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For decades, mankind has dreamed of flying cars. Today, they are no longer the stuff of fantasy, and while they might not look exactly like those in the “Back to the Future” films, flying cars are now an impending reality.
Project Bartini expects to launch a two-seater flying vehicle as early as next year, followed by a four-seater. Photo: Project Bartini.
At the MAKS air show outside Moscow earlier this month, Alexei Fursin, head of the Moscow government’s department for science, industrial policy and entrepreneurship, said that local projects for flying taxis on display at the event offered a “glimpse into the future.”
“Flying cars were a dream; now they’re a plan,” says Ilya Khanykov, business development director of Project Bartini, a resident startup of the Skolkovo Foundation’s space technologies cluster that is developing a flying taxi. The company’s logo is: “Weird to think of – in 1985. Easy to hop on – in 2020.”
Bartini’s ultimate goal is the mass-scale production of a fully autonomous four-seater car, but it expects to launch a two-seater as early as next year. The vehicle will take off and land vertically, and fly at heights of up to 1,000 metres over distances of up to 200 kilometres. Its batteries currently enable it to fly for up to 30-40 minutes, but hydrogen fuel cells, which are gradually being introduced to vehicles by companies such as Toyota, will triple the flying time, if not increase it tenfold, says Khanykov.
At first, the vehicles will likely have a pilot who will essentially need the same skills as a drone operator, but eventually, the taxis are planned to be fully autonomous. They will detect other flying devices, ensuring they avoid collisions, and will automatically avoid prohibited areas such as the airspace close to airports, said Khanykov.
Flying cars are not a new idea, but until recently, people had got used to designs for them failing due to a lack of feasible technology, says Khanykov. That changed in April this year with the Uber Elevate Summit in Dallas, at which the ride-sharing app gathered aerospace engineers, air traffic controllers, regulators and investors from all over the world, having released a white paper outlining its plan for a flying taxi service in October 2016.
“For us, them announcing it was a game-changer,” says Khanykov.
The detailed proposal by a major company sent a message to the world that flying cars are no longer confined to science fiction: the technology is ready, and Uber plans to launch flying taxi services in Dallas and Dubai by 2020. According to the U.S. company’s vision, passengers will order a flying taxi via a mobile app, just like its regular taxi service. The vehicles will take off and land vertically, to overcome the obstacle of the lack of room for runways in cities.
“What they want could be delivered in 2020 with our design,” says Khanykov, adding that Project Bartini was the only Russian company invited to the summit, where topics included noise reduction solutions and rapid battery chargers.
Andrey Manolov (left), part of Bartini's visualisation team, and Oleg Tsyganov, head of sales at Bartini and co-chairman of the Blockchain Aero consortium, at MAKS. Visitors to the air show could view the flying car in action via virtual reality headsets. Photo: Sk.ru.
A Race for the Skies
Now about a dozen companies across the world are working to put into practice the system outlined by Uber Elevate in its white paper. Most are still at the stage of blueprinting and prototyping, but this is an area that’s moving as fast as flying cars once will.
The German company Lilium completed test flights earlier this year of its electric flying taxi, which takes off vertically like a helicopter, but once in the air accelerates into forward wing-borne flight. Airbus’s A3 Silicon Valley innovations outpost plans to fly a prototype of a single-seater automated flying car, the Vahana, before the end of this year. Both Chinese contender EHang and Germany’s Volocopter have signed agreements to test their autonomous aerial vehicles in Dubai. Even within the Skolkovo innovation city, Project Bartini is not alone: a fellow space startup, Hoversurf, is working on a flying motorbike that was also on show at MAKS and that the company says will be ready to start transporting passengers around Moscow’s skies as early as next year.
At least eight companies have conducted flight tests in the past four years and several more have scheduled tests before the end of 2018, according to a report by the Frost and Sullivan research and consulting organisation titled “Future of Flying Cars 2017-2035.” That report identified other uses for flying cars, including as air ambulances and for law and order, military and surveillance purposes.
“The current boom of flying cars has been caused by the simultaneous emergence and maturation of several important trends,” says Ivan Kosenkov, an analyst within the Skolkovo Foundation’s space technologies cluster.
“First is the emergence and mass use of multicopters with new batteries, allowing improved cargo capabilities and range, and featuring enhanced flight controllers that enable stable flight, even for heavier models, ensuring the mass of 1-4 people can safely be carried.”
Second is the sharing economy. “While owning a flying car will be expensive for individual users, taking a taxi under an Uber ridesharing scheme would be relatively inexpensive,” says Kosenkov.
“Third is advanced autopilots, based on navigational infrastructure: enhanced AI algorithms that remove the barrier of piloting skills. In fact, next generation cars are not supposed to be piloted in the way that aircraft and helicopters were in the 20th century.”
Bartini's flying cars, like most others under development, will take off and land vertically. Photo: Project Bartini.
