Flying Cars: Air Force Aims to Turn Science Fiction into Science Fact (2024)


Flying Cars: Air Force Aims to Turn Science Fiction into Science Fact (1)

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This is part one of a two part series on flying cars and the Air Force.Read part two here.

From the Jetsons to Blade Runner to James Bond to a multitude of other TV shows and films, popular culture has long been fascinated with the idea of flying cars. Now, the U.S. military is pursuing them — and it wants to take the public along with it.

But can science fiction be turned into science fact? That’s the aim of the U.S. Air Force’s Agility Prime initiative.

The service is racing to acquire “flying cars” — electric vertical take-off and landing, or eVTOL, platforms — that can carry troops and equipment in ways that offer advantages over today’s military aircraft and vehicles. The systems are also referred to as “orbs,” advanced air mobility or urban air mobility.

“The vehicles that we’re exploring … [have] a lot of propellers that get you up” in the air, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Will Roper told reporters during Agility Prime Launch Week. “They’re vertically oriented and then they transition over to being forward [oriented]. And there are multiple ideas and designs about how to do that.”

Most of the designs include tiltrotor or thrust vector control that would enable the platforms to take-off and land vertically like a helicopter but fly more like an airplane, he noted.

The concept may sound similar to the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft that Air Force Special Operations Command and the Marine Corps currently use. But officials noted there are significant differences between the envisioned orbs and the rotary-wing assets in today’s inventory.

The latter are “generally pretty expensive, they’re generally pretty loud … and they’re a little bit hard to fly,” said Brig. Gen. S. Clinton Hinote, deputy director of the Air Force Warfighting Integration Capability office. Officials want new systems that are quieter and smaller, less pricey and easier to pilot.

Key attributes of advanced air mobility vehicles would include: electric/hybrid propulsion and electric power source; manned, remote or autonomous operational capability; vertical take-off and landing; and commercial off-the-shelf. All would hover on rotors, but some may also have wings, according to Col. Nathan Diller, Agility Prime team lead.

The systems would be different than airplanes or automobiles, which require runways or roadways that could be destroyed by enemy fire or might not be available where U.S military forces are operating. They would not be like today’s drones because they would carry people, nor would they be like helicopters because they won’t be “big, loud and expensive to build,” according to a presentation slide.

Roper estimated the price tag at a few hundred thousand dollars to a few million dollars per unit.

The anticipated lower lifecycle cost is a major draw for acquisition officials.

“What I love about these eVTOL vehicles, because they’re driven by hybrid and electric automotive technology, they appear to be exceptionally inexpensive to sustain and operate, which is a complete paradigm shift from what the Air Force is accustomed to, where most of the money we spend is operating costs,” Roper said.

Their electric propulsion and smaller size could make them quieter and harder to detect. Search-and-rescue missions are one scenario where the technology would be helpful because legacy assets are more vulnerable, officials say.

“It would be very hard to get those helicopters in and out [to recover personnel in enemy territory] because of the defensive technologies that our potential adversaries have,” Hinote said. In wargames, “one of the technologies that played really well inside of that story was Agility Prime,” he noted.

Such an aircraft would also be useful for special operations missions where low observability is critical, he noted.

Mitigating troops’ vulnerability is a major selling point for the Marine Corps, which is also pursuing the technology and is keeping an eye on developments with Agility Prime.

“We are very concerned with the threat right now and putting too many eggs in one basket,” said Col. Kevin Murray, director of science and technology and the rapid capabilities office at the Marine Corps War­fighting Laboratory.

Using today’s rotary-wing platforms with dozens of Marines “packed in the back of these things, having to carry from ship to shore in a highly contested environment … could be super dangerous and we could get a bunch of people killed,” he said. “Disaggregation and having a swarming effect where you’re putting three or four Marines [in each orb] but converge upon the objective area simultaneously is of super importance to us right now.”

Another potential advantage of the vehicles is that they may be much easier to fly than legacy aircraft, which means more troops would be capable of operating them and require less training. In some cases, pilots might not be needed at all as vendors develop autonomous systems, Roper noted.

Other potential missions for advanced air mobility vehicles besides troop transport include: humanitarian assistance and disaster relief; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; and cargo transport.

Because a key aim of Agility Prime is to work with commercial industry, there are currently no plans to modify the design of the orbs for military use or arm them for strike missions.

