Continuing our focus on flying car developments
(This feature is extracted from the cover story of the same name in theOctober 2022 issue of Science Reporter pages 14-19 by Anand Parthasarathy)
October 6 2022: One international success in eVTOL has a special resonance for India: The first flying car to be developed in Japan, theSD-03 from SkyDrive, passed all safety tests in November 2021. With 8 propellers, it flies at around 48 kmph with a 10 minutes endurance. The company hopes to commercialize the SD-03 by 2025 and launch air taxi services during the World Exposition in Osaka that year.
Indian eVTOL initiatives: partnership route
Why is the SkyDrive development important for India? Because of the Suzuki connection. The Japanese car manufacturer has announced a partnership with SkyDrive to collaborate on R&D, manufacturing and mass production, with a focus initially on the Indian market and later on the rest of the world. Suzuki has already invested heavily on electric vehicles and battery manufacture in Gujarat. And it does not stretch one’s imagination to conclude that Suzuki plans to make eVTOLS in India with SkyDrive technology and its own-label batteries. So, look out for a ‘Maruti’-brand flying car soon!
Suzuki is not alone: Multiple partnerships between Indian engineering companies and overseas eVTOL developers have been announced in recent weeks. The stimulus has come from the government after aviation minister Jyotiraditya Scindia visited the US and Canada recently and experienced at first hand, the excitement in the dual industries of aviation and surface transportation for a solution that will benefit both.
Back home, the minister used the platform of the India@2047 conclave in May, to urge industry to explore this new opportunity: “Come and have a look at India… you can set up a manufacturing base in India to export to the rest of Asia and the world”, he said. Specifically, he invited Beta Technologies, a Vermont (US)-based eVTOL manufacturer to leverage the partnership it has with the Blade Group, which is already in India offering helicopter services, and jointly explore the domestic eVTOL market.
Some big-name Indian companies have already gone down this route:
-Tech Mahindra has joined hands with Los Altos (California-US)-based ASKA NFT, to develop 4-seater electric ‘drive-n-fly’ vehicles. “We are confident that our engagement with TechMahindra will boost ASKA’s development, testing and certification process”, said ASKA CEO Guy Kaplinsky. Together the partners are working to launch an e-flying vehicle with a range of 400 kms, by 2026. Its experience with fabrication using composite material will be something TechMahindra will bring to the table, suggests ‘Composites World’ magazine.
-The engineering major, L&T has won a $ 100 million deal from Texas (US)-based Jaunt Air Mobility that will see the Indian company providing engineering services at a new R&D centre that it is to open in Montreal, Canada, alongside Jaunt’s manufacturing unit. L&T will offer structural design, analysis, certification and manufacturing support. The ‘Jaunt Journey’ is a pilot-plus-four-passenger craft that can travel 110 kms in 25 minutes, in commuter, cargo delivery, military and medical scenarios.
Design and make in India
With such a burgeoning opportunity to embrace cutting edge mobility technology, India’s vibrant start-up community can be expected to respond with swiftness—and it has.
Two initiatives, both based in Chennai, are a bit ahead on the eVTOL development roadmap:
The ePlane Company was incubated at IIT Madras and was co-founded in 2017, by Professor Satya Chakravarthy, an aerospace engineer, with his student, Pranjal Mehta. They have named their eVTOL, ‘e200’ and claim it takes off like a drone and flies like a plane. The makers who unveiled a static prototype at the Dubai Expo last year, hope to have a prototype ready in the last quarter of 2022, start manufacturing in 2023 and demonstrate the first flight in 2024. The e200 will be a 2-seater with a 200 km range, a very small ground footprint of 5 metre by 5 metre, touted as “the most compact flying taxi in the world”. The company has some heavy-weight talent on board – including Shreya Prasad who studied aerospace engineering at the University of California and later worked at NASA. She led a team developing nanocomposite materials for space suits.
Vinata Aeromobility is another Indian start-up working to perfect what they call ‘Asia’s first hybrid flying car’. Forbes India magazine quotes founder-CEO Yogesh Ramanathan: “We are going to be one step ahead from electric, by using biofuel which will make mobility even more sustainable.” Their vehicle uses 8 fixed propellers and 8 motors and will fly for up to 60 minutes at 120 kmph. The company plans on launching its 2-passenger flying car at the Helitech Exhibition, a leading business event for the rotor-craft industry, in London during October 2022.
Interest in electric flight vehicles has percolated to the student world. A team from MVJ College of Engineering, Bengaluru, won the top prize at the 2021 National Aerospace Conceptual Design Competition sponsored by the Aeronautical Society of India, for their design of an intercity eVTOL aircraft.
Beyond these India-based manufacturing efforts, Indians are making critical contributions to the developing technology of eVTOL: Two Indian researchers at Carnegie Mellon University (US) -- Shashank Sripad and Venkat Viswanathan -- have published findings of their study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (The promise of energy-efficient battery-powered urban aircraft; PNAS; November21 2021 https://www.pnas.org/doi/full/10.1073/pnas.2111164118) which will help many organizations justify the deployment of e-cars and e-taxis. They found that currently developed electric UAMs or Urban Air Mobility aircraft consume significantly lower watts-per-passenger-mile of battery energy, when compared to terrestrial e-vehicles. They also found that eUAMS are approaching technical viability even with current generation Lithium-Ion batteries. Their conclusion is clear: “These aspects highlight the technical readiness of a new segment of transportation.”
The conclusion is clear: Electric battery-powered flying personal transportation is a technology whose time has come. There is some pardonable pride in the fact that this unambiguous conclusion has been delivered to the world, by a duo of Indian experts.
Earlier articles in this series
Flying cars Next stop for urban e-mobility (indiatechonline.com)
E-Vertical Take Off and Landing vehicle developments (indiatechonline.com)