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Secretive Zee Aero tests VTOL aircraft

Google-backed start-up appears to be joining Airbus in the quest for “flying taxis”

“Like something out of a movie” seems to be the best description of the small, white aircraft that was seen hovering above Hollister Municipal Airport in California last week. Saul Gomez, who works for aeronautics company DK Turbines, went on to express his surprise at both the silence of the aircraft and the height it had achieved (roughly 25 feet).

This unusual sighting was apparently a test flight undertaken by the notoriously secretive start-up Zee Aero, which has been designing an all-electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft (VTOL) at the airport.

Zee Aero is one of a number of Silicon Valley start-ups looking to develop VTOLs for practical, commercial use, but also possibly the most exciting and mysterious. It was established in 2010 just outside the Google headquarters in Cupertino, CA, suspiciously close for an apparently unaffiliated company. After years of speculation and denial, it finally emerged several months ago that the Internet giant’s Larry Page was one of Zee Aero’s major benefactors, having invested US$100 million of his own money into the project.

Even more mysterious is the start-up’s point-blank refusal to engage with the press. No concrete plans or details have ever emerged from the company, bar a handful of aircraft design sketches, and employees are allegedly given instructions on how to duck questions from the media if they are ever approached. The company’s minimalist website merely states that it is “developing a revolutionary new form of transportation” and provides details on how to apply to join the team.

What little we know about the aircraft comes from the aforementioned design sketches and the eyewitness accounts from last week’s test.

The prototype has five pairs of propellers -four on the top and two on the back- as well as two sets of wings. It is powered by lithium ion batteries which line up alongside the overhead propellers, and can carry only one person. It also boasts as its designer Ilan Kroo, a former aeronautics engineer at NASA and current professor at Stanford University.

You can watch Mercury News’ interview with Saul Gomez here.

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Airbus’ Air Taxis

Zee Aero isn’t the only company that is working to develop practical VTOLs, however. European aerospace giant, Airbus, recently released its own plans for an autonomous “flying taxi” dubbed “Vahana” –which roughly translates from Sanskrit as “living being”. Though they are a bit further behind Zee Aero, they hope to have a fully demonstrable model ready by 2020 and to begin a commercial taxiing service by 2030.

The Vahana’s press release points out that 50% of the world’s population live in cities at the moment, and that this figure will increase to 60% by 2030. With congestion outside major cities already a huge issue in many parts of the world, Airbus is confident that its ambitious plans will prove popular if they meet their deadlines.

The early designs resemble the Zee Aero prototype insofar as they rely on four pairs of propellers for flight, and would otherwise look quite at home in a scene from Blade Runner. Indeed many have gone so far as to dub the vehicle a genuine “flying car”.

Safety is key, according to CEO Rodin Lyasoff, and in case of aircraft failure, the taxi also comes equipped with a “ballistic parachute that even works at low altitudes”. Such a safety mechanism would be as important as it would be impressive, although Lyasoff elaborated no further on how it would be done.

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A fledgling idea

The commercial application of passenger VTOLs is very exciting on paper, although there are still a number of significant challenges to overcome before such vehicles can really take to the skies.

If they are to be used either as flying taxis, or even as private vehicles, they must become powerful enough to carry a significant amount of weight over a relatively long distance. In January of this year, Chinese start-up EHang demonstrated a one-person electric quadcopter drone with a battery capacity of 14.4kWh. Using the heaviest motor their drone could manage, EHang were able to fly a weight of up to 100kg around fro a maximum of 10 minutes. This demonstrates just how far any other VTOL will have to come before it starts ferrying people into cities on commutes.

By comparison, the HY4 hydrogen plane (in which Airbus also has interest) can carry a load of 1500kg a distance of 1500km. Whilst the HY4 is too heavy and impractical to operate as an air taxi in the way a VTOL could, the latter would have to carry at least this much weight, even if it probably wouldn’t have to fly so far.

There is also the question of how quickly –if at all- such an idea would actually be adopted by the public. As Lyasoff himself pointed out, marketing the idea requires hitting concrete deadlines, and there are a significant number of hurdles standing between those deadlines and current ambitions. If the vehicles aren’t practical and safe by the time companies such as Airbus start promoting them, it is unlikely that people will be willing to adopt the technology and much-needed investment will dry up.

And on the subject of safety, though the idea of a low-altitude ballistic parachute sounds like a good one, it could be a tough sell in practice. The thought of being hurled out of a taxi a few hundred feet above the ground on a morning commute is not going to have broad appeal, however unlikely it is to happen.

Nevertheless, whilst the “flying cars” promised to us by science fiction for decades might be some way off, both the flight of the Zee Aero and the plans of Airbus mark a significant step for electric planes in general and VTOLs in particular. The practical application of VTOLs with powerful electric engines goes well beyond air taxis and private aircraft, and the growing interest in such vehicles only demonstrates this further.

 

About Harry Locke

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