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US Air Force invests in flying cars

July 21, 2021  - By

Are ‘”flying cars” unmanned aerial vehicles, manned aircraft, electric aircraft or just regular aircraft? Or perhaps a mix of all of these? Flying cars raise so much interest because of their potential to fulfill the space-age Jetsons promise, with the regular family parking one at their house, then using it to go to work, go grocery shopping and take the kids to school — all the things we do today in cars on roads.

The U.S. Air Force recognized that flying cars could also revolutionize how it operates, and in 2020 started putting effort and cash into promising commercial flying-car ventures. Since then, the Air Force has begun to make progress. Its AFWERX Agility Prime program has helped four companies — Kitty Hawk Aero, Beta Technologies, Joby Aviation and Lift Aircraft — develop prototype commercial flying-cars and expand their capabilities.

The Kitty Hawk Aero Heaviside

Kitty Hawk Aero in Palo Alto, California, has been working on its electric vertical take-off and landing (eVtol) aircraft for several years and claims to have proven its tilting propeller concept through several hundred vertical take-off/landing to horizontal flight transitions.

The aircraft — known as Heaviside — has just been granted airworthiness approval by the Agility Prime program, enabling Kitty Hawk to further participate in specialized trials funded by the Air Force.

Heaviside takes off vertically. (Photo: Kitty Hawk)

Heaviside takes off vertically. (Photo: Kitty Hawk)

Heaviside comes in for a landing. (Photo: Kitty Hawk)

Heaviside comes in for a landing. (Photo: Kitty Hawk)

The majority of flight testing flown by Heaviside has been remote without on-board crew (one or two pilots). This has enabled Kitty Hawk to expand the flight envelope without risking lives. For instance, you might assume those initial vertical to horizontal transitions could have carried a degree of risk, even though those switches in flight mode are now considered virtually risk free.

Nevertheless, the aircraft is also equipped with an on-board parachute recovery system that has been demonstrated to gently lower the aircraft to the ground in the event of a complete electrical failure. The design has minimized weight, even though the aircraft carries sufficient battery power to provide a range of more than 100 miles. A speed of up to 180 mph has been achieved.

The Beta Technologies Alia

Another AFWERX participant in the Agility Prime project is also well along in its flight test program. Beta Technologies has been flying its Alia prototypes on routes of more than 100 miles and pushing velocities of 150 mph.

Alia eVtol aircraft. (Photo: Brian Jenkins/Beta Technologies)

Alia eVtol aircraft. (Photo: Brian Jenkins/Beta Technologies)

Alia is large — it’s in the 7,000-pound aircraft category with a 50-foot wingspan. Alia is designed to carry six people over 250-mile routes, with a cargo capacity of 1,500 pounds. It is powered by on-board lithium-ion batteries. The Air Force expressed serious interest in the design and flight-test planning phase before Alia became airborne. The craft has since proven it is capable of safe, reliable flight over routes such as Plattsburg to New York. The Federal Aviation Administration has authorized such flights ahead of time, but Beta also just received additional airworthiness authorization from the Agility Prime office to enable further trials.

The Air Force clearly has great faith in Beta Technologies. The company received an even greater boost to its Beta eVtol program from the commercial sector. BLADE Urban Air Mobility has already ordered 20 of these electric aircraft, and UPS has also ordered 10, with the expectation that their order could grow to up to 150. UPS can clearly see the time and cost advantage of landing aircraft directly at its package-sorting facilities, then loading and vertically launching Alai onto delivery routes, either manned or autonomously as a cargo UAV. United Therapeutics, which is developing artificial organs for human implantation, is another key sponsor, presumably to find the shortest transit time to client hospitals.

Amazon also may become involved following Beta’s recent successful $368 million funding round led by Fidelity and Amazon’s Climate Fund, giving the company stratospheric “unicorn” valuation of more than $1 billion. Maybe there could be Amazon package delivery service in Beta’s future.

The Joby Aviation Craft

Joby Aviation is another earlier participant in the U.S. Air Force’s Agility Prime program and was granted airworthiness authorization in 2020. Joby first flew a subscale prototype in 2015 and a full-size aircraft in 2017, with the objective of proving the viability of a tilt-rotor, four-passenger flying taxi/eVTOL aircraft.

