taxi (AAT) service, which made waves back in February when it was announced as part of its World Government Summit, is finally, officially on track. The city’s Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) just announced a new testing schedule for the program and signed a new a new deal with German aviation company Volocopter, which will provide the aircraft for the program.

The autonomous drone taxis will fly passengers on predetermined routes throughout the city, serving as more of a sky shuttle service than a true go-anywhere taxi. The test period will start sometime during the fourth quarter of this year, and the RTA expects to continue on a trial basis for about five years until the proper legislation is in place for a bigger expansion.

The first version of the air taxi project used the Ehang 184, a 500-pound, single-seat passenger drone. The Dubai RTA didn’t say why it was now switching to Volocopter aircraft but touted the company’s reputation for safety. The craft that will be used in the trials, the Volocopter 2X, is a two-seater, which could give it the edge over the smaller single-passenger Ehang.  

The crafts are fully electric, with 18 rotors and nine independent battery systems that can pick up the slack to keep the craft in the air if anything fails mid-flight. Volocopter claims the quick-charge battery can be fully juiced in as little as 40 minutes for a max flight time of about 30 minutes. That’s at the standard cruising speed of 50 km/h (around 30 mph) and a top speed of 100 km/h (about 62 mph).

A rendering of one of the autonomous air taxis in flight.

A rendering of one of the autonomous air taxis in flight.

Image: volocopter

The project was originally slated to begin next month, but the RTA pushed the trial period to the fourth quarter of the year to make sure the system is truly ready before the crafts take to the air. The RTA said it’s working closely with the Dubai Civil Aviation Authority to iron out legislative and operational guidelines, along with more exact standards for potential taxi service operators to have all the pieces in place before the “commercial and official operation” of the AATs.

This is just the start for flying taxis, with companies like Airbus rolling out their own projects — but Dubai is ahead of the curve. The city is lined up as one of the first two targets for Uber’s flying car initiative, with plans to have a working prototype and possibly even passenger flights as part of Dubai’s Expo 2020 event. 

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Check out how easy it’ll be to hail one of Airbus’ conceptual autonomous flying taxis

Hailing a flying taxi will someday be as easy as pulling out your phone and pressing a button. 

That’s the future presented by a number of vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft projects, and major transportation movers and shakers, most notably Uber and its partners, have outlined plans to take the ride hailing services currently stuck on the ground to put them in the skies.   

One of the busiest companies in the space is Airbus, which just dropped a new video of its autonomous flying taxi hailing project. The video is just a CG demo of the concept, but it’s still an exciting vision of the future of mobility.  

Vahana is one of the legs of Airbus’ three-tiered A³ initiative, which is focused on developing future-forward aviation projects. The company’s CEO Tom Enders said in January that Airbus was aiming to have a working prototype by the end of this year.  

The video shows how easy it is for Deborah, a Californian looking for a quick commute between San Jose and San Francisco. Not sure exactly what kind of future OS Deborah is using on that future phone, but the system doesn’t look too far removed from the user experience on apps like Uber and Lyft today.

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It might not be a full-blown multi-modal system like some further-flung Airbus concepts we’ve seen or a true flying car, which are looking less and less likely given the projects currently in development, but it looks impressive nonetheless. 

There’s not much information available about the project, or any news on the status of the prototype that Enders said was projecting by the end of the year. The company will have something to show next week at the Paris Air Show, according to The Verge, although it’s unclear exactly what that will bring other than the video.

The Vahana concept shows off an exciting future, but the rendering is still a ways off from reality. Driverless flying taxis have already appeared in Dubai, however, where the Ehang 184 was demoed during the city’s World Government Summit back in February. The service is projected to start full time there next month. 

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Uber plans to have its flying car ready by 2020

Uber’s flying car plans are coming together — and it looks like it won’t be taking to the skies alone.

The company’s aspiration to build an urban air transportation network took a major leap on Tuesday with its Elevate Summit event in Dallas. The three-day conference was billed as a chance to spread the news about Uber’s plans for its flying cars and “identify and accelerate opportunities to collaborate within the community,” boasting a diverse line-up of presenters with backgrounds ranging from NASA and public office to CEOs of aerospace companies. 

Uber first outlined its concept for an autonomous, on-demand flight system, dubbed Uber Elevate, in a white paper released last October. That plan depends on the development of electric vertical take-off and landing aircrafts, or eVTOLs, along with the infrastructure to make catching a flying cab just as easy as hailing a normal car. The company also hired veteran NASA engineer Mark Moore back in February to help spearhead the project’s development.

Uber’s Chief Product Officer Jeff Holden opened the Elevate event with a wide-ranging keynote address, covering the current state of Uber’s project, its existing partnerships with aerospace companies and even cities, and the bold goal of debuting a prototype of a craft by 2020. “Flying cars have been promised for decades, but are arriving now,” he said, staking out the company’s aggressive goal to make flying cars a reality.

Holden’s keynote rehashed many of the details the company previously published in its white paper, as he showed off some of the same figures and charts touting Uber’s current ride sharing system and its nascent plans to develop a functional flying vehicle and urban aviation system. 

The big news from the keynote is the partnerships the company has or is pursuing to actually build the network, taking it from “the notional to the concrete,” as Holden said. Uber has “begun conversations” about partnering with NASA and the FAA about development and testing for the air traffic systems needed to make Elevate possible, and Holden touted speakers from both agencies slated to present at the conference. 

“We’re going to see how fast we can make this a reality.”

He also announced partnerships with aviation companies that already have eVTOL systems in development, including Bell Helicopter, Aurora, Embraer and Mooney, to help develop the flying vehicles. Holden said the eVTOLs would first be manned, but eventually could become fully autonomous. There’s also an agreement in place with Charge Point to develop the batteries and charging infrastructure needed for a wide eVTOL network. 

To cap off the keynote, Holden announced the eVTOL operations will launch in Dallas, with a goal to kick off the program by 2021. Uber will begin developing the physical infrastructure — landing pads called “vertiports”— needed for the system in the city as early as next year.

The project will expand internationally to Dubai, which has already proven to be primed for air taxi service. There, Uber will partner with the city’s Road and Transport Authority to develop the network. The current goal is to have a working prototype or even conduct passenger flights as part of the planned Expo 2020 event in the city. 

“We’re going to see how fast we can make this a reality,” Holden said to close his remarks. “We know this is possible, we know this is going to happen.” 

These plans and partnerships are undeniably exciting — if Uber can stick to its projected schedule, we could have a flying car before some automakers are even projected to roll out their self-driving systems on the road. 

But this is all speculative. As Uber’s efforts in that self-driving space have shown, “move fast and break things” isn’t always the best method to develop paradigm-shifting technology. We’ll remain cautiously optimistic until the day we see the flying cars zooming overhead.

WATCH: Freak out over this video of the coolest flying car yet