Someone has (almost) Invented the flying car

The Kitty Hawk Flyer takes minutes to master, lands on water or ground, and handles like a drone – and though it isn’t quite sky-ready, it signals that personal aviation could be taking off to get a peek at the future of transport, visit a warehouse in an industrial region of Mountain View, California. Alex Roetter, a division president at the aviation startup Kitty Hawk, strolls over, scans his security badge, and leads me on to a vast cement floor. There, arrayed in a U shape, are 13 or so Flyers, an oddball aircraft that few people have seen, and even fewer piloted.

“It’s the kind of vehicle anyone can learn to fly in 15 minutes”, Roetter says. “The computer does all the hard work, so the human is just left to do the things people are really good at. Look out the window, decide where to go, and just point the stick and land.”

The Flyer is an airworthy trimaran in gleaming white. The middle pod, where the pilot sits, resembles a Formula 1 cockpit. It’s flanked by pontoons, to touch down on water and land, with two beams protruding from each, at the tip of which are mounted four of ten propellers. The aircraft is four metres long, 2.3 wide and 1.5 tall, and thanks to carbon fibre, weighs just 114kg. Powered by electricity, it is remarkably quiet. It takes off, lands and flies much like a helicopter.

Actually, this is the second generation of the Flyer; the first, which Kitty Hawk showed off over San Francisco Bay in June 2017, looked like something a comic book villain might fly, with a seat straddled like a flying lawnmower. The shift to a protective cockpit, though, pales in importance compared with the transformation in onboard computers. Learning to fly the first version took several days: five hours in a simulator, a day of training, a series of flights while tethered to the ground. Smarter software now lets people with zero aviation experience take off after that 15-minute lesson.

In a helicopter, the pilot works four controls at once, monitoring how each impacts the others. In the Flyer, the pilot’s left hand works a thumbwheel to go up or down, the right joystick to fly back, left, right, and around. Let go, and the Flyer holds itself level and in place, like a ship at anchor. That’s it. The computer sets rotor pitch and speed using GPS, an inertial measurement unit, lidar laser scanning, and radar to ascertain its position in space. It’s as easy as flying a quadcopter drone, except you are inside it.

Roetter has taken half a dozen low speed flights in the Flyer over water. He’s more engineer than salesman a software engineer, to be specific, who developed advertising software at Twitter. But he’s also a licensed pilot, and he lights up while talking about the ride: “It’s like being a kid.” 

But this Kitty Hawk model is more than a lark for thrill-seekers. Its creators see it as a first step toward something momentous – the flying car. “Our long-term vision is to free the world from traffic”, Roetter says. The idea is to create a vehicle that can soar over congestion, all without fossil fuel emissions. That craft is “probably not the Flyer”, he says, “the same way that the [Wright brothers’ 1903] Flyer was not the vehicle that shrank the Atlantic,”

While Roetter’s team works on the Flyer, another is testing Kitty Hawk’s other craft in New Zealand. 

‘The computer does all the hard work, so the human is left to do the things we are good at. Look out the window, decide where to go’

With room for two, the 12-rotor electric aircraft can take off, fly and land by itself. And two dozen companies from Boeing and Airbus to Volocopter in Germany, EHang in China and a squadron of startups – are riding a jet stream of technology to create small, battery-powered flying vehicles. 

As Roetter walks through the warehouse, he explains that on the Flyer, five propellers spin clockwise, five counter-clockwise. Crash testing is done via remote control, but if someone’s going up in the thing, Roetter won’t let them fly more than three metres up or faster than 15kph. These are early days.  

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