Joby eVtol in flight in Northern California. (Photo: Joby Aviation)

Joby eVTOL in flight in Northern California. (Photo: Joby Aviation)

Joby’s story may be similar to the other companies developing electric flying cars, save that it has been doing this since 2009. Over time, Joby has won significant funding and support from key industry sponsors including Toyota, Uber, Elevate and Agility Prime. A study by Lufthansa in 2021 touted Joby as the leader in the eVtol competition.

The FAA has agreed that Joby can proceed down a certification path applying regular general aviation part 23-64 rules, plus special conditions that include special attention for batteries and fly-by-wire controls. Joby is making good progress toward certification objectives, having already flown more than 1,000 times with different prototypes.

With six tilt-rotors driven by electric motors, Joby’s yet-to-be-named four-passenger aircraft is capable of 200 mph with a +150-mile range, weighs 4,000 pounds and is apparently one of the quietest, measuring only 65 dBA at ~110 yards while hovering. A low noise profile is key to acceptance of these relatively low-altitude flying-cars as they buzz across densely populated areas — and all manufacturers have come up with low-noise-profile designs.

The Lift Aircraft Hexa

Lift Aircraft has taken a different path toward introducing flying-car technology into everyday use by borrowing more closely from existing drone capabilities. The company hopes acceptance will be quicker under its adopted FAA’s Powered Ultralight classification (FAR Part 103), which does not require a pilot’s license to fly.

The Lift approach also intends to take so many precautions and use so much automation that anyone can fly its Hexa. Floats prevent sinking for forced landings on water; triplex flight-computers, GPS and IMUs add to the fail-safe design; and an automatic parachute release in the event of an in-flight incident deploys a “whole-aircraft air bag.” Along with 18 redundant electric-motor-driven propellers (only 12 are needed for a safe landing), these features add up to safety for the uninitiated.

Hexa single-pilot drone-car. (Photo: Lift)

Hexa single-pilot drone-car. (Photo: Lift)

The single joystick control is simple to use and allows the unskilled to fly the drone-car safely. The system comes with extensive monitoring built in, so remote safety operators can intervene in extreme situations. Flight is currently only allowed in geo-referenced airspace defined by Lift. The vehicle has the capability to fly itself out of potentially dangerous situations and avoid mapped obstacle locations. Flight is semi-autonomous and take-off and landings are automated.

Agility Prime joined with Lift in April 2020 to support the company’s safety testing, and in August 2020, funded expansion of the Hexa flight envelope. The Air Force has loaded a Hexa drone-car into a C-130 transport aircraft and flown it to another location to verify transportability for remote deployments. Lift has also won another contract from the Air Force for autonomous cargo retrieval based on a subset of the Hexa design elements.

It is possible that many people will see Hexa in operation during a coming demonstration tour planned for major population centers across America – 15,000 people have apparently already signed up to fly Hexa when the tour gets underway, possibly later this year.

Wrapping It Up

So are these craft flying cars, or drones carrying people? It’s still hard to say definitively, but for sure many experts believe in the forecast of 160,000 flying taxi-cars by 2050, with airport shuttle and air-taxi markets reaching a market value of $500 billion. Certainly the Agility Prime program seems to have got it right and taken the necessary steps to ensure this technology gets out of its emerging, curio stage and out into a world eager to adopt it. If only we could accelerate the extremely lengthy civilian certification phase while still embedding increasing levels of safety. Perhaps the Air Force program can get us there quicker.

Tony Murfin
GNSS Aerospace

About the Author: Tony Murfin

Tony Murfin is managing consultant for GNSS Aerospace LLC, Florida. Murfin provides business development consulting services to companies involved in GNSS products and markets, and writes for GPS World as the OEM Professional contributing editor. Previously, Murfin worked for NovAtel Inc. in Calgary, Canada, as vice president of Business Development; for CMC Electronics in Montreal, Canada, as business development manager, product manager, software manger and software engineer; for CAE in Montreal as simulation software engineer; and for BAe in Warton, UK, as senior avionics engineer. Murfin has a B.Sc. from the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology in the UK, and is a UK Chartered Engineer (CEng MIET).