Autonomous Flying Cars are Still Not Mainstream: Here’s Why
How far have we come in making autonomous flying cars?
With the pace that this tech-dependent world is advancing, it is no longer a futile dream to want to see autonomous flying cars in the sky. Uber, for example, predicted at its Elevate conference last month, that it would begin deploying its system, UberAIR, in 2023. As easy and fantastic as it sounds, to think how much cheaper the autonomous control systems have to be for this to become a public ride is still kind of blurry, not to mention the safety factor of the air traffic control.
Problem with the Hardware
There are issues with the aircraft hardware themselves. Uber, the dominant player trying to bring this industry to life, insists that an electric vertical takeoff and landing (e-VTOL) aircraft is the way to go, arguing that nothing else can match it for efficiency, speed, reliability, safety, and quietness. Well, the existing hardware is not good enough for this. The aviation industry will have to develop entirely new classes of aircraft that fly in new ways, using new means of propulsion, flight control, and situational awareness. However, it will be an excellent opportunity to rework the aviation industry on this behalf. The avionics that is generally used now are based on a general architecture that was developed during World War II. The hardware, for instance, is duplicated for redundancy, using huge, low-efficiency cables. This industry can now use some real game-changers.
How Difficult the Autonomy Would Be?
The air taxis of tomorrow will have to do most of the piloting work themselves, using autonomous or at least highly automated systems. Uber has stated that it expects its service will start with human pilots, but given the extreme shortage of pilots anticipated by the airline industry over the coming decades, that’s not sustainable. Self-flying systems are already in the works, but they are nowhere close to being ready for widespread adoption.
In this scenario, most of the systems that either manages the act of flying or the processes of navigation and communication are controlled by the computer, with the pilot essentially telling it what to do and where to go. That sort of flying is within reach right now and is how most drone flying (and certain aspects of many particularly advanced military and commercial aircraft) works. But a safety-certified, passenger-carrying version operated by truly minimally trained pilots in commercial airspace—the system that Uber will need—is still a long way off. This is especially true because the systems will also have to function perfectly in urban canyons and in inclement weather.
What Has Been Done So Far?
Uber has recently announced a partnership with electric-aircraft startup Karem, which is developing variable-RPM motors that can more efficiently modulate the power usage from existing batteries, which is just one possible solution. Many aerospace and technology experts argue that short-haul flights of just 10 or 20 miles are possible even with current battery technology. The trick, though, will be achieving the kind of high-speed charging capabilities needed for quick-turnaround flights and overcoming the broader power-supply shortcomings endemic to dense urban environments.