Friday, June 18, 2021

Flying cars are still out of range

In the movie Thunderball (FRWL>GF>IHMSS>DN>YOLT>TB, but we'll talk about that later), possibly the most memorable/memorably stupid moment occurs when Bond, with gunmen in hot pursuit, stops to strap on a conveniently stashed Bell Rocket Belt and (through the magic of doubling) really flies a hundred yards or so. This doesn't allow him to escape (it actually diminishes his lead) but it is unquestionably cool.

While on the subject of range, let's pick up where we left off with the NYT's recent flying car article
Mr. Leng’s company, Opener, is building a single-person aircraft for use in rural areas — essentially a private flying car for the rich — that could start selling this year. Others are building larger vehicles they hope to deploy as city air taxis as soon as 2024 — an Uber for the skies. Some are designing vehicles that can fly without a pilot.

BlackFly is classified by the government as an experimental “ultralight” vehicle, so it does not need regulatory approval before being sold. But an ultralight also cannot be flown over cities or other bustling areas.

As it works to ensure the vehicle is safe, Opener does most of its testing without anyone riding in the aircraft. But the idea is that a person will sit in the cockpit and pilot the aircraft solo over rural areas. Buyers can learn to fly via virtual reality simulations, and the aircraft will include autopilot services like a “return to home” button that lands the plane on command.

It has enough room for a six foot, six-inch person, and it can fly for about 25 miles without recharging. The few Opener employees who have flown it describe an exhilarating rush, like driving a Tesla through the sky — an analogy that will not be lost on the company’s target customer.

No special expertise here so feel free to jump if I stumble but the 25 mile number really stands out. It's a very small distance, even as the crow flies, particularly for a rural area, but it gets worse.

You can't simply pick a destination in a circle with a 25 mile radius.  With any kind of aircraft, you need a cushion to allow for headwinds and unforeseen delays. Just to keep the numbers round, let's knock off ten miles for a fifteen mile safe range.

And just because a destination is safe doesn't make it practical. Without a fast charging option when you get there, you need to leave enough electrons in the tank to get back home. That limits you to 7 mile trips. Even with fast charging, the ratio of plugged-in time to flight time is ridiculous. 

To be clear, BlackFly is no doubt a fun ride and there's probably a market based on that alone, but as a form of transportation, it's about as serious as a water slide. 

This is not nascent technology, rich with potential approaches and possible breakthroughs. Though there has been considerable incremental progress, there doesn't appear to have been any revolutionary advances in the past five or so years, certainly nothing substantial enough to make this kind of personal electric VTOL craft viable. There is nothing on the horizon that would resolve the issues with range, or for that matter with public safety or air traffic control or noise.

This remains cool but impractical tech, and if that's what you're looking for, you might as well stick with the jet pack. 

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