Are car/plane hybrids the next “big thing” in transportation? Are jetpacks on the horizon? Or is this just wishful thinking? When it comes to the future of personal aerospace technology, is the sky really our limit?
The Wright Brothers’ 1903 flight of a heavier-than-air powered craft answered a question: Yes, it is possible for humans to fly. It also created an obsession. For more than a century, we’ve been pushing the boundaries and looking for new ways to touch the sky. With commercial and military air travel now firmly commonplace, innovator focus has once again turned to personal aviation.
In December 1903, Wilbur Wright managed a flight of 852 feet in just under a minute; not far or fast, but a massive milestone for human ingenuity, explained Wright-Brothers.org. By 1914 the first commercial air service began operating between St. Petersburg and Tampa, Florida; by World War I, propeller planes dotted the sky, according to Space.com. Craft capable of carrying thousands of pounds in cargo and hundreds of people, and breaking the sound barrier, followed as the science of flight was developed and refined.
In a callback to the first powered flights, consumer desire for personal aviation has remained largely unanswered. It makes sense: Strapping yourself to a rickety craft at high speed doesn’t seem like a great idea for continued health or sanity. But the dream persists. Consider the massive, continual interest in small-scale aerospace technology like Marty McFly’s hoverboard from “Back to the Future II,” which, despite decades of trying, never materialized. Some “personal” options are available; small Cessna-type crafts are a cool $9 million, according to the Indianapolis Business Journal, but these aren’t really in reach of the average aviation enthusiast.
Increasing gridlock, rising gas prices and the development of AI-driven automobiles, however, have reignited the dream of personal aviation. So what’s next?
First up is a formerly secret project from Google founder Larry Page aptly called the Flyer. It’s a single-seater craft that is designed for water landings and takeoffs, weighs 250 pounds and uses 10 battery-powered propellers. According to The Verge, the Flyer “looks sort of like a bobsled mounted on a couple of pontoons” and isn’t designed to go more than 10 feet above water or fly faster than 20 miles per hour. Still, there’s already a waiting list for the vehicle. While it doesn’t offer total aerial freedom, it’s certainly a unique take on personal aviation.
Sound and Fury?
Jetpacks are another area of interest. The idea of truly personal flight has ignited continual desire for this kind of freedom. JetPack Aviation is trying to make this a reality, for both the public and the military. In 2015, CEO David Mayman flew a jetpack around the Statue of Liberty, which sparked additional public flights.
Another option for personalized power takeoffs? Flying cars. CNet points to the AeroMobil flying car, which can fly 465 miles on a tank of fuel but also fold up its wings and take to the roads at up to 100 miles per hour. The caveat? Predicted cost is north of $1.5 million. As noted by New Atlas, meanwhile, the CityHawk VTOL out of Israel is also taking on personal aerial transport — its six-seater vehicle uses contra-rotating props instead of wings to achieve flight and can reach speeds of 170 miles per hour. The first manned tests are slated for 2021-2022.
According to Wired, many of these new vehicles don’t fit into any current FAA classifications, meaning they’ll need to jump through bureaucratic hoops to secure regulatory approval. Nasdaq noted that the German government recently approved flying taxi testing in the city of Ingolstadt, while ride-sharing service Uber is exploring the safety and regulatory challenges in taking its business to the skies.
Tech Crunch cuts to heart of the matter: How will personal aviation devices be integrated with public airspace? This requires decisions about autonomy versus AI-piloted craft, as well as infrastructure to track vehicles in real-time and autonomous technology to coordinate thousands of flight paths simultaneously while mitigating collision risk.
The Future of Flight
Bottom line? Personal flight is possible. It might not take the form of hoverboards, but innovators are still finding ways to soar.
Does this article pique your interest? Northrop Grumman has career opportunities for engineers who want to work new frontiers of aviation and aerospace.