Terrafugia or Terre Firme?
One of the few experiences we didn’t think we’d miss in our ‘new normal’ is that of commercial airline travel. After all, it’s hard to refute the idea that, during the last decade or so, the erstwhile ‘friendly skies’ are simply no longer, well… friendly any more. With increased ticket prices, decreased legroom, and the bureaucratic minefield of security regulations it’s a wonder that anyone would willingly elect to board an aircraft at all. And when you factor into the equation COVID-19-related restrictions – fewer seats, mask wearing, and most countries setting their own rules for accepting incoming passengers from pandemic hotspots – even the idea of air travel just seems like a non-starter.
So it’s truly bizarre to acknowledge that we appear to be missing the whole anxiety-provoking experience and are pining for the olden days of long TSA lines, endless delays, and the possibility of being seated directly behind a screaming toddler. How else do we otherwise explain the only-in-a-pandemic phenomenon of ‘flights to nowhere?’ According to The New York Times, the impulse to travel is now being satisfied by an increasing number of flights that originate and terminate at the same location: ‘thousands of people in Brunei, Taiwan, Japan and Australia […] have started booking flights that start and end in the same place. Some airlines call these “scenic flights”; others are more direct, calling them “flights to nowhere.”’(1) In an attempt to generate revenue in these industry-decimating times, corporations such as Royal Brunei Airlines is treating passengers to local cuisine while flying over Brunei and Malaysian Borneo, and Australia’s Quantas is offering sight-seeing trips to the Great Barrier Reef or Antarctica. And given that the flights begin and end in the same place, the risk of virus transmission is considered – at least by the ‘travelers’ – to be acceptably low. For example, in a CNBC article one passenger notes: ‘“No doubt the risk is not zero, but I would say it is still pretty low […] After being grounded for so long … I am itching to fly again.”’(2) And Brunei is perhaps ideally situated to offer such non-socially-distanced experiences, given that its population of approximately 440,000 people has only 145 cases of COVID-19 currently on record.
But what if concerns about huddling together with a couple of hundred others for a few hours continue to outweigh your nostalgia? Are you destined to remain eternally earth-bound? Not necessarily, if developments in the Netherlands and trials in New Hampshire are anything to go by. Better known perhaps for its breath-taking scenery with lakes and towering mountain peaks, winter skiing, covered bridges, and old world charm, the Granite State is also home to an initiative that aims to usher in a new type of vehicle, the ‘roadable aircraft,’ aka the flying car.
No doubt, regular readers of Cleanroom News will recall that we have discussed the phenomenon of flying cars in the past.
Indeed, our article from 2016, ‘“Automotive Cleanrooms” – A Contradiction in Terms?’ examined cleanroom use in the servicing of the FordGT and also how contamination-control is maintained in the electrostatic color-painting tunnels are used to spray paint vehicles. If you missed that article and are intrigued at how a presumably inherently messy process such as painting can be done in a non-sterile environment, do check it out! Moreover we also asked whether Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) technology could become a major disrupter in the aeronautics industry. In ‘Flying High – The Role of the Cleanroom in the Development of Flying Cars’ we discussed how VTOL ‘makes use of a series of smaller vertical propellers that raise the vehicle into the air and provide vertical thrust. Once the vehicle has attained cruising altitude, the propellers fold up neatly to streamline the craft, enhance airflow dynamics, and save power.’(3) And while the power saving characteristics afforded by VTOL are certainly interesting, since we published that piece back in 2017 an even more edgy alternative has come to the fore. But would you even consider riding in a vehicle propelled through the skies by completely unpowered blades? Let’s get up to speed (do you see what we did there?!?!) on developments coming out of the Netherlands and into the American skies.
On its corporate website, the PAL-V Liberty is a stunning vehicle. Regardless of whether you are a car aficionado or not, it’s hard to deny that this vehicle is downright attractive.
With a zesty, citrus orange paint job – presumably crafted in a contamination-controlled paint tunnel – the demonstration vehicle is a three-wheeler ‘tilting’ sports car that resembles ‘a cross between a small helicopter and a very aerodynamic car (with a foldable propeller on top)’ and is the result of PAL-V co-founder John Bakker’s vision for an unusual hybrid: a car that flies or a plane that drives.(4) For Bakker, a driver and a pilot, the idea was born of ‘the frustration that flying invariably involves departing from a location that is inconvenient, and landing somewhere you do not want to be. Always leaving a car and a plane/helicopter behind.’(5)
According to an article in Singularity Hub, a news portal dedicated to breakthroughs and trends in disruptive technologies, with the advent of such hybrid vehicles ‘the experience of sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic with nothing but miles of red taillights ahead’ may, in time, be little more than a fondly recalled memory.(6) The Liberty, a gyrocopter with rotors to provide initial lift and wind-powered propellers at the rear to give horizontal thrust.(7) This means that it can both drive along the freeway and lift off to fly over traffic. However, it does need a stretch of roadway (runway?) in order to lift-off – 590ft to be exact. Once in the air, however, the vehicle has travel speeds of up to 112 mph and a maximum cruising altitude of just over 11,500 ft. And the pleasure derived even from an early morning commute in the Liberty is, says PAL-V, ‘a feast for your soul.’(8) Overblown marketing rhetoric? We’ll see…
Back once again on the shores of the US, a story published by New Hampshire Business Review examined the recent passing by the state legislature of regulations for registering, inspecting, and plating flying cars.
