Japanese electronics giant NEC has been working with a company called Cartivator to design, build and test VTOL air taxi concepts. Now the two companies have demonstrated a multi-seat manned multicopter, a step toward a flying car future Japan believes will arrive around 2030.
The demo aircraft, which had no passengers on board, uses four props, each around 4 to 5 ft (1.2 to 1.5 m) long. It has three wheels, and a compact cabin that's designed to eventually carry people. Tethered with a rope, and tested in a giant mesh cage for safety purposes, it was flown for about 50 seconds to a height of around 10 ft (3 m) in front of assembled media.
The test flight itself isn't particularly notable; many other similar VTOL multicopters have been tested around the globe, and plenty of them have reached a point where they're carrying people on short-distance flights already. The NEC machine, like most of them, looks a little wobbly and flexes an uncomfortable amount on takeoff. It's also loud enough to make us suspect you'll need earplugs to fly any distance in it, and it has no wings to extend the range it'll draw out of a battery.
What is interesting about this project is that NEC is a giant company, with a US$27-odd billion annual revenue from its computing, networking, semiconductors and electronic devices businesses. Also that it's got the backing of the Japanese government, according to Bloomberg – with plans for large-scale drone deliveries starting around 2023 and VTOL air taxi services slated for around 2030.
The other interesting angle on this is hydrogen. While most of the world has settled on efficient lithium batteries as the key energy storage technology for electric vehicles, Japanese companies like Toyota have maintained that hydrogen fuel cells could also have a part to play in the future of transport. For a number of reasons, we have our doubts that this will be the case for road-going cars.
Aircraft, on the other hand? Well, these VTOL multicopters rely on the instant torque and ultra-controllable nature of electric motors, but lithium batteries are relatively heavy and have poor energy density compared to gasoline, hence the pathetically short flight times on most lithium-powered manned multicopters. Liquid hydrogen, on the other hand, has much better energy density, and if you can produce or supply it at a main base, you can achieve enormous range and endurance figures right now, using easily available technology.
America's Skai VTOL air taxi company, for example, claims it's already built a five-seater multicopter capable of a 400-mile (640-km) range or four-hour endurance thanks to a hydrogen powertrain. If NEC was to partner with Toyota or another hydrogen fuel cell provider, range and energy storage would simply not be a problem for these machines.
The air taxis are coming folks, whether you like it or not. Watch the hugely uninspiring test video below.
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