Bell Nexus Flying Taxi
Flying cars: Next stop for urban e-mobility

A global race to launch an air taxi that flies on batteries is on.  As fiction morphs into fact, multiple initiatives make India a serious  contender
By Anand Parthasarathy
October 5 2022: In the 1967 film version of Ian Fleming’s ‘You Only Live Twice’, James Bond (Sean Connery) needs to inspect dozens of Japanese islands, looking for the villain Blofeld’s hideout.  How to do this fast?  He rides ‘Little Nellie’, a stripped-down flying auto-gyro.  Every James Bond film features an iconic make of car – and some of them fly. For many readers, flying cars have remained an unfulfilled dream.  Till now, that is.
Three factors have come together to make them a reality as early as next year: the relentless pressure on urban mobility, the availability of drones, carrying big loads -- and improvements in electric car batteries. Combine the three and you have a new global arena of intense innovation:  Urban e-Mobility, where the ‘e’ stands for electric as in electric vehicles. Terrestrial  transport may soon  be joined by e-flying cars and e-air taxis.
If air taxis are to be a viable alternative to the Ubers and Olas of city transportation, they need to take off and land in tight spaces, not runways. That is why the emerging class of flying cars is called eVTOL or electric Vertical Take Off and Landing.
VTOL in itself is not new: Military aircraft, like the UK-made Harrier Jump Jet of which India was an early adopter from the early 1970s, are designed to take off vertically, like a  helicopter.
The coming eVTOL is  not just a  shrunken  helicopter  or jump jet, but   shares a key feature: the ability to take off vertically, fly horizontally and land vertically. Many of the pioneering designers   of eVTOLS in dozens of countries, not least in India, honed their skills designing drones that could carry big payloads. The same combination of rotors and propeller blades can be upscaled to ensure lift-off and sustained flight. This may be an over-simplification– but the DNA of the modern eVTOL or flying car, has more  in common with drones and electric vehicles and very little to do with conventional aircraft and helicopters.
This was not always so.
Early developments
Less than 10 years after the Wright brothers demonstrated the first flying machines in 1903, the US patent office granted dozens of patents for flying cars.  In 1917, Glenn Curtiss built the Curtiss Autoplane, often hailed as the first true flying car. With 12-meter-long aluminium wings, it was a giant that never really took off. In the 1930s, Waldo Waterman crossed a 100 horsepower Studebaker limousine with a rear-propeller, foldable wings aeroplane design.   The Aerobile did fly – and a few units were built, but there was no viable market
Just after the Second World War in 1946, another American inventor Robert Fulton, took a reverse route; he worked on an airplane that could be driven on the road, a “roadable” aircraft.  Frustratingly for Fulton, even after obtaining all the required certification, he could not find financial backers for his dream machine, the AirPhibian.
The first concept of an electric VTOL was mooted at a 2009 conference on aeromechanics by Mark Moore, an engineer with the (US) National Aeronautics and Space Administration, who proposed a personal one-man air vehicle called ‘Puffin’. NASA had just developed technology called Distributed Electric Propulsion.   DEP used multiple thrusters instead of a single element like the rotor blades of a helicopter to achieve lift. The concept was taken up by many aircraft makers like Boeing, Airbus, Embraer and Bell Helicopter. All are  currently perfecting their designs.
Airbus called its eVTOL, ‘Vahana’ from the Sanskrit for ‘vehicle’ and unveiled it at the 2017 Paris Air Show:  an 8-propeller driven, single-passenger, self-piloted flying car. It has since evolved this design into the 4-passenger ‘City Airbus’.
Urban cab companies like Uber, don’t want to be left out from the transition of earthly taxis to the airborne kind. The company has launched an air taxi project called ‘Elevate’ and has signed up with a California start-up, Joby Aviation, to make the flying vehicles. Uber’s first  fleet of flying taxis has been promised in 2024.
That year could also see air taxis flying over European skies.  The aviation safety agency of the European Union – EASA – has taken the critical step of readying a certification structure so that any passenger cars in the air, pass the same stringent tests, prescribed for aircraft. “I believe the commercial use of air taxis will start to take place in 2024 or 2025”, said Patrick Ky, Executive Director of EASA, in May this year.
Meanwhile, the first pioneering flights of modern eVTOLS have already taken place:
Early in 2022, the German company,  Volocopter, completed its first test flight of the VoloConnect, a 4-seater that can fly 75 kms on a single charge. In the US Silicon Valley, Archer Aviation achieved a comparable range with its eVTOL called Maker. It also overcame a major technological challenge for flying cars: ‘transition flight’ which means the transition from the craft being lifted using vertical propellers to   flying horizontally using wings.
On May 21 2022, the Swedish company Jetson claimed the honour of the world’s first eVTOL commute: The company’s co-founder-CEO, Tomasz Patan flew to work from his home in a lightweight 3-D-printed  Jetson ONE  craft, flying some 20 minutes at speeds of around 100 kmph, reducing his normal travel time to work by 88%. “Our mission is to make flight available to all. The Jetson ONE is an electric helicopter that you can own and fly. We want to make everyone a pilot”, said Patan.
(This feature is extracted from the  cover story of the same name in theOctober 2022 issue of Science Reporter pages 14-19)
For images of other eVTOLs cited in the article see Image of the Day