In an era of ever-evolving technology, how viable is a future with autonomous flight?
Comment: Will flying cars ever actually take off?
Throughout aviation history, many plucky pioneers have ended up demonstrating their inventions for the cameras to persuade a doubting public that they’re safe. Things didn’t always go to plan – men such as Franz Reichelt and Otto Lilienthal would plummet to their deaths as a result of their enthusiasm for flying. But in 2018, that same strategy is still being used on the internet to promote new developments in air transportation.
The co-founder of Chinese firm Ehang, Derrick Xiong, can be seen in an online video (watch below) travelling in a craft named the “184” which looks like a jumbo-size drone with a human-sized capsule. On YouTube, you can watch the CEO of Volocopter, Alexander Zosel, ascend into the skies while piloting the craft he helped to create. These vehicles, along with many others – the Alpha One, the Lilium Jet, the Neo X-Craft and more – are now competing to revolutionise personal transport: a battery-powered aircraft that moves across cities silently, swiftly and unimpeded by traffic jams. This concept has gripped the transport industry – in an interview at this week’s Geneva Motor Show, even Porsche executive Detlev von Platen was heard making a reference to their development of a “flying sports car”.
“Flying car” has been used to describe many different types of aircrafts, but while that term conjures up a Fifth Element-style vision of the future, the reality is slightly more mundane. These are primarily low-powered crafts which take off vertically, and can carry just one passenger. “Only in the last year has it been possible for us to generate sufficient battery power to lift the battery, the craft and a passenger,” says Daniel Hayes of VRCO, whose Neo X-Craft is being developed in conjunction with a British university. “But things have progressed very quickly,” he continues. “It’s no longer merely feasible. It’s now a really exciting area to be working in, and that’s why interest is exploding.”
Partnering up for flying cars
The last six months have certainly seen a flurry of partnership announcements and product prototypes. Back in November, Volvo’s parent company, Geely, bought Chinese-owned “flying car” firm Terrafugia, while Boeing announced the acquisition of pilotless aircraft firm Aurora Flight Sciences. Airbus has been particularly active in this space, and last month it completed its first successful test flight of the Alpha One air taxi. Uber has been linked to aerospace company Textron, while Google’s founder Larry Page has invested in Californian flight start-up Zee.Aero. This corporate battle is being driven by the realisation that across the world, city infrastructure is under enormous strain.
“The issues that cities are facing are firstly too many people, and secondly too much traffic,” says Helena Treeck of Volocopter, which has $30 million (Dh110m) of investment from German car manufacturer Daimler. “If there’s no space to dig more tunnels or build more bridges,” she adds, “the only option is to go up in the air.”
The biggest obstacle
Whether all this innovation is channelled into developing air taxis for public use or, as with VRCO’s Neo X-Craft, a private vehicle for VIPs, it’s clear that smaller components and sensors are helping to overcome the technological problems relating to weight and power. The bigger obstacle to flying cars will ultimately be regulatory approval, as this is a completely new type of air traffic that will operate a few hundred feet above the ground.
“For all this to be feasible,” says Treeck, “you need a traffic management system to ensure that everything operating at that altitude – delivery drones, taxis, construction sites – communicates properly. Many bodies are currently working to develop this.” But even if major cities adopt such air traffic systems, the safety of each craft will require additional guarantees – and the evidence will need to be a lot more compelling than a video of a smiling CEO sitting in the cockpit.
Legislation currently requires certification for the aircraft, and a pilot’s license for the person operating it. The role of the pilot, however, is becoming almost ceremonial, and fully automated flying is the ultimate goal for many of these aircraft developers. “The Neo X-Craft has better sensing capabilities than a human pilot.” says Hayes. “You could point it at the ground and put the throttle full-on, and if it thinks it’s going to crash, it will reverse that action. Ninety per cent of air accidents can be traced back to human failure of some sort, and we believe that legislation may shift in favour of autonomy.” Automation has already replaced much of the airline pilot’s routine, and Treeck believes that this should be acknowledged.
“Autonomy is safer,” she says. “Humans add errors to the system. Pilots may argue with this, but the statistics don’t.” Automatic systems, however, cannot afford to make any mistakes. As Hayes notes, a single irresponsible player in this sector could set back development for a generation. “Everyone needs to step forward very responsibly,” he says.
The idea of autonomous flight is popular with Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority, whose aim is for one quarter of passenger transport to be operated autonomously by 2030. As well as Ehang’s test flights, the Volocopter was demonstrated to the Crown Prince of Dubai, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, in a ceremony in September. Treeck reveals that the firm is also in discussions with other cities, but the adoption of air taxis will ultimately depend on whether the public buys into it.
At the recent Web Summit tech conference in Lisbon, Volocopter’s Zosel asked the crowd if they’d rather be in a piloted or autonomous air taxi; and the split was, perhaps surprisingly, 50-50. But as we grow more comfortable with the idea of autonomously driven cars, we may become enamoured with the idea of autonomous aircraft, too.
“It’s coming much sooner than people think,” says Treeck. “But if you’re going to have thousands of these crafts in a city, they have to be quiet, and they have to be stable.” The timescale of the flying car is uncertain, but the enormous emphasis on safety makes one thing very clear: test flights of the 21st century are a world away from the reckless experiments of the late 1800s.