Here come the Jetsons: Flying cars and the Internet of Things (IoT)

Part 3 of 3 on the Future of Transportation and the Internet of Things

If you ever watched the cartoon series The Jetsons – or almost any other show set in the space age – you’ll notice that people often get around in personal spacecraft that they themselves drive. Well, the space age is almost here – at least in the form of flying cars. But we won’t be driving them. Instead, like cars they will be controlled autonomously.

In my last blog, I talked about autonomous vehicles and how much safer they are than self-driven vehicles. To ensure safety in the air, flying cars depend on the same network-connected IoT technology pioneered first in autonomous vehicles on the road.

Is the space age really here?  

Let’s first take a quick look at some of the leading organisations out there doing serious work with flying cars.

  • Lilium: A German start-up, Lilium tested a full-sized prototype of its flying car in April 2017. The Lilium prototype is entirely electric. It can also take off and land vertically like a helicopter – but then change to forward flight for speeds of up to 300km/h, which is much faster than a helicopter. And it’s quieter than a motorcycle. Lilium has raised $100m in two rounds of funding from Tencent, Ev William’s Obvious Ventures, Niklas Zennstrom’s Atomico amongst others.
  • EHang: A Chinese company with deep experience building drones, EHang is perhaps the furthest along. The company produces the EHang 184 – a one-passenger flying car that has already undergone 100 successful manned test flights. Reportedly, the city of Dubai is this year launching a pilot program for an autonomous aerial taxi (AAT) service using the EHang 184.
  • Airbus: The aircraft giant, Airbus, has developed CityAirbus, an electric vehicle capable of vertical take-off and landing for up to four passengers. Airbus Vahana aims in the same direction but for is for individual travelers. And let’s not forget the hybrid Airbus Pop.Up concept, this modular air and ground system involves a passenger capsule that can be connected to a propeller system on top for flying or to a wheeled conveyance system for driving on the roads.
  • And Uber – who recently signed an agreement teaming up with NASA around NASA’s Uncrewed Traffic Management (UTM) project developing air traffic control systems for uncrewed aerial systems (flying cars/drones).
  • Even Boeing is making investments in this space.

This is starting to look real.

No network, no flying cars

What all of these ventures have in common is connectedness. Using IoT technology, they’re all controlled remotely – with the vehicle in constant connection to home base along the lines of what is now a reality for autonomous road vehicles like those made by Tesla.

Of course, the networked nature of vehicles (flying or not) has relevance beyond safety. No surprise, then, that Uber is moving forward aggressively with plans to test an on-demand flying cars network by 2020 in the cities of LA, Dubai, and Dallas, and 2023 in Sydney. Here the network provides convenience – coordinating a ride-sharing service in the sky that allows passengers to hook up with flying cars on the fly.

Drones for passengers

Essentially, what we’re moving toward is a future of passenger drones. One obstacle to this reality is the need for keeping batteries charged. Because of battery life issues, for example, the EHang 184 can only travel 23 minutes. The Lilium vehicle, it is claimed, can travel up to an hour – enough to make it from London to Paris. This, and advances in battery power storage capacity will iron out most issues around range.

When we solve this problem – and get over some regulatory hurdles – flying cars will become a lived reality for people in cities everywhere. The benefits will be tremendous, too. Count among these benefits such as less pollution (both air and noise pollution) and less traffic congestion (with flying cars taking another route entirely). And when it comes to emergencies, first responders can be deployed faster and more efficiently than ever before – helping to save lives. And let’s face it, flying cars would just be fun.

Next time I get to Dubai I’ll have to try one out.

Photo credit Airbus

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