Flying cars

Flying cars

This needs to be published now, in light of today’s news of the Frenchman hoverboarding the English Channel. It spurred from a chat about electric vehicles and quickly turned into a mini research project on personal flight machines. I’d sat on it for a year, wanting to make a proper analysis of the field, but this turned out to be not only very overwhelming but also very unnecessary. As some commenters noted below and on Hacker News, a comprehensive database of over 200 aircraft already exists between the Vertical Flight Society and Flying Car News, on top of which there’s the pretty hefty, Boeing-sponsored Go Fly Prize encouraging folks to make even more. This, then, is just a list of the things I found cool.

Franky Zapata crossing the English Channel flanked by safety escorts

Hydroflights, flyboards, and hoverboards

These devices are powered by jet propulsion, either via fuel or water. There is only one name that matters here right now: Franky Zapata. His Wikipedia page nicely fills in any blanks but his basic timeline went something like this: he started a personal water craft (“PWC”, eg: Jet Ski or Sea-Doo) racing company with his father in 1998, Zapata Racing. By 1999 he was ranking on the international PWC racing circuit, and winning at least one world title by 2008. It was around this time that he got into building innovative watercraft. Similar to Raymond Li’s 2005-filed/2007-patented/2009-built, water-propelled jet pack, Zapata built his PWC-powered Flyboard in 2011 (~€5,000), a device steered half by tilt and half by arm-tied jet streams, and one which quickly became a sport even boasting its own world championships.

How these water-propulsion-via-PWC devices work

By 2013 he’d streamlined this device to lose the arm streams, and by 2014 he’d pivoted to the snowboard-like, still PWC-powered Hoverboard… which is what surfing on clouds must feel like. 2015 saw him play with an airboard, that was more a prototype than anything, hinting at what was to come. By 2016 he briefly experimented with moving the propulsion stream to the shoulders in the Jetpack, but within a few months had released the first version of the now kerosene jet-powered Flyboard Air that we all know him for, finally losing the PWC anchor keeping him back all these years. It was this device that he used to set the record for a hoverboard flight of 2.25 km that same year, breaking the 275 m record of the previous year by almost a factor of ten. In 2017 he shifted gears to make a hovering mini-PWC, the Flyride, but the world had already started watching him for his kerosene-powered hoverboards… and this is where things got a bit more interesting.

Flyboard Hoverboard Jetpack Flyboard Air Flyride EZ-Fly
2011 2014 2016 2016 2017 2018
~€5,000 ~$5,000 USD ~$7,000 USD ~€300,000 $9,285 USD $250,000 USD

Comparing Zapata Racing’s product lineup

By early 2018 he’d built a modified, more stable version of his Flyboard Air, the EZ-Fly, and was starting to pitch it for military use at $250,000 USD per unit. Despite rumours of governments and private firms showing interest in buying it, the only clear lead I could find was that Implant Sciences (a US explosives detection contractor before it was bought out) was interested, but this deal terminated in 2016 without any official deal being struck. Still, in 2016, Zapata Racing had released (pretty basic) teasers of custom hoverboards being used for various medical and military operations. And then a month ago, an updated version of this water-turned-aircraft showcased with Zapata playing a “soldier”, complete with a fake gun, in front of an approving Macron at Bastille Day celebrations in Paris. It was a very confusing display of… I’m not quite sure what. Or to whom. Or why. Isn’t an attacker on a drone in the air maximally exposed, and the steadiness of his or her aim frustrated by any random gust of wind? And aren’t there more things the military does than shoot, that could have been showcased instead? Isn’t this display feeding into the very fear most people have of the world moving too quickly in dangerous directions? Won’t it ultimately turn the public — the greatest potential customer here — away from this product as it being exclusive, requiring too difficult specialized training, and possibly facing bans or penalties for using it as it appears to be almost a weapon at this point?

Anyway, this was followed by the now famous 35km Chunnel crossing — taking just 20m (as compared to the 35 a car would take) and including one fuel stop, reaching a top speed of 160km/h! With never a good opportunity for scandal wasted, The Guardian deceptively, even shamefully, published the whole event live under the title “Jet-powered flyboard soldier attempts to cross English channel”… and off we go throwing technology under the political posturing bus again. To be fair though, Zapata Racing kind of started it with their military prototype animations, not to mention the gun stunt. Still, the point remains that this will be a massively democratizing technology in the very near future. Bullets raining from the sky aside, the next threat is accidents. Franky has some reassurance here, assuaging fears of bodies mangling (over water, at least):

“Over the water, I have already fallen many times at over 85, 90 kilometres per hour when doing my testing. So I know you can fall at about that speed without too much injury.”