“We will not put any military unique requirements on them because the last thing you want to hear as a commercial backer of one of these companies is that the military is coming in and changing a vehicle away from a type that would have domestic use,” Roper said. “We want to create a supply chain in the U.S. that is dual commercial and military.”

Additionally, the Air Force recognizes that some in the tech sector might feel uncomfortable developing lethal platforms or fear that doing so will hurt their brand.

“You can imagine that a lot of vendors are very focused on moving people around [and] having a good name association,” Roper said. “Arming them is not something that they may be interested in.”

However, the military has a long history of taking aircraft that were initially used to perform non-lethal missions and giving them a strike capability. Predator drones, which were first deployed as unarmed intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets, are a well-known example.

“If subsequently we think arming [the orbs] makes sense that will be a choice for companies,” Roper said. However, “they will not have to put that on the table to be part of Agility Prime for step one.”

A unique aspect of the initiative is the extent to which it aims to boost — and piggyback off of — the commercial sector, while working with civilian agencies.

“When we put our market next to the commercial market, we’re tapping billions of dollars that we don’t have to spend, and now we’re pulling them into orbit around our mission as if it was our R&D money,” Roper said. Agility Prime will be the first multibillion dollar aviation program where the military won’t have to fund much of the research and development, he added.

Officials from across the government spoke at the virtual Agility Prime Launch Week event, and praised the Pentagon for its efforts to foster a new industry for the United States and create wealth and jobs.

“This technology has the potential to make vertical flight more affordable and more widely available,” Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao said. “With the encouragement of the U.S. Air Force and the entire federal government, American companies employing American workers can gain a head start and win a fair share of this lucrative market.”

Roper said it’s important for the United States to stay ahead of China and other military and economic competitors in this emerging sector.

Officials envision the average Joe zipping around cities in “urban air mobility” vehicles or even traveling from city to city in them. The Federal Aviation Administration is working on regulations and safety issues to make that feasible, and NASA is pushing an advanced air mobility national campaign that includes challenge competitions for innovators. Diller said the Pentagon is working with the FAA and NASA to establish standards for the vehicles.

The Defense Department brings a lot to the table when it comes to assisting commercial companies, officials said, and it could help make the technology more widely available for public use sooner than it would have been otherwise.

“Our value proposition is access to our ranges, access to our safety engineers, and ultimately getting that safety certification, flight hours, and then a bill of sale with a steady customer in the United States Air Force,” Roper said. “We’re a great bridge market to not just get companies flight hours and build confidence from regulators, certifiers of all types and local and state governments, but to also let companies start getting production scale up, which is important.”

How many orbs will the Air Force buy? That remains to be determined.

“It will depend on what missions they’re able to do and how well they do them,” Roper said.

The Air Force has released a special notice on laying out three areas of interest, or AOIs, for orbs.

The first is a platform that can carry three to eight personnel, have a range greater than 100 miles; maximum speed greater than 100 mph; and more than 60 minutes endurance.

The second is a vehicle that can carry one to two personnel; has a range greater than 10 miles; a maximum speed greater than 45 mph; and more than 15 minutes endurance.

The third is a cargo aircraft with a payload capacity upwards of 500 pounds; a range of more than 200 miles; a maximum speed greater than 100 mph; and more than 100 minutes endurance.

“We do see it certainly in this early stage as a family of solutions, a family of different capabilities that are out there that we see providing value,” Diller said.
The Marine Corps is also pursuing multiple types of systems.

“We’re looking for small, medium and large platforms,” said Carmine Borrelli, director of unmanned logistics aircraft and ground systems at Marine Corps Headquarters. “We’re looking at maybe something like Marine Uber of the future.”

The Army is also working to modernize its rotorcraft, but electric vertical take-off and landing systems are not envisioned as a solution for the service’s initial future vertical lift initiatives, according to the FVL cross-functional team spearheading the modernization effort for Army Futures Command.

However, Army officials are “familiar with the Air Force efforts and are in contact with the Agility Prime program to monitor the eVTOL technologies,” the cross-functional team said in an email. “While it is premature to assess how much the Army can capitalize on the commercial eVTOL air vehicle, we are optimistic about advances in related technology particularly in the areas of batteries, hybrid power, automation, autonomy, advanced manufacturing and opportunity to further strengthen the industrial base for rotary-wing platforms.”

Meanwhile, the Air Force plans to use other transaction authority agreements for prototypes to enable rapid contracting processes.

