BQ Newsletter

Wing commander

Sunday 5 February 2012 7:00

It has been a dream since mankind conquered the skies, but the technology to drive and fly have now caught up, writes Josh Sims.

It is a nifty, fuel- and electrically-powered two-seater, offering green credentials and sportiness. But there is one compelling difference about the new concept from engineer-entrepreneurs Michael Moshier and Robert Bulaga. Their car flies. The Air Car combines advances in materials and electronics with duct-fan technology to offer the freedom of the skies with the same ease that the congestion of the roads is, to our frustration, increasingly experiencing.

But nor is the new Air Car alone in reaching for the clouds. A number of companies are in advanced stages of developing a variety of vehicles which propose to offer a new era in personal flight that overcomes the objections that have hindered development for decades – they are easy to fly, affordable to buy (or at least on a par with a top-end prestige car), to run and to house, and with practical proportions. Australian company Hoverbike begins test flights this year. MyCopter, another project, has won EU funding. And Terrafugia, whose Transition is pitched as a “roadable aircraft” (meaning you can also drive it), is set for take-off next year.

“How much better would it be to have a vehicle that meant you could go out of your door, take off, land in a parking lot and do your shopping,” suggests Robert Bulaga, president of Trek Aerospace, whose one-person Springtail vehicle is now also undergoing tests with a new Stanford University-developed stability control system that would allow it to be flown even hands-free.

“Initially these kinds of machines will be more the flying equivalents of sports-cars or motorbikes, with their users putting up with certain discomforts for the convenience and fun they’d bring,” adds Beluga – discounting, that is, the already considerable inevitable interest from the cloak-and-dagger likes of DARPA, the US’s Department of Defence Research Agency. “But they would eventually be a game-changer for the world in terms of mobility and the growing value of time. The movies have long promoted personal flight’s benefits, so many people have some dream of it. It’s surprising that it hasn’t happened yet. A truly personal craft could be available within a few years.”

Certainly advances in technology – lighter engines, carbon-fibre construction and computer modelling – and the de-regulation of flight, such as the US’s introduction of a new “light sport” aircraft category, which requires half the training needed for a typical pilot’s license, have made its realisation more likely soon. Indeed, a NASA study predicts that 25% of the US population will have access to some kind of personal flying vehicle – an air taxi service, for example – within 10 years. It adds that increased road congestion – a product of ever-increasing quantities of haulage, such that the average driving speed in the US now is just 30mph and not much better in the UK – will only ensure it happens.

“The challenge to more general aviation has been not only the high-cost – be that the purchase price of an aircraft, the hanger rental or running costs, and the skills required to pilot a craft, but also practical issues – moving the aircraft around on the ground, dealing with bad weather,” says Richard Gersh, vice-president for business development at Terrafugia, which is also designing a flying Humvee for the US military.

“But with prototypes like this, and the others in development, each tackling the problem with different solutions, access to flight is coming down all the time. People have been thinking about personal air vehicles for decades and that remains a long-term vision. Now the barriers to becoming a pilot are lower than they have ever been.”

Providing that is, one has a head for heights. In some cases, “personal” aircraft really are personal. Trek’s aforementioned Springtail vehicle is almost the kind more strapped on than stepped into; it suggests the Bell Rocketbelt jet-pack that seemed so exotically ahead of its time following its appearance in Thunderball. In fact, an early Springtail model made an appearance in the Agent Cody Banks movie. New Zealand company Martin Jetpack has also been testing a similar fan-based vehicle since 2008, theoretically able to transport its pilot (sans passengers, golf clubs or groceries) for 30 minutes at 60mph and at 8,000ft and is now in its final phase of development.

Last year Time magazine named it “the most anticipated invention” following a $12m joint venture deal that plans to see an overseas factory built and making 500 Springtails a year by 2013. Is that too ambitious? Research by the various companies involved in shaping this new era of transport say the demand is there, much as it is for other trinkets, be they super-fast road-bikes or hand-built motor-boats. Some 100 people have already placed orders for the $200,000 Transition, while 460 orders have been taken for Icon Aircraft’s two-seater, folding wing flying boat. All that is really needed, as with many an engineering revolution, is money. Robert Moller has already spent $100m on developing his retro-futuristic, four-seater vertical take-off/landing M400 Skycar, picking up 50 lucrative patents as he has done so. As stylish as it is inventive, the Skycar is about as close to living like the Jetsons as transport will get in our lifetimes.

“Unfortunately, personal flying vehicles just aren’t something the investment community understands just yet,” he says. “The fact is though that the technology is already there to make flight available to everyone, and the appeal of that hummingbird sense of freedom to use all this empty space above us is widespread. It’s going to happen.”