Ever since the 1962 cartoon character George Jetson zipped through the skies in his avocado-green flying car, Americans have pined for one of their own. But research and development on personal air vehicles has moved at a snail’s pace, with 21st century families still rolling on wheels.
Now, the U.S. Air Force says it wants 30 flying cars in its fleet in the next 10 years. Innovative technology developed through the agency’s Agility Prime initiative — meant to accelerate the commercial market for advanced air mobility vehicles — will not only benefit the military but finally make citizen sky pilots possible, too. That’s because aircraft developed through this program, especially electric-powered machines capable of vertical takeoff and landing (EVTOL), will be low-maintenance, affordable, sustainable, quiet and safe. On top of that, they won’t require runways, meaning they can take off from and land on parking lots and driveways.
“We’re a great bridge market to not just get companies flight hours and build competence, but to be regulators, certifiers of all types for local and state governments,” Dr. Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, told reporters during a press briefing on April 29, as Military.com reports.
Although flying cars hint at a futuristic world shimmering in high-tech wizardry, their electric engines and computer automation offer low-cost mobility and maintenance. The Air Force recognizes that these vehicles could be used to improve security, rescue troops from battlefield, sweep disaster zones for survivors and more. The agency decided to engage with the commercial sector to reduce bureaucracy and accelerate progress.
It developed Agility Prime, an acquisition program that fast-tracks the contracting process to specifically develop manned or unmanned aircraft. Agility Prime provides smaller amounts of funding and access to Air Force assets, including test ranges and safety, which encourages outside investment. The goal is to help advance aircraft that could be used for civilian purposes but are also ideal for the military.
The program is interested in developing three types of aircraft: one that’s able to carry three to eight people to ranges greater than 100 miles, at speeds greater than 100 mph for an hour; another that can carry one or two people more than 10 miles at speeds greater than 45 mph with flight endurance greater than 15 minutes; and a third “not necessarily designed to carry occupants” but rather cargo up to 1,320 lbs, and it can fly at least 200 miles at speeds greater than 100 mph for at least 100 minutes.
The Air Force is looking for prototypes by December 17, 2020.
The first demonstration of a flying car with Air Force potential occurred on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020, at Camp Mabry in Austin, Texas. Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett, Chief of Staff Charles Q. Brown Jr., Chief Master Sgt. JoAnne S. Bass and leadership from the Texas National Guard watched as Matt Chasen, founder and CEO of LIFT Aircraft, flew an 18-rotor ultralight HEXA on a four-minute flight, according to an Air Force press release.
Chasen founded LIFT in 2017 and announced the HEXA a year later. Its rotors are independently powered by 18 electric motors. A triply redundant flight-control computer and multiple collision sensors keep the craft stable and safe during flight, and the craft can land reliably if up to six motors are disabled. In the event of an emergency, an autonomous ballistic parachute deploys. Owners can control it with a single, three-axis joystick and need no pilot’s license to fly it. Six floats offer buoyancy for safe water landings. The HEXA could be used on the battlefield, too, as an air ambulance to rescue injured soldiers.
“At LIFT, we’re making flying so simple, safe and inexpensive that anyone can do it with very little skill or special training. We’re truly consumerizing flying for the first time in history,” Chasen said in a company press release.
But LIFT isn’t the only company working on flying car technology. Sabrewing Aircraft has a cargo drone named Rhaegal RG-1 that can carry a payload of up to 5,400 lbs over a distance of 1,150 miles with a cruise speed of 167 mph. Beta Technologies has a winged, fully electric VTOL named Alia, and Joby Aviation has a five-seat prototype. The latter two both meet certain requirements for Agility Prime’s “Area of Interest One,” including the ability carry three to eight people at least 100 miles at speeds of at least 100 mph.
“We now have over fifteen of the leading aircraft manufacturers in the world applying to partner with Agility Prime, with many of them already on contract,” Col. Nathan Diller, AFWERX director and Agility Prime lead said at the demonstration flight in Austin.
By supporting the fast development of innovative technology around personal aircraft, civilians and military personnel will benefit. The only question left is — will the flying car fold up into the size of a suitcase, just like George Jetson’s? We’ll have to wait and see.