Formula 1 in the sky: the secret of flying cars? | technology

Adelaide, Australia – Since the 1980s, inventors have been promising to make the flying cars from Back to the Future and The Jetsons a reality.

Companies including Toyota, AirBus, Hyundai and Kitty Hawk, a project backed by Google co-founder Larry Page, are still racing to develop the first commercially viable vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) vehicle — and cash in on an embryonic industry that according to Morgan Stanley, it will be worth a trillion dollars by 2040.

To date, none of these companies have sold a flying car.

Now a little-known VTOL aircraft manufacturer from Australia is trying to solve the problem by adopting a strategy used by many of the world’s earliest car manufacturers.

Next year, Adelaide-based Alauda Aeronautics plans to bring the world’s first manned flying car race to the Australian desert: a high-stakes series called Airspeeder, which has been billed as the Formula One of the sky.

“The reason I think they’ve all failed so far is because they’ve bitten off more than they can chew,” Matt Pearson, an internet entrepreneur who founded Alauda in 2016, told Al Jazeera.

“They are trying to come up with new vehicles, put them into production, change the regulatory environment and then start doing commercial passenger services. Only one of these things is difficult. Trying to make them all in one step has not yet proved possible.

Alauda Aeronautics CEO Matt Pearson hopes to hold world’s first manned flying car race [File: Alauda Aeronautics]

Pearson’s mission is inspired by history, particularly the period between 1886, when Daimler Benz invented the first car, and 1925, when Henry Ford reduced the cost of the Model-T to about four months’ wages for an average American worker through mass production with using conveyor belts.

“What happened in those years in between?” Pearson said. “Car manufacturers didn’t focus on carpooling. They focused on the races. Henry Ford, Marcel Renault, Rolls Royce, even Tesla. They all started in motorsports.

Alauda has developed 11 electric-powered autonomous VTOL aircraft over the past six years and earlier this year unveiled its first manned version, the Mk4.

Powered by a hydrogen cell electric turbo engine that delivers 1,300 horsepower, it is billed as the fastest VTOL aircraft ever built, capable of reaching speeds of 360 kilometers per hour (223 mph) within 30 seconds.

From next year, the model will be used in Airspeeder team races, which will be broadcast globally by Fox Sports Australia.

“Right now Mk4s are worth millions of dollars each,” Pearson said. “But we don’t see why they can’t end up being the same price as Tesla.” It’s expensive not to do them. That’s engineering.”

The Ford Model T is widely recognized as the first affordable car [File: Robert Galbraith/Reuters]

Sonya Brown, an aerospace design expert at the University of New South Wales, said Alauda’s business model had merit.

“If we look at Formula 1, a lot of technology that comes from there has found its way into passenger vehicles,” Brown told Al Jazeera.

“But I wouldn’t say it’s no better than other strategies like air taxis, which are being explored by large companies, or air ambulances, which are interesting to governments.” The key is that the problem is being approached in different ways, and that shows how big of an impact this technology could have in the future.”

Ride-hailing giant Uber pioneered the air taxi concept in 2017 with the launch of Elevate, a joint venture with Bell Helicopters that aims to create a network of smartphone-accessible flying taxis.

“This is an exciting opportunity,” Bell Helicopter CEO Mitch Snyder said at the time, promising to have flying taxis in Los Angeles by 2023.

Germany’s Volocopter made an even more ambitious promise in 2017 after the first test flight of an autonomous two-seater electric-powered VTOL aircraft in Dubai, which the company said would start serving the city by 2022.

The promise was reiterated in Dubai last month when UAE Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum announced via Twitter that the world’s first flying taxi service would be operating in the city by 2026.

“We are excited about the opportunity and are actively exploring the possibility,” Oliver Walker-Jones, a spokesman for Joby Aviation, one of three VTOL aircraft manufacturers now working with the Dubai Road Transport Authority on the plan, said in a statement. Volocopter is not among the partners.

Germany’s Volocopter tested an autonomous, two-seat, electric-powered VTOL aircraft in Dubai in 2017. [File: Amr Alfiky/Reuters]

Last month, former US President Donald Trump called for massive investment in VTOL aircraft as part of his ‘Quantum Leap’ proposals to improve US living standards.

Alauda has been racing VTOL aircraft in the South Australian desert for two years now. Until now, however, the races didn’t attract much attention because the vehicles were remotely controlled by pilots on the ground, similar to drones.

The Mk4 aims to take racing to the next level by putting pilots in the cockpit, opening up new sponsorship and media opportunities that Alauda’s Pearson relies on to drive innovation in flying cars.

But getting human-piloted flying vehicles into the air raises a host of safety concerns and other practical issues, experts say.

“For this technology to reach its full potential, we need hundreds flying in the air at the same time, and that creates a lot of risks with the potential for mid-air collisions and damage,” said Brown, an aerospace design expert at the University of New South Wales.

“If a car breaks down, it is unlikely to cause an accident, but a breakdown in the air has much more consequences. This requires significantly more automation and will also require some sort of traffic control as well as air corridors. And since we can’t put traffic signals in the sky, VTOLs will need very good collision avoidance systems.

Alauda Aeronautics has been racing unnamed VTOL aircraft in the Australian desert for the past two years [File: Alauda Aeronautics]

Andrew Morris, a transport safety expert at Loughborough University in the UK, agrees.

“There’s nothing wrong with using motorsport to drive innovation. But motor sports like Formula 1 are highly regulated and safety considerations come first. It only works because everyone in Formula 1 abides by it,” Morris told Al Jazeera.

“There will also need to be very strict regulation of who can pilot flying cars and where they can fly to and from, and even with air corridors to separate flying cars, how do you enforce it with novice, reckless and risk-taking drivers ? If you look at how some people use jets, you get an idea of ​​the possible results.

Morris said that an effective “free-for-all” like what exists in ordinary cars today could be potentially disastrous.

“Imagine people being free to buy a flying car in the morning and then take it into the sky that afternoon,” he said. “The consequences would be catastrophic and it could effectively stop the industry in its tracks.”

Pearson, who exudes the tireless energy of an entrepreneur on the cusp of greatness, doesn’t succumb to such misgivings.

“People are pretty good at riding between the lines, whether on the ground or in the sky, it won’t make much difference,” he said. “We already have instruments on the screens of our flying cars that show the pilot where the race track is.

“That’s why racing in a controlled environment is such a good way to develop these functions,” he added. “It’s very exciting.”

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