Jetpacks were promised but never delivered. What is, nevertheless, ultimately here? You can ride on big, honking drones.
EVER Peter Ternström has dreamed to build a sci-fi-style flying aircraft since he was a child in Sweden. He watched Return of the Jedi five times in 1983 and fantasised about speeding through Endor’s forest in a levitating speeder. He immediately recognised, however, that a hovering vehicle was not conceivable as a clever young geek.
“There was no working propulsion system,” he says, sighing. For decades, individuals have attempted to create personal flying devices, most notably jetpacks. However, the mechanics of the jetpack were a nightmare. Trying not to burn your legs off while strapping an explosive gasoline tank to your body? Personal mobility is not a scalable solution.
So Ternström put his childhood goal on hold and went on to develop an online learning platform and the Swedish equivalent of Mailchimp, eventually becoming a dotcom billionaire. Flying automobiles are a pipe dream.
Except that technology has an odd way of evolving. While Ternström was working for those dotcom companies, a new flying technology emerged: drones, which didn’t have the same issues as jetpacks.
Drones were only toys when they initially became popular in the 2000s, shaky and difficult to fly, with batteries that expired in minutes. However, as demand from amateurs and enthusiasts increased, so did the components’ quality. Motors improved, and batteries grew more durable. Tilt sensors grew more affordable and of higher quality, while open-source developers created software that enabled drones self-stabilizing and hence simple to fly with no prior experience.
Ternström ran with an old acquaintance in 2012 who was manufacturing drones to transport cameras for Hollywood film production. Ternström accompanied him for some of the shots, and as he saw the drones fly about, he thought to himself, “Why don’t we simply build a very huge drone, stick a seat on it, and carry a human?”
That’s exactly what he and his buddy did. They founded Jetson, which is currently selling its first hovering personal aircraft, the Jetson ONE, a $92,000 contraption constructed of lightweight aluminium and carbon fibre with eight drone rotors and a slew of batteries. Ternström appears in recordings flying six feet above the earth across the Italian countryside, looking remarkably like the Endor speeder he previously fantasised of.
He informs me that flying is a genuinely joyful experience. “All your ancient bird DNA jumps in and says, ‘Whoa, stop a second, I’ve done this before!'” He adds that his firm has 320 pre-orders, which he hopes to start delivering by the end of 2023. The purchasers are largely “high-profile Californians.” I won’t say ‘Mark Zuckerberg,’ but around that circle.”
Ternström is one of the first people to sell a drone-like flying contraption, but he’s far from alone. eVTOL (electrical vertical takeoff and landing) vehicles are already being produced by dozens of companies throughout the globe. Their objective is to introduce vehicles and steadily enhance them to the point where, in ten years, you could zip from downtown to the airport in one—since, unlike aircraft, they don’t need a runway and are mainly software-guided, pilots would require minimal experience. (A number of these companies want their craft to be remotely flown or autonomous.) Once in flight, some versions turn the propellers sideways to cruise like an aircraft.
People whizzing through cities in little flying vehicles have been featured in sci-fi images for millennia. “They’re basically giant drones,” says Chris Anderson, a veteran drone pioneer and COO of eVTOL business Kittyhawk (and former editor in chief of WIRED).
Consider this an innovation lesson: big discoveries don’t always happen where you’d expect them to.
We like to believe that the most significant inventions come from clever individuals assembled in a lab or corporation—Apple designers creating the smartphone, OpenAI experts developing GPT-3, Tesla engineers creating a genuinely lovely electric automobile. However, amateur weirdos dabbling on something that seems foolish or toylike are responsible for just as much, if not more, invention. Because such settings are low-stakes, hackers and hobbyists may steadily develop the underlying technology until they’re ready to achieve something much more ambitious.
This is how drone-car experimentation erupted. In 2011, electrical engineer and Dragon Air inventor Jeff Elkins created his own flying gadget by assembling drone propellers on a platform. You stand on it, grab a couple of poles, and lean to control it. “As strange as that may seem, it’s really a fantastic way to fly,” he says. His test pilot has completed flights that lasted up to 20 minutes.
Human controlling flying automobiles may seem insane—we’re bad enough drivers in two dimensions. Adding a third seems to be a bad idea. However, according to Volocopter CEO Florian Reuter, software improvements from years of making drones simple to control have automated away much of the difficult aspects of flight.
“On his first flight, our first test pilot said, ‘This was the most boring maiden flight ever,'” Reuter said. You won’t have to worry about maintaining stability or responding to unexpected blasts of wind since the programme will do it for you. You just point where you want to travel using the joystick-like controls. He claims that “no flying skills are required.”
Other benefits of making a flyer out of drone components include safety via redundancy: One propeller may fail while the others continue to spin. What happens if things goes horribly wrong? Several companies have incorporated ballistic parachutes onto their machines. The HEXA, a Lift Aircraft flying machine, includes one that officials claim would pop out so quickly that passengers will be saved from as low as 40 feet. The Jetson ONE also features a ballistic parachute, however Ternström claims it would only rescue you if you were at least 100 feet in the air. Most Jetson ONE riders, he believes, will stay near to the ground, where, in the event of an accident, the roll cage will rescue you rather than the parachute.
“You’re going to shatter a bone in your arm.” “It will be terrible, but you will not die,” Ternström assures.
So, science fiction flying vehicles can be created. Will they, however, really alter how we travel? That’s a different subject because it’s not about technology but about regulation, which advances at a much slower pace.
The only drone vehicles you can legally fly right now are those that are so light that they are classified as “ultralights.” (The HEXA, the Jetson ONE, and Jeff Elkins’ work all count.) You don’t even need a pilot’s licence to fly an ultralight, however they can’t fly over populated regions. So the initial generation of drone automobiles is just for fun.
At least for now. Many companies, like Kitty Hawk, Volocopter, and China’s EHang, are already developing larger aircraft that can carry multiple passengers—some of which are entirely autonomous—with the goal of establishing full-fledged air taxis that transport us around cities. The Federal Aviation Administration will take a decade or more to approve them, if they are approved at all. But one thing is certain in the meantime: Drones have matured into something truly unexpected.