Business Unusual

Forget driverless cars, get a personal urban aircraft

Mankind’s desire for flight is not new and there are still quite a few fields that have lots of promise, but one that certainly qualifies as an unusual business - but not on the face of it a very needed one - is the personal aircraft.

The flying car is the most popular version of a vehicle that could escape the traffic and take to the skies. For the most part, though, they have been big, dangerous and expensive.

However, in the last five years there have been some impressive improvements in other industries that might see this ideal finally take off.

Larry Page's company Zee.Aero has been working on a personal aircraft. While no official versions exist, the 150-strong company is one of the best backed players in the market.

Airbus has also entered the race to fill the skies with commuter drones

There are four broad design types.

Flying Cars

The Moller Skycar got off the ground in the last decade although you can't buy them. Like many pioneers; it might not be able to get to market. They were the ones that made the ideal of a vertical take-off with tilting engines the more popular choice over a plane with folding wings. None of the aircraft are likely to be cheap, but the aim seems to bring the costs in line with a current small aircraft. Moller hopes flying cars could one day be ordered when needed to shuttle people around. The main innovation has been engine improvements.

Jet packs

Beyond James Bond, jet packs seemed like personal flying freedom but were in effect rockets that you hoped would not kill you. These days the two jet pack models include Jetpack Aviation’s actual jet pack. It has two fully functional jets built into a pack that you wear. It can, reportedly, take you three kilometres into the air, travelling at 160 km/h. It can fly for 10 minutes. It has benefitted from new materials to house the jet and better instruments to control it in flight.

The other is a far larger twin fan called the Martin Jetpack. Versions are due to be used later this year for search and rescue operations with commercial versions going on sale next year at almost R4 million. A promotional video posted earlier this week has a version created to replace a golf cart and is being promoted by pro golfer Bubba Watson as a better way to get round the course and get to see how best to play your next shot.

The computer controls are the significant innovation here, allowing pilots with limited flying time to quickly learn to fly.

Drones

While drones are not new, the drone concepts is to use multiple electric motors for lift. They can be quieter and, when combined with the navigation system,s allow for simple, stable flight. The Volocopter has 18 motors for the largest version and promises to be the easiest to fly. Navigation, motor and materials innovation have allowed this design conceived in 2010 to be flying in 2016.

Custom aircraft

The designs are evolutions on fixed wing and propeller aircraft aimed at making flying easier and optimising transport, take-off and the aircraft’s range. The Cobolt Valkyrie is a very sleek plane that can carry fvie passengers. It comes with the hefty R9 million price tag.

Given the cost it may seem that this does not solve a very significant problem. This is not going to be a mass transit option soon, but it will offer some significant alternatives to current aircraft options. Helicopters are significantly more expensive. A basic chopper starts at R4 million and requires lots of training and flying hours. So the potential cost saving make this a competitor to entry level aviation which in countries like the US would have hundreds of thousands of owners.

With the prospect of driverless cars; why would you want to risk trying to fly? The optimisations to both the cars and traffic management may make this destined for only the very rich, although some argue that a autonomous flight is actually easier to achieve that autonomous driving.

This is further illustrated with a video by BAA training of a flying school teenager placed in an A320 simulator mid flight told how to land the plane. It was to demonstrate that, in the event of the pilots not being able to fly, the plane could be landed safely.

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