Sure, he’s also a pretty intense ex-pro extreme athlete, but a human bodies are ultimately more or less the same so this does answer the physical safety question for me, especially considering I cannot imagine people commuting at more than 30-50 km/h at an inner-city height of 2-10 m as all this develops, in the initial stages at least. And then, when asked about the future of this technology, he had a very genuine, hopeful statement to share:

“You know when you decide to have a child, you decide to have a child because you want it. You don’t decide to have a child because it will become a surgeon, or a lawyer. For us it was the same thing, when we decide to create something, we create it, and after we just follow what ways the project can go.”

What Franky’s done here is truly inspirational, especially considering that it seems to have been done without much — if any — formal training or real access to professional resources. I can only imagine what a landslide of innovation we’re about to see now, standing on his sholders.

Passenger drones and flying platforms

From early, unsubstantiated claims of “vibration”/”shape”-powered flights from Russian Viktor Grebennikov and American John Keeley in the early 1900s to US military rotor- and then jet-based, single-person aircraft prototypes (1954, 1955, 1980), the idea of a flying platform has gripped human imagination since the dawn of science fiction. These projects never really got off the ground though, most likely because the weight of the equipment and fuel was just too much, a bottleneck recently overcome by increasingly light materials and the shift to electric power. The Philippines’ Kyxz Mendiola estimates a budget of $30-40,000 USD for building something like his flying car. He sells basic information regarding building a prototype (but not flight controller) for $1,000 USD (flyingkyxz@gmail.com), or at least did when I contacted him a year ago. In the meanwhile his project has been picked up by Star 8, so I’m not sure how active that offer still is…

But now is a good moment to stand Kyxz alongside Zapata as pioneers in this field because of their interesting similarities. Kyxz, too, started in dynamic sport with hip-hop dancing as a founding member of the Philippine Allstars… with whom he also won several world championships. From there he moved into filming fellow dancers, to using drone cameras, to using drones for heavier things, to finally flying himself in one of them. This connect-the-dots mentality is very common in this sphere, also seen in Colin Furze‘s homemade hoverbike and Philipp and Johannes Mickenbecker‘s flying bathub above — seriously, how cool is that!

Back to general trends in this field though: Sweden’s Axel Borg sells a comprehensive manual for just $14 of his 72-rotor chAIR Manned Multirotor that took $10,000 to get up and running. And then there are garage-founded start-ups like Canadian Omni Hoverboards, Dutch Sky-Hopper, and American Fly Aerospace just getting started, with more developed companies like Russian Hoversurf selling their Scorpion 3 hoverbike for $60,000 (a price posted last year, which has since been taken down)… which is currently being tested by the police force in Dubai. Though I think, with the democratization of information and production that are the internet and, increasingly, 3D printing and community hackerspaces, I think this technology will become increasingly affordable and DIY-able. Still, professional industries like the e-jet firm, Lilium, are springing up to build devices in this field, boasting the ability to take five passengers across the Channel in barely more time than Zapata’s Flyboard Air… from London though, so a distance around five times longer than what Zapata managed, and with both vertical takeoffs and landings to boot!

Lilium‘s projected reach

Now to quickly dispel worries about noise pollution. Yes, it’ll be a big thing in the interim, but we already have noise-cancelling technology, and scientists have recently created a model plane that flies via ion thrust… so without moving parts. And as we all know: once a technology exists, the rest is just a matter of resolution.

As Kyxz says, transportation is going to have to evolve to electric-powered flight:

“We’re so used to driving for short distances, but we’ve already proven that flying is faster and more efficient… and using electric, short distances are just like hopping. It just makes sense.”

This project is already debuting in search and rescue, how long until a white collar worker gets sick of traffic jams and takes to the sky?

Autogyros

Autogyros seem to be an early precursor in this field, the first of which was flown in 1923 Spain under Juan de la Cierva, and then resurrected by Russian-American Igor Bensen in 1952, the man who ended up lending his name to a semi-official annual autogyro jamboree happening since the 70s. I was especially impressed by the added safety built right into the autogyro’s design: if power suddenly cuts out the machine would just float down to earth, reminiscent of maple keys. The culture around these devices is quite developed… Dezső Molnár even had a flying car race planned recently, consisting mostly of autogyros and based around raising awareness of his own autogyro/motorcycle project. A cursory search revealed a typical such device going for $85,000 USD; I’m excited to see how this price might topple with electric power and significantly improved materials science thrown into the mix.

