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How Flying Cars Will Boost Intel, Uber and Airbus

Once pure science fiction, flying cars soon may be reality, based on dramatic technical advances by companies such as European aircraft manufacturer Airbus SE and a startup backed by computer chip maker Intel Corp. (INTC

), the Wall Street Journal reports. The current designs are less about cars with wings and more about small vehicles for short commutes by air that take off and land vertically. In their modes of operation, some of these flying cars evoke the Harrier Jump Jet, made world-famous by the British military in the 1982 Falklands War, and others such as the tilt rotor Osprey used by the U.S. military.

The critical advantage that these new designs have over helicopters is that they are smaller and more compact, the Journal says. In particular, these prototype flying cars do not have the long, protruding rotor blades that make the safe operation of helicopters difficult, if not impossible, in cramped urban settings. Meanwhile, ride-sharing coordinator Uber Technologies Inc. is working on its own concept, in partnership with aerospace companies Embraer SA (ERJ

But Will It Fly?

Some prototypes already are being tested in the air, while others are planned to take off within the next few years. Promoters of the flying car concept predict that such aircraft will be in service by early in the 2020s, the Journal says. That timetable seems rather optimistic to the Journal, which notes that many underlying technologies remain unproven.

Nonetheless, Intel’s venture capital unit has put unspecified funding, per the Journal, into an air taxi project that had a successful radio-controlled test flight back in 2013, and which is scheduled for its first commercial application later this year. The Volocopter, developed by e-volo GmbH of Germany, resembles a small helicopter or a super-sized drone, with 18 small rotors mounted around a large circular frame above the vehicle whose diameter is similar to that of a standard helicopter rotor. To get around the problem of recharging times, the Volocopter’s batteries can be swapped quickly on the ground, the Journal says. Also, the Volocopter is quiet, unlike conventional helicopters, per the company’s website.

Another German company, Lilium Aviation, staged a successful test flight in April of what it bills as “the world’s first electric vertical take-off and landing jet,” per the company’s website, which includes videos. The Lilium Jet has fixed wings and electric-powered jet engines, not rotors, that tilt. The company says that its flying car has a range of up to 300 km (186 miles) and a top speed of 300 km/hour (186 mph), which would permit travel from London to Paris in one hour. The prototype is a two-seater, but Lilium is working on a five-seater for rollout by 2019, per the Journal. This flying car also can be controlled remotely and runs quietly, per the company.

Competitive Cost?

The flying car market is not just the realm of small startups. European aerospace giant Airbus is working on its own entry, called the Vahana. Also battery-powered, this single-seater aircraft is designed to be fully-automated and pilotless, able to fly up to 31 miles with a passenger who weighs no more than 220 pounds. The Vahana, which is supposed to begin test flights later this year, will have propellers that swivel to allow helicopter-like takeoff and landing, as well as airplane-like level flight. Airbus also is considering a two-seater design for the final version, the Journal says.

The plan is for the Vahana to be used in a ride-hailing service, whether run by Airbus or by another company. The tentative pricing plan, per the Journal, is to charge $250 per hour. A ride from San Francisco to San Jose, for example, would cost about $80 to $100, about the same as an old-fashioned taxi ride on the ground, but taking only a fraction of the time, the Journal says.

Cleared for Takeoff?

The biggest hurdle for flying cars and air taxi services utilizing them may not be the technology per se, or even cost, but gaining governmental approval. Not only is airspace becoming increasingly crowded with traditional airplanes and helicopters, but the burgeoning drone market is threatening to add markedly to airspace congestion. Additionally, there is potential opposition from citizens on the ground who may feel endangered or annoyed by increased air traffic above, especially at low altitudes. (For more, see also: Drone Wars: Why Intel and GoPro Are Losing.)

The e-volo Volocopter already has passed one such hurdle. It is set to begin testing in Dubai in the fourth quarter of 2017, in a project approved by the emirate’s Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) to develop an Autonomous Air Taxi (AAT) service, per e-volo’s website. Nonetheless, James McMicking, chief strategy officer of the British Aerospace Technology Institute, sees regulatory obstacles in most locales. “The manufacturers of these things can probably put them together relatively easily, but then to demonstrate they can work in the airspace above cities is going to be really hard to do,” he told the Journal.

 

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