Air Logistics

Key hurdles blocking flying cars — and startups poised to clear them

  • For an industry based entirely on the arrival of a new kind of aircraft, many technological and logistical hurdles must be cleared.
  • Those include battery tech, business plans, and the role drones must play before flying cars can take off.
  • The good news is that heaps of startups are working on these problems — and we’ve rounded up the best contenders to deliver the future of flight.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Though investment opportunities abound in the world of aerial mobility — for those patient enough to play the long game — staying abreast of the key technological challenges still standing in the way of viable, widespread electric air taxi service is important. It helps to temper expectations and filter out the hype.

This is especially true because the industry is having a bit of an early reckoning, with instigator and cheerleader Uber offloading the Elevate program that helped spawn the movement back in 2016. Whether you think this is merely the first domino to fall in an effort that’s already incomprehensibly ambitious, or merely an inevitable hiccup — likely one of many — the move reinforces the lesson that nothing in aviation is a foregone conclusion. Supporters may waver, companies may fail, and necessary innovations may not materialize.

For an industry based entirely on the arrival of a new kind of aircraft, using new propulsion technologies and powered by the same batteries that have so far required massive innovation just to push a car 200 miles, many challenges remain—and yes, batteries are a big part of it. 

“The low energy density of batteries continues to force eVTOL makers to make significant design tradeoffs, resulting in performance that can only marginally meet customer mission requirements,” warns Ben Marcus, co-founder of venture-capital firm UP.Partners, which formed this year to invest in the necessary building blocks of the flying car business.

“The industry must also develop autonomy systems that significantly improve the safety of vertical-lift aircraft relative to human-piloted helicopters before they will make a significant difference in the daily commutes of millions of people.”

Furthermore, the new technologies will have to be certifiable to safety standards that are much higher than for terrestrial transport systems — mostly given the fact that if something fails on the ground, the solution is often as simple as pulling over and stopping, something not easily done in aircraft. They must be practical for commercial applications, with adequate passenger space and flight range, and appealing to potential passengers. The flight experience needs to be comfortable and secure, or nobody will want to fly in the new aircraft.

Fortunately, Marcus adds, there are a lot of cooks in the kitchen — commercial R&D labs, government agencies, university engineering departments — and plenty of beneficiaries beyond commuters looking to coast over gridlock. The same technologies that will lift those folks will also deliver pizzas, execute search-and-rescue missions, inspect power lines, shuttle emergency supplies, and more.

Drones need to light the way

The technological pipelines for all this needed innovation are already very active, with pilot projects and commercial deployment of drone-based systems, which use a lot of similar technologies to those needed for passenger-carrying aircraft, being initiated around the globe. 

Marcus cites Zipline and Matternet as companies already delivering medical supplies in many parts of the world, while UPS, Amazon, Google Wing, and others are working with the FAA to establish drone delivery systems in the U.S. These companies will operate in clearly defined geographic areas and under strict rules for how high and in what conditions their aircraft can fly.

Once the early delivery systems prove they can successfully complete their missions, they’ll need to graduate to wider geographic areas and…

Read More: Key hurdles blocking flying cars — and startups poised to clear them

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