Solar/Human-Powered Aircraft (S/HPAs)

Speaking of materials science improving, this is exactly what has allowed human-powered aircraft to slowly became a thing. The British Kremer Prize was established in 1959 for HPA pioneers, with the first attempt at it made by Southampton University students in 1961 with their SUMPAC (the last video above). The first batch of these resulted in a flight of close to a full kilometre in 1961 England already, with a record flight by the HMPAC Puffin in 1962 that lasted a decade before it was broken. The £50,000 prize only went to an American team 16 years later for flying a full mile in the Gossamer Condor. The same team won twice this amount by flying an upgraded Gossamer Albatross from England to France a mere two years later (36 km in under 3h, 32kg & 30m wingspan), and then in 1988 an MIT team island-hopped from Crete to Santorini, an unlucky wing break crashing their Daedalus just shy of the beach. A full list of HPA exploits is maintained on Wikipedia, but here are the main characteristics from the flights above:

Flight Distance (% improvement) Time (h:m:s) Altitude Speed Weight Wingspan
SUMPAC 1961.11.9 64 m N/A 1.8 m 33.7 km/h 58.1 kg 24.4 m
HMPAC 1962.5.2 910 m (1,422%) N/A N/A N/A 54 kg 26 m
Condor 1977.8.23 2.17 km (238%) 0:7:27.5 N/A 18.5 km/h 31.75 kg 29.25 m
Albatross 1979.6.12 36.2 km (167%) 2:49:00 1.5 m 29 km/h 32 kg 29.77 m
Daedalus 1988.4.23 115.11 km (318%) 3:54:00 4.5-9 m 29.51 km/h 31 kg 34.14 m

And then you have the Korean Aerospace Research Institute‘s HPA contest (est. I believe 2013, but seeming quite quiet as of late), the British Human Powered Flying Club‘s Icarus Cup (est. 2012), and the Sikorsky Human-powered Helicopter competition (est. 1980). The first two are sporting events between teams while the latter was a very frustrating, elusive prize, finally won in 2013 by a team from the University of Toronto for keeping a machine afloat for a full minute within a 10 m² zone, reaching a height of 3m at least once. On top of making human-powered helicopters, a team even managed to make a human-powered ornithopter — an aircraft that flaps its wings — but it seems to still require towing to get up into the air.

Grounded transport

Though the original intention of this article was to showcase generally land-based electric vehicles, you can understand the thrill that veered me off to focusing exclusively on air machines. Still, above you’ll find a small selection of e-bikes and other, similar devices that I quite enjoyed. My favourite is the Schaeffler Bio-Hybrid (€2500-7000, up to 25km/h over 100km on a single charge) — I can certainly see this replacing the more bulky, traditional city commuter cars soon.

Comparing Schaeffler’s designs

I mean, just look at the photos above (mostly from a promo pamphlet) and then just think in terms of safety alone, never mind the huge cuts in energy demands and repair costs. Along the waterfronts here in Vancouver it’s already quite common to see folks zipping by on Onewheels, or electric unicycles/Monowheels or self-balancing scooters (misleadingly called “hoverboards”), friends in the Netherlands and Germany confirm e-bikes are very much a growing thing there, and on a recent trip through Poland and Israel I saw electric scooters everywhere, rentable via cellphone apps — something prominent in Denmark and Austria, as well as on this side of the Atlantic. Still, the weights and prices of the above put all but the hoverboards just out of range for the average commuter:

Weight Single charge range Top speed Price
Onewheel 10-11 kg 10-30 km 25-30 km/h $950-1800 USD
InMotion e-unicycle 11-20 kg 15-100 km 20-40 km/h $700-1500 CAD
Monowheels 9-12.5 kg 12-40 km 18-25 km/h ~€580
“Hoverboards” 6.8-7.5 kg 15-35 km 12-14 km/h $100-150 USD

… but then these last have an annoying tendency of spontaneously combusting. And all this omits the more out-of-reach transportation innovations that are magnetic hoverboards, paragliders, jet-packs or “actual” flying cars like the AeroMobil or Terrafugia just because, well, somehow these technologies seem a bit limited in their application… especially the cars. Let’s wrap this up with one aquatic device and call it a day as far as links go:


