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When Will Flying Cars Take Off?

Who wouldn’t want to experience the miracle of flight without the hassle of disgruntled passengers, overzealous flight attendants, and crowded airplanes that leave a lot to be desired? When it comes to improving global travel methods, the possibility of adding autonomous, flying vehicles to Earth’s lower stratosphere is a universal breakthrough. While members of the aviation industry have already taken steps to create and test a variety of vehicle designs, an approved strategy for getting these rides into the hands of everyday consumers has yet to be determined. Still, that doesn’t mean innovation has come to a halt. In fact, a few companies have proposed viable solutions to the one group that will ultimately decide the fate of flying cars everywhere. 

For any conversation involving flight in the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is the ultimate authority on what can legally leave the ground. Although there isn’t an official map outlining America’s aerial highway just yet, Gregory Martin, an FAA spokesman, acknowledges the age of autonomous flying vehicles is inching closer and closer to the sky "We are taking a flexible, risk-based approach to integrating innovative new technologies into the world's busiest, most complex, and safest aviation system. We're already working on automation in unmanned aircraft ("drone") systems that may ultimately have applications for autonomous 'flying car' designs,” Martin says.

Adding an entirely new category of innovative vehicles to the “world’s busiest, most complex, and safest aviation system” is a massive undertaking. The process begins by manufacturers applying for an experimental aircraft certificate, which permits flights without actual paying passengers. Once the FAA agrees that the design meets their safety standards—a detailed process that involves activities like test flights, meetings and gathering research—they issue a type certificate to prove approval. Once the manufacturer is cleared to move forward,  the design of the vehicle cannot be modified. Keep in mind that there is no set timeline for this process, and the backlog they need to get through (which require different sorts of testing based on design) means it could take years  before the first of these flying vehicles are actually available for commercial purposes. For reference, Boeing’s state of the art 787 Dreamliner model took a total of eight years to complete certification, with reports that the FAA logged 200,000 hours of technical work—and Boeing’s been working with the FAA since 1926!

Despite the fact the FAA has not yet set any formal regulations regarding these specific vehicles, several companies have strategized how they’d implement their service. One name that has been at the forefront of this transportation breakthrough: Vahana, a project of A³ by Airbus. The company conducted its first successful self-piloted test flight on January 31, 2018 in Pendleton, Oregon with members of the FAA present. The flight lasted 53 seconds, climbed as high as 16 feet and had been in development for two years. So how does Vahana plan to give people a more sophisticated method of travel? Through a mobile device, naturally. Vahana vehicles are designed to be offered as a temporary service, where consumers can request their ride through an app, pick it up and return it to a designated parking space. 

A principal consideration is how to construct rules, regulations and systems of certification that support integration of the airspace, for use by both automatically operated and human controlled aircrafts.
“Our vehicle will follow predetermined flight paths, typically between 1,000 to 3,500 feet above the ground, that would be specifically selected to avoid high-congestion areas, such as approach and departure paths around airports, and to minimize visual and aural impact,” explains Zach Lovering, a project executive at Vahana. While Vahana is just one vehicle involved in this growing industry— Boeing, Zephyr Airworks, and Lilium are in the process of fine tuning self-piloted aircrafts—their philosophy offers a glimpse of how this growing industry will work. “Vahana, like all other aircraft, will follow existing airspace rules. We envision integrating into the existing airspace framework, rather than asking for special exceptions or carving out pieces of the sky for ourselves,” Lovering notes. While the thought of a company or individual owning pieces of the sky sounds like a backstory for a James Bond villain, the reality is those who wish to enter the marketplace will have to play by the rules set forth by the FAA.

"Currently, the airspace below 10,000 feet is not regulated. It is possible that this will change and 'virtual highways' will be created in the air to manage the flow of the traffic of flying vehicles,” notes Sudhin Shahani, chairman and CEO of Surf Air, a company that provides its members access to seats on select private planes. Establishing a safe cruising altitude is a task in and of itself, but where will these vehicles take off and land? For Vahana, the answer is the creation of dedicated take off and landing sites known as vertiports, essentially what heliports are for helicopters. Captain Patrick Major, an emergency medevac pilot and founder of aviation safety company SOAR+, believes airports are best equipped to host the arrival and departure of these additional flights.

As for where manufacturers and the FAA go from here, the focur right now is on standards certification for designs to be seamlessly integrated into the current flow of air traffic. Once these federal guidelines have been set, companies can work with city and state officials to implement procedural guidelines. And the motion is imperative because the results are predicted to be far more useful than today's cars. “Although we are currently focused on deploying a vehicle to address the dense congestion in our cities, Vahana can be used to transport heavy cargo, as a medevac service, or even to deploy emergency operations centers at disaster sites,” Lovering explains.

While the general public is forced to sit on the sidelines and wait, Captain Major suggests using the time to think about what goes into making this monumental decision. “Presently, there are no rules for automatic machine-operated aircraft, only those operated by current and qualified pilots certificated [by the] national civil aviation authority” remarked Major. “A principal consideration is how to construct rules, regulations and systems of certification that support integration of the airspace, for use by both automatically operated and human controlled aircrafts.”

Given the years it’s going to take to achieve certification, consumers will have plenty of time to get used to the idea of ditching their old wheels for a sky-high commute.