Before you can zip about in a flying car, engineers must solve more than a few problems. Oddly, figuring out how to make a flying car fly isn’t among them. The basics of flight were sorted out more than 100 years ago. No, the big challenge lies in making these things fly themselves so you don’t have to go through the hassle of earning a pilot’s license. Here, too, taking flight isn’t the big problem. Landing is.
“Takeoff is fairly scripted,” says Sanjiv Signh, the CEO of Near Earth Autonomy. His company makes sensors and robotic controls for aerial vehicles like drones. “But the landing site may not be ready to take a vehicle. Maybe something went wrong, and there’s already a vehicle on deck.”
A human pilot would know what to do. But a computer algorithm? It must be programmed. So Airbus, which really is developing an autonomous flying car, tapped the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, company to provide the hardware needed to get it off the ground—and back down again.
Airbus calls its self-flying flying car Vahana, and is working on it at its Silicon Valley outpost A^3 (pronounced “a cubed”). The single-seat electric aircraft uses eight propellers mounted on wings that rotate. Vahana takes off and lands like a helicopter but flies like an airplane. Engineers call this VTOL, or vertical take-off and landing, but a growing number of people think it’s just the thing for flying cars. Airbus hopes to start flight testing a prototype before the end of the year.
If all goes according to plan, Vahana will use a Near Earth Autonomy technology called Peregrin. The system, mounted under the fuselage, looks like shoebox with a dome. It contains lidar, inertial measurement, GPS sensors, and all kinds of processing power. When the aircraft is at an altitude lower than 65 feet, it laser scans the ground in three dimensions, looking for objects bigger larger than 12 inches across, to determine whether the landing spot is clear and safe. If it does spot an impediment—like your jerk neighbor’s flying car—it will suggest an alternative LZ.
Singh has spent 25 years working on sensors for autonomous cars and aircraft, and spun off Near Earth Autonomy from Carnegie Melon University five years ago. Among other things, his company is working with NASA to safely introduce drones to crowded airspace, and building automation sensors for self-flying helicopters like Boeing’s MD 530F “Little Bird.” It also is working on modifying larger news and military helicopters to fly autonomously. With that background, figuring out a self-flying VTOL aircraft doesn’t seem like much of a stretch.
The company designed the self-contained Peregrin sensor system as an easy retrofit to existing aircraft, a boon for Airbus and its competitors in this young industry. Being able to add components on a modular basis should make development simpler.
And yes, autonomous flying cars are something of an industry. Lightweight materials, electric propulsion, and readily available sensors and controls make engineers confident that any remaining challenges can be overcome. Even regulators are getting on board, with the FAA fast-tracking regulation changes to allow the safe operation of human-toting drones.
So Vahana’s goal of a full-scale demonstration flight by the end of the year isn’t unrealistic. Two other companies, Lilium Jet and EHang, have shown it’s possible to achieve flight with electric fans. That said, a lot of work remains to be done, and Neva Aerospace, a European consortium driving the development of key technologies for flying cars, believes fully autonomous flights remain a long ways off.
“Today you have several sensor systems which are available to provide information on the surroundings to detect moving objects or human forms,” says company CEO Robert Vergnes. “But the software which is going to make decisions does not yet exist.” He doesn’t see that changing for a decade or two.
Because getting into the air is one thing. Safely planning and executing a safe flight from one location to another, with no human interaction, every time, is far harder.