If you’d have asked anyone privileged in the 90s/00s when they would know the future arrived, the answer was always the same: flying cars. But the driving force underpinning this utopia reaches deeper than convenience: it’s an excitement in exploring the intersection of technology and community, often taking the form of increased freedoms. With the currently polarized, fearful, repressive, populist, often discriminatory political climate sweeping up much of the world, it’s exciting to see inventors pushing through these barriers of disinformation through their work. I mean, just look at the diversity here — people are standing on each other’s shoulders to simultaneously take humanity higher. The Internet freed up information, Bitcoin is freeing up money, and now vehicle, power, and battery technology is freeing up travel. Yet people seem to keep missing the point about how this will change the future, or even that it will. From “We have 140 c(h)ars and not one of them flies,” to “They do: they’re called choppers,” we keep looking at the future of tomorrow through the limitations of today and this really limits our grasp of what’s really going on. We forget the many other ways personal flying devices will reshape society. Commutes will constrain living conditions less, and main arteries of travel can start to diversify. Public transport (and its expensive maintenance) can start being limited to major routes, parking and individuals commuting to work alone in five-person vehicles will cease being the issue they currently are, and streets can be repurposed into smaller paths with more space for locals, encouraging the growth of gardens and green spaces that many cities currently sorely miss. Not to mention massive savings from decreased road infrastructure expenses (eg: Ontario spent $450mil last year in managing highways alone). That said, the one tried and tested way of increasing traffic is through building more roads… and I suppose the sky is the biggest road possible, right? So that’ll be interesting to watch develop. The old maxim is proven again: technology is neither good nor evil, but is it neither neutral.

And that’s the thing: you cannot stop this technology once it’s been made. It marches and lunges and lurches relentlessly, but always forward, even when it’s looking to be falling back… and any community that shuns or prohibits it risks being left behind in the developmental dust as its neighbours surge forward. Plus, any governmental policies of building walls or counting on isolation or tightening borders will no longer be longer enough to keep this tech out. We’ll need updated governance models that increasingly take everyone‘s welfare into account, not just those of a particular people or region. The impoverished will, quite literally, be able to vote with their feet, and not just to nearby regions anymore. Which suddenly gives everyone a very strong incentive to support rather than further exploit poverty-stricken regions — instability there can very literally fly here. Like Engels once said: “A people that suppresses others can not emancipate itself. The power which it takes to oppress others always turns against itself.

These developments are reminiscent of women’s rights movements and the advent of the bicycle in the late 1800s. Both were seen as a threat to stability at the time because they tore at the ages-old social fabric. Yes, things were unstable for a good number of years — even decades — as these movements blossomed, but the end result produced a world that’s better for all. Now similar fears will appear surrounding freedom-inducing personal flight (“Can they cross the Mediterranean? But think of the crashes! Sky traffic lights will be expensive.”). But most of this is just blurry vision caused, again, by looking at the future through the now. But me, for my part: bring the future on, I say. I’d rather we harness this power as it’s growing than face it when it’s ready and we’re not. To borrow a cycling metaphor from the suffragist, Frances Willard, “I would not waste my life in friction when it could be turned into momentum.” And we could all do with a little more momentum right about now.

8 Replies to “Flying cars”

  1. Here’s the thing about the battery-powered flying cars: they’re going to make inequality much, much worse. What’s the biggest fear of the wealthy? That the ordinary people will rise up and realize how little value the rich actually create. What’s the one thing that keeps urban tax coffers alive? The fact that the wealthy have to live within driving distance of their place of business, and business requires a certain level of urban density.

    Flying cars screw with both of those assumptions. Ten years from now, the superrich will buy island properties off the Florida Keys, or the Puget Sound, or the Maine coast, fly in on their GPS-guided battery-powered cars, park next to their Teslas, transfer the charger plug from the ground car to the air car, drive to work, and then do the whole thing in reverse on the way home. Traffic jams will never be their jam. They’ll be able to live 100 kilometers, in a beautiful wilderness mansion, and their property taxes will support their local sheriff, not a city of a million people.

  2. Thanks NTN and Nausher, I’ve just added both those resources. Elf, I don’t see such an Elysium-esque, class-divided society in the future. If anything, such accessible, location-agnostic transport should bridge the wealth disparity I think, much like cellphones did with making information and communication immediately available to the everyman.

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