Japan’s Flying Car — The SD 03

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On the date that you’re reading this, the flying car is over 100 years old.

The first design came out in 1917. Called the Curtiss Model 11 Autoplane, it was the brainchild of John Curtiss, an engineer who wanted to combine the speed of an aircraft with the versatility and comfort of an automobile.

Unfortunately, World War I began, and he was called away to design what would become some of the finest airplanes that ever took to the skies.

Over the years, there have been several attempts at creating a practical flying car. The latest is by Toyota-backed Skydrive Inc. Their SD-03, a racy-looking single-seat flying car slash pod, is powered by propellers mounted at the ends of four short, stubby wings. In the video they released on Youtube, the flying car took off and landed smoothly. The test took place at the 100,000-sq.ft Toyota Test Field, which is reportedly one of the largest in Japan, and home to the company’s development base.

The craft, which had ‘Cartivator’ stickered along its fuselage, flew for about four minutes, powered by eight fans, and run completely off an on-board battery. The propellers on the top and bottom adjust themselves according to the user input and help the craft auto-stabilize itself when the user takes their hands off the controls. Like every other flying car out there, the SD-03 will have some form of auto-pilot that will help it land in the event of an emergency. The pilot in the video is seen wearing armored motorcycle safety gear and a dirt bike helmet. A bit of research told us that the SD-03 can manage a top speed of up to 45 mph, with an air time of 45 minutes to one hour. It does not have wheels, so it’s more a flying pod than a flying car.

The SD-03 also happens to be one of the lightest of its kind in the world.

Cartivator, incidentally, is the name of a crowdfunded project established in 2012. The volunteer group, consisting of engineers, students, and flying car enthusiasts started working on the SkyDrive prototype in 2014 and launched an unmanned version, the SD-00 later that year.

The next vehicle in the SkyDrive series was the SD-01, which was first tested in 2018. In a huge breakthrough, they secured government funding in 2019, and that’s when SkyDrive Inc. was born. In that round of funding, the young team raised $18 million. Manned testing began soon after. The Toyota Test Field was opened the same year and now serves as a dedicated test field for drones, flying cars, and other such vehicles. The first manned test was held on Jan 6 this year. In April, they hired top Mitsubishi aviation veteran Nobuo Kishi, who indicated plans for further cementing SkyDrive’s reputation as a bankable flying-car maker. The Japanese startup said that they’re looking at going on sale in Japan by 2023. once the certification and real-life product-testing cycles are over.

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The Jetsons Bill

Stateside, things are looking up for the flying car. New Hampshire is the first U.S. state to legalize flying cars. According to a Car and Driver article, the new law dubbed the ‘Jetsons Bill’, or Bill 1182, roadable aircraft (read flying cars), can be bought and registered, for a $2,000 municipal fee. On the road, you will need to follow road traffic rules — but to fly, you’ll need to use an airport runway, and that means getting clearance from air traffic control authorities. For SkyDrive Inc., this is a golden opportunity, because, if it does enter the U.S. market, it will be up against flying cars like the PAL-V, the Samson Sky Switchblade, and the Ehang 184. All these VTOLs (Vertical Take-Off and Landing vehicles)cost between $300,000 and $1.4 million. The SkyDrive, if priced right, could open up the market for cheap, single-seat aerial transportation. It does not have wheels, and that will massively reduce the manufacturing cost. You won’t need to add any road-going bits like shock absorbers, airbags, and all that, which has a spin-off benefit of the vehicle weighing a fraction of what a similarly-sized airplane would.

Agility Prime

The United States Air Force is looking for flying cars, too. According to a report by Military.com, the USAF is gunning for 30 different types of VTOLs over the next ten years. In 2019, the Air Force Research Lab at the Wright-Patterson Air Force base invited commercial partners to develop electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing technologies — eVTOLs. The project, called Agility Prime is looking at eVTOLs to serve many roles like resupply, troop transport, VIP transport, surveillance, and more. To qualify for a USAF contract, eVTOL manufactures have to design, develop and test a cargo drone with the following specs -

  • Maximum Takeoff Gross Weight: Greater than 1,320 lb
  • Payload: Greater than 500 lb
  • Range: Greater than 200 miles
  • Speed: Greater than 100 mph
  • Endurance: Greater than 100 minutes
  • First Full-Scale Flight: Before 17 December 2020

Additionally, the craft would have to be powered either by hybrid or electrical propulsion, with a high degree of autonomy in all areas. That includes the take-off/landing rotation, collision avoidance, or refueling.

If you think the USAF may not want to look at a foreign vendor, think again. And think of the Harrier, which for years, served as the only fixed-wing short/vertical take-off plane, way before the V-22 Osprey.

The flying car market is looking good, and with a projected growth of up to $1.5 trillion within the next 20 years, companies like SkyDrive are here to stay.

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Adreesh Ghoshal

Automobile Engineer. Content Writer. Biker. Defense Enthusiast. Indian.