Find out why vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) vehicles are finally having their moment and which models deserve your attention.
There’s a transportation revolution waiting in the wings, but the concept behind it has been a part of our society’s collective imagination for nearly a century. In fact, it wasn’t too long after the invention of the airplane, that Henry Ford embarked on an ill-fated attempt in the 1920s to create an inexpensive personal aircraft for the everyman, and though that project stalled, he believed flying cars were inevitable even into his later years, stating in 1940, “Mark my word. A combination airplane and motor car is coming.” And though movies like Back to the Future II and Blade Runner—the latter of which is actually set in 2019—predicted that we would have already adopted flying cars for everyday transportation by now, we still remain stuck in traffic in our terrestrial vehicles.
Giants like Airbus, Bell and Boeing, among others, have all devoted significant resources to developing vertical takeoff and landing vehicles (VTOLs).
However, over the past decade or so, there has been a serious push by independent startups, as well as established players, in the aeronautical industry to make flying cars a reality. In fact, giants like Airbus, Bell and Boeing, among others, have all devoted significant resources to developing vertical takeoff and landing vehicles (VTOLs) for use as personal transportation or charterable air taxis.
So why all the hype now?
As it turns out, a confluence of new and emerging technologies is making a near-future chock-full of flying cars look more like a reality than ever before. New Artificial Intelligence and automated piloting technology will making flying easier and safer, likely mitigating need for the sort of extensive training that is required to fly a helicopter or removing the pilot altogether. And, frankly, developing automated technology for flying is actually easier than for street driving for the simple fact that there are just fewer things to hit up there.
Many of the models being developed are powered by electric motors (eVTOLs) or hybrid electric systems, reducing their carbon footprints while also making them much quieter than traditional helicopters—meaning the compact craft can zip in and out of tight urban environments without driving the neighbors crazy. Luckily, eVTOLs are benefitting from the recent rapid improvements in battery efficiency spurred by the development of electric cars and our ever-expanding need for tech on the go—increasing their top speeds and ranges to levels that make them practical for everyday transportation.
The final piece of the puzzle is the infrastructure needed to support a network of flying cars, but even that may fall into place with the backing of deep-enough pockets. The most prominent initiative right now is being led by ridesharing corporation Uber, which is working with a number of third-party companies to develop the sorts of multi-vehicle landing facilities, recharge stations, and air-traffic software needed to get passengers as close to their final destination as possible in as safe a manner as possible. (We’ll get an update on their progress at the annual Uber Elevate summit next month.)
The best part? Many of the companies developing these vehicles are predicting that production versions will be available in just a few years. So, to stoke your anticipation even more, here we present six of the most promising VTOL designs around. Please prepare for takeoff.
One of the most recent accomplishments in the eVTOL arena is the first successful flight of German startup Lilium’s new five-seat concept aircraft earlier this month, which follows successful testing of a two-seat prototype in 2017. The latest model puts a premium on safety by employing 36 independent rotor engines distributed along it wings to power the craft, meaning even in the unlikely case of multiple engine failures, it will stay aloft. But safety doesn’t mean compromising performance. Compared to most of the eVTOLs on this list—which are generally designed for short urban hops—the Lilium has a downright impressive range of 164 miles, meaning you could travel from your penthouse in New York to Boston in about an hour on a single charge. The company expects the Lilium Jet to be operating as an air taxi in major cities by 2025.
It’s completely autonomous, so the pilot can sit back, relax and remind themselves that it would be bad form to snicker at the commuters stuck in gridlock beneath them.
A³ by Airbus
Airbus A³ Vahana
With the might of Europe’s biggest aeronautical firm providing a tailwind, it’s no surprise that the Airbus A³ Vahana has taken a prominent position in the race for a viable flying car platform. The eVTOL had its maiden flight last year and has conducted more than 50 test flights to date. The single-seat aircraft is powered by eight electric rotors that allow the craft to fly up to 31 miles on a single charge—plenty for a suburb-to-city commute or island hopping from your yacht—while cruising at 118 mph. The best part? It’s completely autonomous, so the pilot can sit back, relax and remind themselves that it would be bad form to snicker at the commuters stuck in gridlock beneath them.
Helicopter manufacturer Bell surprised CES attendees this year by presenting a full-size mockup of the hybrid-electric Nexus VTOL at its booth. Bedecked in carbon fiber and a black paintjob that made it look like something Batman might cruise around in, the aircraft’s striking exterior drew my eye immediately from across the show floor, while its cockpit impressed with plush leather executive seating. A team of six enclosed rotors create lift to get the craft airborne and then rotate to a forward position to provide thrust. At the 2019 Heli-Expo trade show, Bell vice president of innovation Scott Drennan explained that while initial versions of the vehicle will still rely on a human pilot in some capacity, the ultimate goal is complete autonomy.
Just a few months ago, Boeing and its subsidiary Aurora Flight Sciences completed the maiden test flight of its Passenger Air Vehicle (PAV) eVTOL—a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that the aircraft was brought from concept to working prototype in just one year. This particular model employs a different take on the basic VTOL design from the three previously mentioned models by utilizing eight vertical rotors provide lift and a separate fan behind the cockpit to propel the craft forward.
But an aeronautical behemoth like Boeing isn’t putting all its eggs in one basket. It is simultaneously working on cargo VTOLs to revolutionize shipping and an A.I.-enabled computer system named SkyGrid (a little too close to SkyNet if you ask me) to facilitate air traffic in this new transportation paradigm.
XTI TriFan 600
This six-seater completed its first test flights—a series of takeoff, hover, and landing exercises—mere weeks ago in northern California. Though it was a 65-percent scale model, the prototype’s success means that independent Colorado-based firm XTI can continue forward with its ambitious plan, which predicts full-scale testing by the end of the year and production within five years. Let’s hope that schedule holds, because the hybrid electric TriFan 600 boasts some pretty amazing specs, including a 345 mph top speed and 1,400-mile range—making it something of a VTOL meets light private jet. The company seems confident; it has already begun taking preorders and currently has at least 76 on the books. Not bad for a startup.
Pegasus Vertical Business Jet
If you’re accustomed to the capacious interiors of private jets (or suffer from debilitating claustrophobia), the Pegasus Vertical Business Jet (VBJ) could be the VTOL you’ve been looking for. The aircraft seats eight passengers in large leather massage chairs arranged in four pairs that face one another to facilitate conversation. The VBJ can travel up to 497 mph and as far as 1,320 miles when used as a VTOL, enough distance to easily move between major cities as well as within them. (It can also take off from a normal runway like a conventional jet, which increases its total range to 2,734 miles.) It made its first public showing—in 1:8 scale model form—in late May at the European Business Aviation Convention & Exhibition, where Pegasus began taking preorders.