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The evolution of personal aerial vehicles

Manuel Castellanos

Manuel Castellanos

AERTEC / Aerospace Industry

 

We have all dreamt about what personal transport would be like in the future at some time in our lives. Almost without exception we have thought of flying cars and have expected to see them one day other than on the big screen, the only place where we have been able to see them until now. The idea of flying in your own car has captivated humanity for decades and quite a few attempts have been made to bring that goal closer.

Today the advances seen in the aeronautical industry are bringing this possibility much closer. One only has to look back at this industry’s evolution to see how it can turn science fiction into reality. It is an exciting prospect to develop the imagination. However, it is not widely known that the history of automobiles is full of ambitious ideas, concepts and even real tests involving prototypes.

Once the 21st century arrived, the advances in aeronautics allowed innovation to be carried out more than ever on different designs, materials, propulsion units and aerofoil systems.

Many types of machines have been manufactured to make history in this race of ingenuity. The first attempt took place a century ago. It was the Curtiss Autoplane built in 1917 by the American aviator Glen Curtiss. There is, however, no proof that it ever took to the air. The Frenchman René Tampier did indeed achieve this in 1921 with his prototype, which carried the same name. These early models were practically biplanes equipped with a propeller-based ground propulsion system that turned them into a real hazard on the road. Thus began this undertaking.

There would be many more attempts over the course of the 20th century. Some attached aeronautical parts to cars, as was the case of the Hafner Rotabuggy of 1942, a hybrid helicopter-jeep. Another similar line of innovation were the devices which attached wings and tail to a car, which functioned like a fuselage. This was the case of the Convair Model 118 of 1947, conceived by the company Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Company, and the Ave Mizar, built by Advanced Vehicle Engineers in 1973. The latter two prototypes underwent traumatic experiences during some of their flight tests.

Other inventors decided to work along the lines of a completely different trend by building machines that were physically similar to flying saucers, such as the Avrocar presented in 1958 by the company Avro Canada and several versions of the MX designed by Paul Moller as from 1965. What all these models had in common was a lack of performance and difficulties in all matters connected with thrust and stability.

The designs changed, but not their intention, once the 21st century arrived. Advances in aeronautics allowed innovation to be carried out more than ever on different designs, materials, propulsion units and aerofoil systems. Several devices have been developed, ranging from machines that are similar to light aircraft equipped with foldable wings and traction in their wheels – like the Aeromobil or the Terrafugia Transition – to designs resembling small helicopters equipped with VTOL (1) technology, like the Pal V One. The trend of attaching wings onto cars has also continued, as was the case of the Panoz Esperante in 2006. The successful testing of all these proposals is solid proof that we are getting ever closer to attaining that much desired dream.

We will not mention, however, the numerous proposals that are coming up of personal aerial vehicle designs based on the drone concept, since it is very specific and somewhat different from the notion of a “flying car”. These designs are not meant to travel along highways.

Designers today have managed to blend specific aeronautical and automobile concepts to create some spectacular prototypes. Let’s focus our attention on one of them, whose design and performance exceed anything seen to date and which was presented at the Geneva Motor Show this year. It is the prototype of a car-drone hybrid called Pop Up System, which is capable of travelling along asphalted roads like any ground vehicle in addition to flying and taking off and landing vertically. It seems like a fictional vehicle, but it is already a palpable reality created by Airbus’s Urban Air Mobility Division in conjunction with Italdesign. Both companies have collaborated to propel us into the future and give us an inkling of what this new transport concept will be like.

This prototype consists of an autonomous platform equipped with a battery to go along asphalted roads upon which a two-person cabin is coupled, also equipped with a battery. Above this cabin there is an eight-rotor drone equipped with four engines fed by a third battery. The most curious feature of this vehicle is that it can be autopiloted by artificial intelligence, apart from being fully electric and capable of sharing energy among its batteries depending on the vehicle’s needs. It has a range of 130 kilometres as a car, to which a flying range of 100 kilometres has to be added. The batteries can be recharged in just 15 minutes according to Airbus.

It constitutes a further step forward, a conceptual leap compared to previous attempts. In this new generation, Airbus’s toy will compete against the Pal V Liberty, which is expected to be presented this very year, the Terrafugia TF-X, foreseen for 2021, and the mysterious Zee Aero, which was first glimpsed in 2013, all of which will be direct competitors in this market niche.

Perhaps they will become just another “first flying car”, but the truth of the matter is we are getting ever closer to being able to park on our own flat roof. Just imagining something like this causes excitement. In technology terms, we are almost ready, though some aspects like optimising batteries and improving artificial intelligence systems have to be developed further. Moreover, investments in infrastructures have to be made to make this new concept feasible.

As for regulation and legislation, these are not simple tasks. Firstly, permitting the use of this kind of vehicles involves a thoroughgoing rethink of many issues connected with air navigation, especially in urban areas. A multitude of vehicles sharing airspace also involves the need to regulate route control systems, their definition and their interaction with already existing systems. We have to take into account that these are hybrid vehicles which can switch from ground mode to aerial mode, and vice versa, at any given moment.

This is why many issues will have to be discussed to ensure the well‑being and safety of both users are non-users of this new transport system. In addition, it will be necessary to define who takes on regulatory responsibilities for each case and at each scale, since air operations will not be concentrated only at specific points, like those of any airport or along airways. Instead the entire urban (and extra-urban) environment will probably host operations of this sort.

As far as public acceptance is concerned, it will also involve a significant change. This means of transport will bring together a series of attractive and innovative aspects: no pollution, no traffic jams, on-demand travel, quicker and more personal trips. The downside is the lack of safety this new change would entail. Despite the fact that we all have fictional images in our minds of thousands of personal flying vehicles crossing each other, we are not accustomed to machines taking over control and it will be difficult for us to assume this.

In any case, we should be aware of the point we have reached. It now time for us to stop dreaming and wake up to realize we are now closer than ever to achieving this goal.

Terrafugia TF-X concepto personal air vehicle

(1) The abbreviation “VTOL” means “Vertical Take-Off and Landing”.

 

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