by Markus Engelhart
In this article, we look at the potential for an innovation that could change the face of personal flight. The idea of flying cars is almost as old as aviation itself. Yet, so far we don’t fly. Several reasons to this question narrow down to high costs and complicated usage: fixed-wing aircraft are too big, requiring a runway and the current rotor-winged aircraft have prohibitive high maintenance requirements due to their complex designs.
As well as being challenges, these problems also define an outline for an aircraft that would allow us to fly on a daily basis. It needs to be easy to use, safe, compact and yet affordable. Over the last one and half years, such an aircraft has been in development [see image], and is close to its first test flight – making the dream of individual flight getting closer to reality. Improvements with computer-assisted flight systems support the pilot and will even allow autonomous flight; new designs make construction and maintenance cheaper and public interest for flying cars is, despite many unsuccessful attempts, unbroken.
Yet, there is also a potential legal hurdle which would need to be overcome as a result of the higher density of small aircraft in urban airspace: today, law-makers and regulators are far away from designing rules and regulations for this kind of aircraft. Of course, the technology still has to prove its reliability, but with the rapid development of smaller drones and self-driving cars in recent years, there should be no doubt that this challenge will be overcome in the next years. Therefore, yet unwritten rules and regulations should not keep us from the development of an everyday aircraft for individuals, as history has shown that eventually law-makers follow new technological realities.
In fact, these new realities are potentially as disruptive as the introduction of the automobile 100 years ago. In the future, you could commute to work flying, call a helicopter instead of a cab, take off to go skydiving from your driveway and go on scenic flights around spectacular sceneries. This new category of aircraft would offer a revolutionary personal experience.
The development aircraft mentioned earlier is designed to be a combination of personal helicopter and drone – the Airvinci backpack helicopter is mechanically simple, needs no runway and will have the capacity to lift 260lbs up to 12,000 feet high. The pioneer users will be enthusiastic pilots, avid skydivers, forward looking shippers, and people involved in search and rescue. Airvinci is currently in the process of developing the prototype, and the live stream of the first flight will take place in sometime this year, with market ready product expected in 2017.
At present, there are already earlier generation technologies being used – for example, some fire departments are using small drones to observe buildings on fire. With the new type of aircraft proposed by Airvinci, they could not only localize someone in danger, but directly rescue. Thanks to far lower maintenance costs, the new aircraft could have a much broader use without bursting the budgets of firefighting departments.
Due to versatile design and the options for autonomous and remote-controlled flights, not only pilot/passenger options exist: the opportunities for delivery companies are equally enormous. While Amazon or DHL are still experimenting with delivering small electronics goods or books in no time to your doorstep, in the future they can do this with televisions, laundry machines or kayaks.
All these examples give an idea of what could be possible with a (small) step in development and a huge step in regulations. In recent years, innovative start-ups have focused prominently on changing our lives with internet-based solutions; it’s time for some disruption in other industries, like aviation, as well.
Markus Engelhart is a project manager at Airvinci
[Photo: the Airvinci backpack helicopter, due to make its first test flight this year.]