Flying cars taking off?

As the UK plans to make electric cars the norm and tests driverless vehicles, our future transport series examines the technology that could banish gripes about potholes altogether.
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“ROADS? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”

So said Doc Brown in the 1989 film Back to the Future: Part II. The scene was set on October 21, 2015 and, as in many science-fiction films of its age, it envisaged we would by now be in an age of flying cars.

Well, 2015 came and went and thousands of articles online lamented the fact we were restricted to travelling on four wheels for the foreseeable future.

But are we closer to that vision than we think?

In 2017, only two years after it was set up, German start-up Lilium held the first successful flight test of its Lilium Jet, the first zero-emission electric plane capable of Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL). The company is now developing a five-seater version it hopes will take to the skies in 2025 as an on-demand air taxi.

Celebrating the launch, founder and CEO Daniel Wiegand, a former aerospace engineer, said: “Seeing the Lilium Jet take to the sky and performing sophisticated manoeuvres with apparent ease is testament to the skill and perseverance of our amazing team. We have solved some of the toughest engineering challenges in aviation to get to this point.”

Generic image of electric car being charged
READ: Are we prepared for the electric age on our roads?

What the Lilium promises is the ability to travel long distances quickly; a typical 55-minute journey by road would take just five minutes. The jet has a range of 300 km and maximum cruising speed of 300km/h.

Lilium envisages commuter services, describing this potential as ‘increasing the radius of living by 5x’.

Illustration depicting Lilium flying cars

Many other companies are working on flying cars. At the 2017 Geneva International Motor Show, Italdesign and Airbus premiered the concept of Pop.Up. Part car, part helicopter, Pop.Up would transport passengers in a capsule which attaches to a battery-powered ‘ground module’, a chassis with four wheels, for travelling around roads.

The capsule could then disengage from the ground module and connect to the air module to be carried by eight counter-rotating rotors.

Like Lilium, the Pop.Up is designed to be booked on an app and the capsule does the driving for you, choosing when it is most efficient to use land or air, or a mixture of both.

For Back to the Future fans, perhaps the most exciting news of all is that a company by the name of DeLorean Aerospace is working on new flying cars.

Many of these flying cars work on the basis that instead of owning the car, you’ll book it much like you would a taxi today. It is no surprise then that technology company Uber unveiled plans in 2017 to test a network of flying cars by 2020 that would operate in similar fashion to the way its ride-sharing platform does today.

The company is working with manufacturers of both flying cars and helicopters to test new technology it believes would “enable customers in the future to push a button and get a high-speed flight in and around cities” for the same price as a cab ride.

Generic image showing man using smartphone to book a cab [Image: Uber]

Of course, all this will remain some way from reality unless and until public safety can be assured and the thorny issue of regulation can be addressed.

In Dubai, however, you might soon be able to experience passenger drone flight.

The head of the city’s Roads and Transportation Agency has claimed passenger drones capable of carrying a 220lb person for up to 30 minutes, will begin ‘regular operations’ before the year’s out.

Mind you, the people behind UK-based aeronautics technology company Gilo Industries have been taking people into the air since starting out in a garage 17 years ago.

In 2000, Gilo Cardozo founded Parajet, a Shaftesbury-based company designing and manufacturing long-range powered paragliders, called paramotors.

Nine years later, the company hit the headlines by claiming to have developed the world’s first flying car. The SkyCar (above) – described by some as a dune buggy with a parachute and a giant fan-motor – completed its maiden flight during a journey from London to Timbuktu.

After the expedition, the flying car was redesigned from the ground-up, becoming SkyQuad.

Generic image of Earth taken from a satellite
READ: The SMEs hoping to secure the UK a glorious place in the cosmos

Cardozo’s current business, Gilo Industries, still makes Parajet-branded paramotors but also designs, develops and manufactures propulsion systems for consumer and commercial flight under the brand Rotron.

“Our endurance rotary engine continues to raise the industry benchmark in weight, performance and reliability with the successful completion of 1000 hours simulated flight test,” says brand manager, Dan Wareham.

Some 95% of Parajet product sales are for recreational and leisure purposes, with commercial users such as aerial filming, security, search and rescue, livestock and animal monitoring, anti-poaching, aerial surveillance and reconnaissance.

Wareham says UK-based companies are well-placed to make the most of the opportunities in the field.

“Innovation is booming in the UK. Our world class engineering facilities and businesses attract substantial high-value, high-tech inward investment from around the world. This is a great opportunity, tempered only by concern about the need to train many more engineers.”

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