The adoption of these measures takes us one step closer to bringing to the streets and skies ‘vehicles [that] are small aircraft with the capability to switch to an automobile setting so they can also be driven on the ground.’(9) And the regulations are just the first of these steps, with not only the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) sure to be involved in crafting a long-term and presumably extensive slew of civil aviation codes, rules, guidelines, and protocols.
But as we await that level of regulation, it is interesting to observe how New Hampshire is now the proving ground for no fewer than three separate companies road testing – ahem, sky-testing? – their innovations.
With PAL-V among them, Oregon-based Samson Sky is another company trialing what it considers to be ‘a quantum leap in personal transportation,’ the Switchblade.(10) Described first and foremost as a sports car, the Switchblade is a ‘three wheel, street legal vehicle that you drive from your garage to a nearby local airport. Once there, the wings swing out and the tail extends in under 3 minutes [and flies to a destination] at up to 200 mph and 13,000 feet. [Once landed,] the car is transformed back to driving mode – the wings safely stowed and protected.’(11)
Sounds interesting? That’s great but there is a certain amount of effort that any new owner would have to put in to actually use the vehicle. According to Samson Sky, the aircraft class – Experimental/Homebuilt – ‘requires the owner to build 51% of the vehicle.’(12) Yes, as long as you have the budget – currently estimated as being in the region of $120,000 – you can purchase the Switchblade to build from a kit, without necessarily having the slightest expertise in aeronautical engineering. Aspiring but non-technical owners need not despair, however: ‘[the] kit is delivered to you majorly assembled. Should you desire professional assistance, one of our Builder Assist Centers will be able to help you complete the vehicle in as little as three weeks.’(13) Phew – now that’s a great relief.
And finally in New Hampshire there is also Terrafugia, a company that has already been engaged in flight/road testing in Lawrence, MA.
Terrafugia’s roadable craft looks like ‘a traditional small plane, but with wings that fold to fit within a standard garage [and enables] aviation enthusiasts with a pilot’s license to travel seamlessly from small airport to small airport without having to waste time renting a car or getting a taxi to their hotel or final destination.’(14) Interestingly the enterprise, founded in 2006 by a group of MIT graduates, is now supported by parent company Geely Holding Group, and lists Volvo Cars and Lotus Cars was part of the same family, giving it a prestigious pedigree. Terrafugia is developing two potential roadable craft, the Transition and the TF-2. Requiring both a driver’s license and a sport pilot’s license, the 2-seater Transition lacks the sheer ‘X-factor’ of the futuristic PAL-V Liberty, has a lower maximum altitude ceiling (9000+ ft), and a slower max speed (100mph). The TF-2 is a much larger vehicle, with a cargo cabin and a 4-seater passenger area but relies on hybrid electric power in flight and on the ground. According to the company’s specifications datasheet, the TF-2 will have autonomous VTOL technology for the avionics, but images do not show overhead rotors or blades so we remain unsure as to how that will work. However, Terrafugia is very explicit in stating that the TF-2 ‘will take off like a helicopter, fly an airplane, and drive on the roads using the latest technology in electric propulsion’ so we’ll just have to wait to find out more.(15)
This kind of technology emerging from both domestic sources and from Europe is both fascinating and ambitious. However, in a time when many of us are still sheltering-in-place, working from home, and limiting our forays outside to absolutely essential trips, it may seem odd to be focusing on automotive technology and travel. But in some other ways it is timely. After all, taking a look at blue-sky visions and nascent technologies in the field of personal aviation reminds us that there will be a post-pandemic world. And it’ll be one in which we will travel once again, in which life will return to some semblance of normality, and in which we will once more resume the best aspects of our lives. Furthermore, it’ll be one in which disruptive technology has had some time to mature, perhaps even to the point of transforming from a dreamlike concept to an accessible reality. And taking some time to roam the landscape of innovation gives us more than just a nebulous ‘hope’ for our future: it offers tangible evidence that the work continues. Creative thinking, innovation, entrepreneurship, and technological progress have, in some form or another, been a part of our societies since they first coalesced, and holding that thought firmly in mind may never have been as important as it is right now.
Would you have the confidence to build 51% of your own flying car? How about the budget to afford it? Curious minds here would love to know your thoughts…