“We will continue to use that vehicle … as well as that initial capabilities offering, which will allow companies of all sizes to go and leverage OTAs,” Diller said. The service will also host non-competitive “air races” that could lead to contract awards.

About 50 companies participated in the virtual Agility Prime Launch Week event, demonstrating corporate interest in the initiative.
Innovators are already working on the technology.

During the virtual conference, Sabrewing Aircraft Co. unveiled its Rhaegal system prototype, an unmanned, electric vertical take-off and landing platform that has received funding from a $3.5 million Air Force Small Business Innovative Research contract for testing the aircraft and its equipment.

The Rhaegal-B will have a payload capacity of 5,400 pounds and be able to carry cargo to and from locations without using a runway; and a range of 1,000 nautical miles at altitudes of 22,000 feet at speeds of up to 200 knots. The aircraft uses electric motors to turn fans within ducts that provide lift during takeoff and landing, but uses a main wing to provide lift during cruise flight, according to the company.

During the conference, Mark Moore, Uber’s engineering director of aviation and leader of the Uber Elevate initiative, presented a concept video showing the ride-sharing company’s vision of a future where a customer orders a ride from an app on her smartphone, gets in an air mobility vehicle on a rooftop vertiport, takes off and soars over the city to her destination.

The company hopes to have a shared air transportation network up and running in 2023 — the same year that the Air Force hopes to be operating orbs.

Roper said a number of companies have reached out to the Air Force touting their technology. “We want to get them out on our ranges with our engineers, our safety and flight professionals and see if they can do flights that meet our mission needs.”

The Air Force had been planning to fly systems at the SXSW festival near Austin, but the event was scrapped because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We had clearance to fly … at one of our bases, and we were just going to get in the vehicles and fly around and just have a great day exposing the world to eVTOL vehicles and saying that the Jetsons is finally going to be real,” Roper said.

Based on market research, the Air Force believes multiple vendors will be able to provide solutions, he noted.

The service is aiming to host the first full-scale flight of several different orbs before the end of the year, and to have systems certified and operational by 2023.

Topics: Air Power

Flying Cars: Air Force Aims to Turn Science Fiction into Science Fact (2024)


Are flying cars science fiction? ›

Share this story! Flying cars are one of the science fiction classics but also a symbol of how the future has proved to be very different from the imagination. So much so that the question "Where's my flying car?" has become emblematic of the wider failure of many modern technologies to match futuristic visions.

Would flying cars become a reality? ›

Since the advent of aviation, flying cars have never progressed from prototype to reality. “Having a car attached to an airplane is hard to make efficient,” says Ella Atkins, an aerospace engineering professor and director of the University of Michigan's Autonomous Aerospace Systems Lab.

How would flying cars change society? ›

Because there will be fewer cars on the road, congestion will ease and roads in general should become safer. This will make owning and running a car cheaper. It may even insurance premiums go down. Fewer cars and more space could mean a reimaging of city spaces with a rise in parks and community spaces.

What is the concept of flying cars? ›

FLYING CAR(74 articles)

a flying car is a type of personal air vehicle that provides door-to-door transportation by both road and air. many prototypes have been built since the first years of the twentieth century, but production status has still yet to be reached.

Who came up with the idea of flying cars? ›

Curtiss Autoplane - In 1917 Glenn Curtiss designed his aluminum Autoplane that sported three wings that spanned 40 feet (12.2 meters). The car's motor drove a four-bladed propeller at the rear of the car. The Autoplane never truly flew, but it did manage a few short hops.

When did people think flying cars would be invented? ›

The idea of flying cars dates almost as far back as the invention of grounded cars (1885). As early as 1890, there were visions of the future that depicted flying cars. For instance, the Au Bon Marche Company issued a comedy ad card that included a flying car.

How would flying cars have a negative impact? ›

Flying cars threaten to magnify the corrosive effects—both sociopolitical and environmental—of sprawl and segregation by eliminating distance altogether.

Why don t we use flying cars? ›

Operators would need to have both a driving and pilot's license, and the vehicle would require approval by both aviation and highway agencies. Third, these regulatory requirements ensure that a flying car would be really expensive. That is why so few have ever been built beyond prototypes.

Why flying cars should exist? ›

Flying cars then could help reduce congestion on the roads and emissions from ground transport, and lower the risk of road accidents. A more immediate use for flying cars could be in improving emergency services such as ambulances, fire engines and so forth.

