Flying Car Takes Off In Japan With First Manned Test Flight

Flying Car Takes Off In Japan With First Manned Test Flight
The SkyDrive SD-03 successfully completed its first test flight in early August. Photo courtesy of SkyDrive

When Michael J. Fox said, “all these people must’ve got here in flying cars,” on Jimmy Kimmel’s live audience tribute to the Back to the Future franchise on October 21, 2015, the date Doc and Marty arrived in the future aboard their flying Delorean, Kimmel’s reply summed it up aptly. “No, no, we never figured out flying cars.”

Well, Japanese startup SkyDrive may have just figured it out.

Last Friday in Tokyo, SkyDrive Inc. announced at a press conference that it had successfully completed its first manned test flight, and showed video to prove it. In footage shot earlier in August at its base near Toyota City, the single-seater SD-03 flying car prototype, operated by a test pilot, used its four pairs of propellers to lift off and cruise at an altitude of around 6 feet in a heavily fenced off test zone. It may not have cleared the surrounding trees, but it showed that the vehicle could cruise untethered at low speeds with drone-like stability for a flight time of around up to 10 minutes.

According to a commentator familiar with flying car projects, other companies including Lilium of Germany and Joby Aviation of California, are also working on electric take-off and landing vehicles (eVTOL) projects but many have been stalled during the coronavirus pandemic. SkyDrive may not be the first company to complete a test flight, but it is the first firm to combine a successful untethered test flight of its soon-to-be-marketed flying car while also receiving government backing and significant funding to achieve its end goal of commercialization by 2023.

Backed by auto giant Toyota, construction company Obayashi, electronics company NEC, petroleum conglomerate Eneos, the Development Bank of Japan and others, the SkyDrive SD-03, which seems inspired by Luke Skywalker’s Land Speeder and the X-Wing Fighter of Star Wars fame, will reportedly morph into a two-seater commercial model by 2023. Head of the SkyDrive effort, Tomohiro Fukuzawa, said he hopes his flying car can be commercialized by that date but admitted that safety was his number one priority. “Of the more than 100 flying car projects currently underway globally, only a few have succeeded with manned flight,” he explained.

Japanese car designer and SkyDrive stylist Takumi Yamamoto said, “There are many more constraints, limitations and regulations on the design of flying cars than standard road-going vehicles, but I hope I gave it some charisma amongst those restrictions.”

The SD-03 at present can fly for up to 10 minutes, but the goal according to Fukuzawa is to develop a flying car capable of cruising at 40mph for up to 30 minutes, a fact that would enhance its marketing potential in places like China. One early route planned to start in 2023 is a short flight ferrying passengers around Kansai Airport in central Japan.

When compared to planes and helicopters, eVTOLs would deliver speedy point-to-point personalized travel. One of the main ideas behind them is to alleviate the hassles of airports, traffic jams and pilot’s fees by making vehicles like the SD-03 self-flying. One image in the SkyDrive video showed a flying car lifting off from a convenience store carpark near Tokyo revealing the versatility of the vehicles to get in and out of tight spaces.

The bottom line according to experts in the field is to not only make them as safe and foolproof as possible, but to also make flying cars cost-effective. After all, few will pay $1 million for a flying car and you cannot expect to generate trust if such cars fall out of the sky. In a sense they must be safer than road-going cars and have multiple backup safety features.

While battery size and weight, flight time, range, air traffic control regulations and other infrastructure and safety hurdles must all be cleared before SkyDrive takes to the skies in earnest, flying car makers as a whole must work hard to win over the public’s hearts and minds to accept aerial transportation in the same way that it took years for smart phones and autonomous driving cars to gain acceptance.

Maybe by 2030, Jimmy Kimmel can tell Michael J. Fox that flying cars have finally been figured out.— Source: Peter Lyon / forbes.com

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