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Personal Flights, a Closer Reality

With various eVTOL aircraft taking shape across the globe to transform the air mobility and everyday commute, some have even started to successfully test manned flights

Issue: 11-2020By Ayushee ChaudharyPhoto(s): By Kitty Hawk
Heaviside is a single-passenger vehicle with a range of 100 miles, speeds of up to 180 mph, and the ability to fly over cities

Almost every person dwelling in an urban city especially a metropolitan one, across the globe has had an encounter with congested roads, loud honking, cars moving bumper to bumper, delays to the destination and accompanied frustration. No one would mind commuting in a traffic-less city having some space for their own vehicles. While this may seem like a difficult task looking at the current rate at which urbanisation is expanding, the upcoming eVTOL (electric Vertical Take-off and Landing) human flight aircraft are coming with the promise of a different reality.

Kitty Hawk, a start-up building electric flight transportation solutions, is strenuously working to eradicate the traffic from roads.

Sebastian Thrun, CEO of Kitty Hawk stated that the mission of the company is to get rid of traffic eventually and make traffic congestion a matter of the past. “Our vision at Kitty Hawk is to free the world from traffic. For this vision to become reality, we don’t have to build new infrastructure. Unlike the nation’s highways, which require enormous resources for construction and maintenance, the highways in the sky don’t require any pavement thanks to the sheer limitless potential of the sky,” says Thrun.

Kitty Hawk stems from a legacy which is being built for the future to create the next generation of vehicles for everyday flight. The company has tested 100s of eVTOL prototypes by now.

Nearly five years ago, Kitty Hawk had started the Flyer project. Seen as a revolution in personal flight, the Flyer was designed to be an ultralight aircraft. This was a single-seater eVTOL powered by 10 independent lift fans and operated between three to ten feet off the water. At 250 pounds empty weight, it fell into a category of aircraft that could be flown by anyone — FAA Part 103, which regulates ultra-lightweight aircraft, permits recreational use of these aircraft even if pilots don’t hold a pilot’s license. People could safely operate Flyer — and become a pilot — with less than two hours of training. Even though it was projected as a recreational aircraft at that time, it did aim at changing commute scenario in urban cities.

A major highlight of the Flyer Project was its simplistic operation and control management system that made it very easy to operate. “On a single day, we trained 50 new novice Flyer pilots, none of whom were licensed. Overall, we conducted more than 25,000 successful flights crewed and uncrewed with our Flyer fleet — a huge number. The feeling of being inside a human drone is hard to describe,” the company stated. Kitty Hawk built and flew 111 aircraft and over 75 people flew Flyer.

“Unlike the nation’s highways, which require enormous resources for construction and maintenance, the highways in the sky don’t require any pavement,” says Sebastian Thrun, CEO of Kitty Hawk

Even though the Flyer took us closer to human flight in a personal aircraft, it could not become a very viable business model. And recently, Kitty Hawk announced that they are winding down the Flyer project. The company is now doubling down on Heaviside as their primary platform. First deployed in 2019, Heaviside is a single-passenger vehicle with a range of 100 miles, speeds of up to 180 mph, and the ability to fly over cities.

The current Heaviside prototype uses about 120Wh per passenger mile, and does so at twice the speed of the Leaf: 100 mi/hr. “We can save another 15 per cent of energy because while roads are not straight, flight paths usually are. Altogether, Heaviside requires 61 per cent as much energy to go a mile.

With over 237 successful transitions from hover to forward flight, Heaviside is equipped with a custom aircraft recovery parachute as a supplemental safety system. Through hundreds of test flights, Heaviside has continued to prove exceptional handling of singlesystem faults common-mode failures.

Kitty Hawk claims that Heaviside has 100 miles demonstrated on a single charge. Designed to surpass the electric vehicles standards of efficiency, Heaviside uses less than half the energy per mile of travel than a Tesla Model S, at faster speeds. Heaviside can take off and land in a 30 foot by 30 foot area that does not need to be paved. Through modern integrations of propellers and propulsion units, Heaviside meets and exceeds all criteria for efficiency without burning any fossil fuels on board, states the company.

Claimed to be 100 times quieter than a helicopter, Heaviside flies at a sound level of just 35 dBA at 1,500 AGL, so quiet that it blends into the background noise of a city or suburb, barely discernible to the human ear. The only noticeable noise is at takeoff, which becomes nearly undetectable within 30 seconds. With this the company is continuously advancing in safety, performance, noise, and efficiency to make traffic-less roads a reality soon.

Thrun from Kitty Hawk believes that the National Airspace should be looked at as a new resource, one that is vastly underutilised. Siting an example of the US-101, a major highway in Silicon Valley, Thrun explains, “This highway has three lanes in each direction. Say you put this highway into the sky as a virtual highway (similar to the jetways used for routing airplanes). If you wanted to extend the highway from three to 30 lanes, one could do so simply by using 10 vertical flight levels, separated by 100 feet each. Or by extending the highway to six parallel lanes in five flight levels. And away from airports, you could do this without disrupting existing air traffic. Very few airplanes today travel below 1,000 feet above ground level in Silicon Valley or elsewhere – except near airports, of course. We could fit this new kind of traffic right into our National Airspace.”

Kitty Hawk has also formed a joint venture with Boeing for a new company, Wisk, to develop Kitty Hawk’s Cora eVTOL as an air taxi. This comes nearly five months after Boeing and Kitty Hawk announced a strategic partnership to collaborate on urban air mobility. Its aim is for Cora to one day provide a flying taxi service that can reportedly be summoned with an app. The plan is for the vehicle to not have a pilot on board; instead, it will be flown mainly by autopilot systems, with supervision from a human pilot situated remotely.

The foundation of the company is the team behind Kitty Hawk’s Cora eVTOL, a two-seat, autonomous air taxi prototype that has been undergoing flight testing in New Zealand since late 2017. The operating company for that venture, Zephyr Airworks, was recently selected by the New Zealand government as the first partner for its Airspace Integration Trials Programme, which aims to help accelerate the integration of advanced unmanned aircraft into the aviation system. With the creation of Wisk, Zephyr Airworks becomes Wisk New Zealand. Cora will continue to be developed for passengercarrying missions, as “our vision of delivering everyday flight to everyone remains the same,” the company said.

Kitty Hawk is not alone in its endeavours of personal flight; SkyDrive, a global developer of urban air mobility solutions, recently announced that it conducted a public demonstration flight of its new single–seat SD-03 flying car model. “The manned flight was the first public demonstration of a flying car in Japan. The flight took place at the 10,000-squaremeter (approximately 2.5-acre) Toyota Test Field, which is one of the largest test fields in Japan and home to the company’s development base,” the company stated.

The aircraft has been designed to be the world’s smallest eVTOL model as a new means of transportation for the near future. It measures a compact two meters high by four meters wide and four meters long and requires only as much space on the ground as two parked cars. The powertrain consists of electric motors that drive rotors deployed in four locations, with each location housing two rotors that individually rotate in opposite directions, each driven by its own motor. The use of eight motors is a means of ensuring safety in emergency situations during flight and as such aims to address compliance standards and allay potential regulatory concerns.

Even though there is still a long way to go for safety and acceptance of passenger eVTOLs, but with such test flights taking place, the future where cities will witness cars moving on the roads and human drones flying between the buildings does not appear to be a far reality now.