Are flying cars a thing of the future? ›

Flying cars could be commercially available in 2024, but regulations for managing the new form of air traffic will be a concern, according to the chief executive officer of a tech company.

Are flying cars better for the environment? ›

Because the flying cars need considerable energy for take-off and ascent, results showed traveling less than 35km (21.75 miles) would consume more energy and generate more greenhouse gas emissions than regular and electric cars. Longer distances could be more environmentally friendly, especially with more passengers.

Would flying cars reduce traffic? ›

UAM companies and boosters say flying cars can reduce traffic, provide affordable mobility for everybody, and create a less polluted environment. The UAM industry also says the vehicles will be much quieter than helicopters, but potential noise complaints are just one of the hurdles they're dealing with.

What are cool facts about flying cars? ›

Top 5 Facts About Flying Cars
  • Top 5 Facts About Flying Cars. ...
  • #5: There Are Many Flying Car Prototypes. ...
  • #4: Flying Cars Are Hard to Drive in Bad Weather. ...
  • #3: They Would Need a Lot of New Infrastructure. ...
  • #2: They Could Make Traffic Jams a Thing of the Past. ...
  • #1: Breaking Down Means Falling Out of the Sky.

How much will flying cars cost? ›

It's the timing: The company says it plans to begin delivering the vehicles to customers by the end of 2025. Alef's Model A will cost $300,000 and presales are currently open, with interested customers able to pay just a $150 deposit to get on the waiting list, or $1,500 for a “priority” spot on the list.

What was the flying car concept in the 1950s? ›

Aerocar I / Taylor Aerocar

Aerocar International's first effort was the Aerocar (sometimes known as Aerocar I or Taylor Aerocar), built in 1949 and first flown in 1950. It had a small two-passenger cabin with wheels housed in external airplane-like spats.

How fast is the flying car? ›

An Australia-based company has unveiled a flying race car that is seen as the first step towards that. Alauda Aeronautics, based in Adelaide, unveiled the Airspeeder Mk4, which it claims to be the world's fastest electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing (eVTOL) model with a top speed of 360 kmph.

What is the prototype of the flying car? ›

On display at CES 2023 is a fully functional prototype called the A5, ready to hit the road and skies in a single bound. Aska says the A5 is the world's first drive-and-fly eVTOL vehicle. That acronym identifies it as a vertical take-off and landing EV, but it's not entirely electric.

Do flying cars exist today? ›

AeroMobil, a flying car manufacturer from Slovakia, conducted successful flight tests of their roadable aircraft AeroMobil 4.0 in September 2020. The company claims that their flying vehicles will be available for commercial sale in 2023, and they also have plans to launch a 4-seater flying car in 2025.

What are flying cars called? ›

Inspired by the mythical winged horse Pegasus, the AeroMobil is the high-end vehicle species equally at home on the road or in the sky – the flying car.

What was the first flying car concept? ›

During the Pan-American Aeronautic Exposition in the year 1917, innovators exhibited the Model 11 Autoplane. Although there is no record of that automobile ever taking flight, it was an interesting creation of an early 1900s automobile with wings.

Why is flying safer than driving? ›

Improving safety over time

Your odds of being in an accident during a flight is one in 1.2 million, and the chances of that accident being fatal are one in 11 million. Your chances of dying in a car crash, conversely, are one in 5,000.

What are 3 negative impacts of cars? ›

Vehicle pollutants harm our health and contain greenhouse gases that cause climate change. Burning gasoline and diesel fuel creates harmful byproducts like nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, benzene, and formaldehyde. In addition, vehicles emit carbon dioxide, the most common human-caused greenhouse gas.

Will flying cars be electric? ›

The prototype of the Aska A5 electric flying car, which can do a vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL), made its debut at CES 2023. The size of a big SUV, the Aska A5 is the world's first four-seater electric vehicle that can travel by road, and up to 250 miles by air on a single charge. Video Player is loading.

What are the challenges of flying cars? ›

The most challenging questions regarding flying cars involve suitable procedures for going airborne (takeoffs) and returning to the ground (landings), and requirement of a complex safety risk analysis to determine the logistics of how flying cars should be regulated by the National Airspace System (NAS), the governing ...

Will flying cars be expensive? ›

According to Motor Trend, that means owning a flying car will cost more than $740,000 up-front. This is a rough estimate since American prices for licensing, insurance, storage, and fuel would be different from the ones listed. But the costs of ownership still won't be cheap.

