Monday, August 31, 2020

Flying Cars At Last?

 Last week, a Japanese consortium funded by Toyota, Panasonic, and game developer Bandai Namco showed to reporters a video of a one-man flying car as it rose to a height of about six feet (2 meters) and circled an area about the size of a tennis court before landing—successfully, I might add.  No technical details were released, but the leader of the SkyDrive organization, Tomohiro Fukuzawa, says plans are in place for advancing the prototype to a commercial product as soon as 2023.  

Not much bigger than a motorcycle, the SkyDrive vehicle has eight rotors mounted on four struts, two struts on each side of the chassis.  There are what look like air intake or exhaust cowlings at the front and back, which makes me wonder if the batteries need to be air-cooled during the approximately ten minutes of maximum flight time.  The flight didn't break any air-speed records, as you can see on this video.  The main concern seemed to be keeping the thing level and under control, and after rising to flight altitude, the pilot (or maybe software—it wasn't clear who was doing the guiding) moved in what can only be described as a stately fashion in a large rectangle over the paved test area underneath a mesh that covered the top of the fenced-in space at a height of about 7 meters (22 feet or so).  Clearly, the inventors don't want this thing to get loose. 


Safety-wise, the vehicle has a long way to go.  Anybody approaching it while it's winding up to take off risks risks becoming blender fodder in the propeller blades.  And installing enough cowlings, screens, and other protective safeguards to keep the unwary from getting hurt would probably make the thing too heavy and unmaneuverable to use. 


But helicopter blades are dangerous, and we've learned how to deal safely with them, most of the time.  Except in emergencies, however, helicopters don't land just any old place, but on secure helipads where unauthorized people can't be wandering around.  And in fact one of the earliest commercial uses of a vehicle like the SkyDrive unit would probably be for emergency access where there isn't enough space to land a helicopter.  And of course, military uses for such a vehicle abound, but it's going to have to move a bit faster to avoid being a sitting (or flying) duck for enemy fire.


The SkyDrive machine is classed as an eVTOL, for electric-powered vertical takeoff and landing.  Something like it has featured in many future-city scenarios, and I've waited this long in the column to mention the Jetsons, that animated U. S. Hanna-Barbera sitcom that ran for a single season (1962-63).  It was set in some vague distant future in which the family car was replaced by a personal flying machine.


Culturally, the Jetsons show was one of the last bits of foam on the wave of technical optimism that surged through the 1950s but dissipated by the 1970s.  It's fun to imagine flying to work above the myriads of earthbound plebeians who still have to commute on the ground, which is why the very few who can afford to commute by helicopter sometimes do so.  But if everybody took to the air, you can imagine the problems that would arise. 


For one thing, running out of gas in a car is inconvenient, maybe, but most of the time you can make it to the side of the road before anything dire happens.  If you're at five thousand feet, it's a different matter.  Of course, any serious attempt to institute personal eVTOLs as commuter transport would probably automate the entire process, from when you step into the thing until you step out, as I don't expect the FAA is willing to license X million commuters as pilots any time soon.  And as the AI people are so fond of showing us traffic-signal-free two-dimensional intersections that smoothly allow computer-steered vehicles to flow unobstructed without stopping, I'm sure they wouldn't have a problem adding one more dimension, so that Manhattan at rush hour would look like nothing so much as an exceptionally busy beehive.


As with every electrified flying craft, the battery is the critical component.  And if the present SkyDrive vehicle's performance is battery-limited, as it may well be, the whole idea is going to have to wait on battery improvements, which can take a long time to come. 


Of course, some unexpected new compact energy source might come along, in the spirit of "Back to the Future"'s water-powered fusion reactor, and then we could all have our own SkyDrive in short order.  Roadways would still be needed for heavy-load transport—I don't think it will ever be practical to build an electric-powered flying cement truck.  But the addition of a third dimension to transportation on a sort of micro level, rather than the macro level that conventional commercial air transport represents, could lead to a great many changes, most of which could be good if we managed them well. 


It's a simple mathematical fact that you can get more stuff through a pipe that is several thousand feet on a side rather than a couple of hundred feet by 13 feet 6 inches (60 meters by 4.1 meters), which is the standard height limit for interstate freeways.  So if  computerized navigation and collision-control software was properly designed, the air above a freeway could easily handle the largest freeway traffic load and it wouldn't even look that crowded.  Weather would be a factor, of course, but maybe things will be so efficient in the future that when it rains, people can just take off a day or so and work from home.  We've learned that lesson from COVID-19 already, and for many types of jobs the change has not been that difficult.


For a number of reasons, I'm not going to hold my breath until I can buy a commercial version of the SkyDrive gizmo, as the battery and safety problems may take years or even decades to overcome.  But it does look fun, and even if they never make it to mass production, I foresee great opportunities in the sports area:  races and stunt flying for mass audiences might prove to be entertaining and even profitable.  Time will tell.


Sources:  The Associated Press article by Yuri Kageyama on the SkyDrive test appeared on the AP website on Aug. 28, 2020 at and was carried by numerous outlets.  A YouTube video of a test flight can be seen at

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