Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 21 September 2019

Flying car gets Japan's ambitions off the ground

A small flight for one car, but a giant leap for local industry

NEC's flying car at the company's plant in Abiko, Japan. Mass production of the transportation machine is slated to start in 2026. Bloomberg
NEC's flying car at the company's plant in Abiko, Japan. Mass production of the transportation machine is slated to start in 2026. Bloomberg

It was caged and only hovered for about a minute, but it flew.

The new flying car made by NEC is essentially a large drone with four propellers, but it is capable of carrying people.

The Japanese electronics maker demonstrated the machine, which flew without a passenger, in a Tokyo suburb on Monday.

Powered by a battery, it rose briefly to about 3 metres above the ground before settling down again.

But behind the somewhat underwhelming, drama-free demonstration lies a bigger ambition.

Japan’s government wants the country to become a leader in flying cars after missing out on advancements in technology such as electric cars and ride-hailing services.

The country’s technological strategy calls for shipping goods by flying cars by about 2023 and having people ride flying cars in cities by the 2030s.

“Japan is a densely populated country and that means flying cars could greatly alleviate the burden on road traffic,” said Kouji Okada, a leader of the project at NEC.

“We are positioning ourselves as an enabler for air mobility, providing location data and building communications infrastructure for flying cars.”

For the past few years, Japan has developed a small, passionate flying-car community that believes the country has the engineering expertise and right environment to foster a global industry in the vehicles.

Venture capitalists set up a Drone Fund devoted to investing in autonomous aircraft in general and flying cars in particular.

Although Monday’s demonstration was among the first by a major Japanese corporation, NEC is not planning to mass-produce the flying car, Mr Okada said.

Project partner Cartivator will start mass producing the machines in 2026, said the start-up’s co-founder, Tomohiro Fukuzawa.

NEC engineers and Cartivator, which it sponsors, spent about a year developing the model.

It is about 3.9 metres long, 3.7 metres wide and 1.3 metres tall, and weighs about 150 kilograms.

It’s being tested in a large, 10 metre by 20 metre cage to make sure it doesn’t fly out of control and injure someone or cause damage.

Japan is not the only country looking at flying cars. Dubai, Singapore and New Zealand have expressed similar intentions.

Google co-founder Larry Page’s Kitty Hawk is also working on a flying car, as is Uber Technologies.

Eventually, NEC’s flying car will be set free. Cartivator has been granted a permit for outdoor flights by Japanese government.

Updated: August 6, 2019 03:12 AM

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