Fly It Yourself
Once Uber selects a model for its service from among the contenders, the U.S. giant does not intend to buy the vehicles, but for customers to use them on a pay-per-use basis. Under Uber’s roadmap, a ride in a flying taxi will at first cost the same as the UberBlack service – the app’s second most luxurious option. UberBlack has a base rate of about $8 and then costs about $0.45 per minute. But eventually, the plan is to reduce the price to match UberX (the cheapest option) tariffs, which are about a third of the UberBlack rate. Once the taxis are pilotless, that can be achieved, believes Khanykov, though he expects it to take years.
“People are still alarmed by driverless trams, so at first there will be a pilot. But when people realise the pilot doesn’t do much, they will choose the cheaper option and it will be pilotless, and that will actually be safer. It will be a gradual process of adapting the technology: not regulatory, but psychological,” he predicts.
Entire venture funds have been set up to invest in this new niche, and Uber has shown itself willing to provide feedback on designs for both companies and investors.
The U.S. company’s guidelines for what sort of doors it would like to see on vehicles prompted some creative input from participants of the recent Days of Industrial Design festival at Skolkovo. The festival included a design hackathon, and the vehicle design on show at MAKS reflected its results.
“We were redesigning the doors in line with how Uber wants embarking and disembarking to take place, so we set [the hackathon participants] a small design task of working on the doors. They came up with good ideas, so they are part of our thinking now,” says Khanykov.
The Skolkovo Foundation space cluster's Ivan Kosenkov, pictured at MAKS, believes Bartini's flying car has great potential. Photo: Sk.ru.
Project Bartini is expecting to close a round of investment of half a million dollars in August or September from both a Russian business angel and investors abroad.
“If we make this happen, it will trigger a train of events. Optimistically, we can launch in the third quarter of next year. A pessimistic outcome is the second or third quarter 2019,” says Khanykov. “We’re ready to run.”
The announcement this week that Volocopter has raised 25 million euros from investors including German carmaker Daimler is also an encouraging sign, he says.
“This is actually great news for us: it means that car manufacturers are recognising the industry and are prepared to invest to tap into this market,” says Khanykov.
Project Bartini uses blockchain technology in virtually every aspect of its work. The technology is predicted to revolutionise the aviation industry over the next few years with its system for keeping records in linked data blocks. At the recent Paris Airshow, John Schmidt, director of aerospace and defense at the innovations consultancy Accenture, said blockchain was the next great innovation in aeroplane maintenance due to its detailed data of factors such as engine usage.
"Blockchain is in effect a single federated ledger that everybody who uses and touches that engine could use it as a single point of truth of what has happened to the engine," said Schmidt.
“Blockchain is fantastic,” says Khanykov. “From manufacturing to maintenance to resource measurements to passenger recognition, blockchain can be used to streamline processes.” Project Bartini is part of the Blockchain Aero consortium, a business platform for all participants of the mass urban aviation market.
The main hurdle currently faced by flying vehicles, just like driverless cars, is a lack of legislation regulating their use. And like driverless cars, the technology throws up a thorny nest of issues about legal responsibility for possible accidents, as well as the safety of both air taxi passengers and those on the ground. Even ordinary drone users in Russia are required to submit a flight plan to the Transport Agency ahead of flights. Konstantin Trofimenko, director of the centre for research of urban transport problems at the Higher School of Economics research university in Moscow, believes the dream of mass-scale flying cars in cities will only be a reality at the end of the century.
“In big cities like Moscow and New York, with the current numbers of cars, there will be nowhere for these flying cars to park,” Trofimenko told Sk.ru, adding that there was more immediate potential for their use outside of cities.
“Secondly, the rules for aerial traffic will be very complex,” he said.
The views from Moscow taxis will be spectacular once they swap congested roads for the open skies. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
But Project Bartini, whose team includes engineers and pilots, is optimistic, buoyed by Fursin’s recent comments on the topic of air taxis in Moscow.
“Generally, the federal aviation authorities are working hard on technical details to apply standards to components and infrastructure,” said Khanykov. “They’re discussing details such as what height vehicles should fly at to limit noise in residential areas, which makes me believe they’ll adopt regulations.”
The biggest roadblock is that the skies above Moscow itself are a prohibited airspace, he noted.
Kosenkov agrees that legislative and institutional hurdles are the biggest hurdle for the introduction of mass aerial transport.
“The drivers of the market will have to convince regulators that mass aerial transport will be safe and controllable,” he says. “The will of governments and cities to introduce this kind of transport will be really important, but no one wants to see deadly accidents involving flying taxis, so the inception of such technology will probably not happen in the next five years.”
Skolkovo’s space cluster is, however, keeping a close eye on such projects and is eager to help them get their idea to the market, says Kosenkov. “We believe that these companies certainly have great potential,” he added.
In terms of legislation, Russia is no different to other countries, says Kosenkov. It’s crucial to keep up with changing possibilities in order not to be left behind, but in this respect, AeroNet – the section of the government’s National Technology Initiative devoted to stimulating the market for unmanned aerial vehicles – is doing a great job, he said.