Traffic Lights in The Sky: Flying Cars Can Appear Sooner Than You Think
Of all the technologies that have been popularised in the last decade, drones have become an area of intense speculation, with potential applications including takeaway dinner delivery, aerial cinematography and surveillance, and all manner of other futuristic purposes.
Aside from their numerous potential uses, all the excitement around drones has quietly breathed new life into another idea that had fallen by the wayside in recent decades — flying cars.
Back in the early 1960s, when the Jetsons first introduced the masses to the idea of cars with wings, the vision represented an appealing alternative to a world where urban planners were busy building bigger roads to accommodate more cars for increasingly congested cities. As the car boom went on, more and more families were able to realise the convenience and freedom of four wheels, but even bigger roads couldn’t save cities from pollution and congestion.
Since the sixties, however, the world has changed — the arrival of the internet, a surge in consumer electronics, and the success of consumer drones have all helped flying cars get closer to reality.
The Tech Needed for Take-Off
Just like flying cars, drones are the amalgamation of several different technologies — all melded together to create a new breed of electronic vehicle.
Many of these technologies were developed by another revolution: the smartphone. Driven by the desire for ever more ergonomic handheld devices, the mass-produced components of smartphones and tablets have been getting smaller, cheaper, and more suitable for flight.
The accelerometers that are used to orientate smartphone screens are also used by drones to aid flight stabilisation. The Wi-Fi chips that connect smartphones to the internet are the same chips that allow drones to transmit data. All of these components — including batteries, cameras, and increasingly miniaturised motherboards, have transformed what were once hobbyist items into something more akin to what the military has been using for decades. These light, reliable and manoeuvrable small aircraft are easy to fly and can be used for various potential applications.
“Today, not only can we fly meaningful payloads at practical ranges using purely electric propulsion, but we can do it at low cost”
When the first consumer drones were released, they were so unwieldy that they could barely act as flying cameras. However, as the tech has grown more efficient, drone shots have become a standard feature of amateur YouTube videos, and drones’ use cases have expanded — carrying heavier loads, becoming faster and quieter, and eventually making the leap from taking photos and delivering pizza, to transporting people.
“The recent convergence across powerful computers, lightweight batteries, and efficient motors are critical in enabling this next generation of aircraft. Until recently, electric propulsion has been too heavy to be practical. Today, not only can we fly meaningful payloads at practical ranges using purely electric propulsion, but we can do it at low cost,” says Zach Lovering, Vice President of Urban Air Mobility Systems for Airbus.
Making the jump from carrying pizza to people isn’t so easy — in terms of technology, although flying vehicles might rely on the same distributed electric propulsion and lightweight energy-efficient components of drones, they also need a host of other technologies.
In fact, the sheer number of safety regulations a flying car would have to contend with means that technology would almost certainly have to replace the pilot — taking human error out of the equation and creating a flying car driven entirely by onboard sensors such as radar, optics, and geolocation sensors. This is made clear in Airbus’s Blueprint for the Skies, which predicts there will be 19,269 drones an hour above Paris in 2035:
“The commercial viability of drone and air taxi operations depends on achieving economies of scale,” the Blueprint explains. “Requiring a human to serve as an onboard or remote pilot significantly limits economic feasibility of drone businesses. This means that drones must be able to react to changing conditions. Not all drones will be self-piloting, and self-piloting drones will sometimes need human control. But they must be capable of adapting their flight paths to ensure they can safely coexist”
“The commercial viability of drone and air taxi operations depends on achieving economies of scale. Requiring a human to serve as an onboard or remote pilot significantly limits economic feasibility”
To be self-piloting, flying cars — or autonomous passenger drones — would need further layers of advanced technology, including artificial intelligence and cognitive systems that enable advanced detect-and-avoid capabilities, machine learning to absorb the intelligence of human pilots, as well as lightweight and efficient batteries. Fortuitously, the development of many of these technologies has been catalysed by both the recent surge in autonomous vehicles, and the development of consumer drones.
“The great thing about drones,” says Marilyn Smith, Associate Director of the Vertical Lift Research Center of Excellence at Georgia Institute of Technology, “is that they have spurred the development of much of the technology that is needed for air mobility. For example, autonomous algorithm development, flight avoidance modelling - similar to but expanded TCAS models, discussion of regulations, and lightweight, long-life battery development. Because we can test these algorithms and concepts in unoccupied vehicles, we can rapidly progress without the fear of loss of human life.”
Traffic Lights in the Sky
It’s not just technical limitations that are holding flying cars back. As drones slowly enter the airspace, they also enter a legal situation which is often either extremely restrictive, or wide open for abuse. However, as authorities scramble to tailor appropriate regulations for drone usage, they are also creating the framework that could one day help control the movements of flying cars.
“Because of the increase in drone usage, there is now more interest in developing drone-centric business models. This has triggered a broader conversation about increased airspace utilisation and regulatory topics, which has caused governments and standards organisations to focus on their integration,” says Zach Lovering.
Before widespread autonomous passenger drones can become a feasible reality, they need to navigate a complex regulatory landscape, including airworthiness certifications, pilot licensing, and more stringent versions of the controls for land-bound vehicles. According to Marilyn Smith, this regulatory infrastructure needed to ensure safety is “the big roadblock” facing flying cars. But, the presence of drones on the radar of government agencies is already helping to prepare the way.
“Uber and NASA have recently signed an agreement for the traffic management of autonomous vehicles flying at low altitudes”
In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is considering extending commercial operations of drones over controlled airspace beyond visual line of sight — a policy that could allow for passenger drones or autonomous taxis.
These autonomous taxis could be arriving sooner rather than later: Uber and NASA have recently signed an agreement for the traffic management of autonomous vehicles flying at low altitudes that will help Uber move forward with plans to test on-demand flying car networks in cities around the world. The combined project will use simulations to help Uber find a way for its proposed taxi drones to navigate crowded city airspaces.
Ultimately, as the technology continues to develop, regulations concerning flight may be of lower importance. NASA's Unmanned Aircraft Systems Traffic Management project relies on drone operators sending flight information through IoT infrastructure to a centralised system — like an automated air-traffic control — that tracks the location of autonomous aircraft and relays back to the drone a complete picture of airspace, allowing aircraft to steer clear of each other. Flying cars may seem like a farfetched vision of the future, but they could start to appear sooner than you think.
If the development of flying cars is something that interests you, then Dutch aircraft manufacturer PAL-V is looking to supply for that demand. The company has already launched the world's first production flying car. The vehicle promises to put you “among the first of the flying drivers”, with an exclusive 90 models being sold in the current sales round, for a $400,000 price tag that will appeal to only the most adventurous drivers.
The problem with PAL-V is that its product is less a ‘flying car’ and more a ‘car that can also fly’. The Blade Runner vision had cars seamlessly pushing themselves into the air and flying dexterously around the dingy metropolis, whereas this is more of a small car with a helicopter blade attached to the roof. To be clear, it is an impressive product; the test flights look stable and the propeller folds away cleanly for road driving. Ultimately, though, it looks like more of a combination of a helicopter and a buggy than a flying car - if this is what the first iteration of flying cars will look like, you can imagine most people giving them a miss.
Illustrations by Kseniya Forbender
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Margarita Khartanovich at [email protected]
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