Flying vehicles into a SmartCity

During my last conference (at paperjam 10×6 mobility event in Luxembourg) I shared my vision on SmartCity and mobility, taking the example of a duck, ordering a flying cab… in 2029. Don’t worry, the duck was just an image for what’s happening under the surface in a framework of a Smartcity, none of our studies tend to indicate that ducks will use mobile apps in the near future…

Anyway, the flying cab is part of the 21st century anticipation dreams. It’s popular since its interpretation by the “5th element” movie from Luc Besson, and is today seen as a future gadget for rich men. But is it really? Let’s look at some facts.

  • Many major aviation companies have invested in automated flying vehicles, via internal projects or investments in startups
  • There are also many initiatives from the net economy world, such as the recent Uber/Hyundai agreement or the Kitty Hawk initiative from Google co-founder Larry Page
  • As we’ll see later, technology varies, with a majority of quad/octocopters that use the same technology as our camera drones
  • Permits to fly have been granted by authorities for the experimentation
  • Large cities in the Middle East and China are starting to experiment

So that’s definitely not a dream anymore. But is it realistic?

  • Quadcopters and alike are energy inefficient. Their small propellers have a lower efficiency than a helicopter, a helicopter being itself less efficient than a plane
  • The serious power required to lift those vehicles needs serious batteries. With the current technologies, these batteries are heavy. Problem is, in aviation, you always pay twice for the weight: more weight, more engine, more fuel (or electricity), more batteries. More weight, more weight more power, and so on and so forth.
  • The noise is an issue, especially to fly over cities
  • Traffic management is the issue, and that may be the biggest challenge. Coordinating flights and managing unpredicted issues might become an AI challenge. In fact, the IT-related technology challenge might quickly become much bigger than the flying challenge, which resides more in designing more efficient flying vehicles than making them fly.

Let’s assume we can design models able to coordinate flights and failures in such a way that those flying cars can take you from A to B, A to B not being constrained, just like you use your car. Let’s even go further and imagine that those flying cars would simply park in the streets (at least the larger ones). It still would be totally inefficient, wouldn’t it be?

Not necessarily. If the coordinating system allows the flying cabs to fly in a straight line:

  • They will have a much shorter trip that a car, 
  • They will have a much faster trip than a car, allowing the same vehicle to do much more trips per day,

Also, the technology has a huge potential for evolutions. Quadcopter may be inefficient but are just a first step. Hybrid VTOLs (Vertical Take-Off and Landing) mixing propellers with moving wings (a technology which has been made popular with military vehicles at the crossroads between planes and helicopters), or generating lift by blowing air to the upper surface of the wings are being investigated (Cross flow jets and fans). Those hybrid vehicles are nowadays easier to design thanks to the computer-assisted design models that allow testing concepts before building the prototypes, and powerful computer-assisted flying commands that generate artificial stability in the critical phases of flight. There is even a French project (Avions Mauboussin) based on a classic STOL (short take-off and landing) airplane with a hybrid engine (to avoid noise over cities) using a more simple short take-off and landing approach. 

Batteries may experience soon a major technology shift (such as the use of graphene at a decent cost). Adding the fact that those vehicles will mostly be powered by batteries or any other electricity storage media, so prone to consume green energy, this makes the flying cars from the 5th element look not so unlikely, even if the probability that they look like those from the movie is minimal. What for sure will be missing is a duck in the passenger seat.

Francois Vaille

About

Formerly IT Manager, CIO, Managing partner in an IT company, Start-Up founder, François is an achiever, innovator, intrapreneur and entrepreneur. He helps Sogeti’s customer in their digital transformation thanks to his helicopter vision, from C Level to coders.

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