What pollutes more flying or driving? ›

The quick answer is pretty quick: Driving your family from San Francisco to Los Angeles emits fewer greenhouse gasses (GHGs) than flying.

How high can a flying car fly? ›

The vehicle can fly at a maximum operating altitude of 18,000 feet, Zajac added.

Where are flying cars legal? ›

Now drivers in the Netherlands are one step closer to making this vision a reality, as a commercial flying car has just been approved for use on roads there. The car is called the PAL-V Liberty, and it's made by Dutch company PAL-V.

How far can a flying car fly? ›

In flight, the A5 can travel 250 miles at a maximum speed of 150 mph. The company aims to certify the car for travel up to 70 mph on the highway while in drive mode. The first version will be piloted, both on the road and in the air, but Aska has bigger plans for the future.

Will there be flying cars in 2030? ›

Alef, an aeronautics startup out of California, recently announced in October 2022 their plans for affordable personal flying vehicles by 2030. According to their website, potential buyers can pay $150 to join a general queue and $1500 for the priority queue.

Will there be flying cars in 2025? ›

Suzuki and Skydrive to Partner to Build Flying Cars

Its objective is to scale up production to meet the demand and launch its flying vehicle service in Osaka during the World Expo in 2025. While production will likely begin next year, SkyDrive does not anticipate receiving airworthiness certification until 2025.

Is space travel science fiction? ›

Space travel, or space flight (less often, starfaring or star voyaging ) is a classic science-fiction theme that has captivated the public and is almost archetypal for science fiction.

What is the science of aerodynamics cars? ›

Automotive aerodynamics is the study of the aerodynamics of road vehicles. Its main goals are reducing drag and wind noise, minimizing noise emission, and preventing undesired lift forces and other causes of aerodynamic instability at high speeds.

Why haven t we made flying cars? ›

Aircraft need to be light and narrow in order to be aerodynamic and generate lift. Cars, on the other hand, have to be wide and heavy enough to stay centered on the road and generate downforce.

Is science fiction becoming a fact? ›

It's an inescapable fact that technology is changing us. The stuff of science fiction is becoming commonplace, but that doesn't mean we're headed toward a dystopian universe. The human element becomes increasingly valuable as technology helps us automate routine tasks.

What science fiction has become reality? ›

Science fiction predicted credit cards, television and the 1969 lunar landing. Bionic limbs, military tanks, antidepressants and submarines emerged from sci-fi, too.

Is science fiction true or not true? ›

Science fiction is a type of fiction where the stories revolve around science and technology of the future. As exciting as these books can be, it's good to remind your child that while science fiction may be based loosely on scientific truth, it is still fiction.

Are cars designed to be aerodynamic? ›

One aspect of car design that plays a part in saving fuel is aerodynamic efficiency - in other words, making sure a car meets as little resistance as possible from the air it travels through. The more aerodynamically efficient it is, the less fuel it will use to travel along at any given speed.

Is aerodynamics a science or engineering? ›

aerodynamics, branch of physics that deals with the motion of air and other gaseous fluids and with the forces acting on bodies passing through such a fluid.

Is aerodynamics part of science? ›

Aerodynamics is an important part of NASA's work. The first A in NASA stands for aeronautics, which is the science of flight. NASA works to make airplanes and other aircraft better. Studying aerodynamics is an important part of that work.

Are flying cars bad for the environment? ›

Because the flying cars need considerable energy for take-off and ascent, results showed traveling less than 35km (21.75 miles) would consume more energy and generate more greenhouse gas emissions than regular and electric cars. Longer distances could be more environmentally friendly, especially with more passengers.

Will flying cars exist in the future? ›

Flying cars are yet to be approved by NHTSA and FAA

Suffice to say, this process could be complex and time-consuming. For instance, the Terrafugia Transition was granted its airworthiness certificate in 2021 by the FAA –- this happened 12 years after it made its maiden flight (via AOPA).

How feasible are flying cars? ›

Flying cars could be commercially available in 2024, but regulations for managing the new form of air traffic will be a concern, according to the chief executive officer of a tech company.

Why flying cars are a good idea? ›

Reduction of traffic congestion

It not only wastes time but also contributes to air pollution, increased stress levels, and decreased quality of life. Flying cars would help to reduce traffic congestion by allowing people to bypass road traffic and travel directly from one destination to another.


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