Flying cars may sound like a utopian fantasy or science fiction to some – think “Star Wars” and “Back To the Future” – but to entrepreneurs and husband-and-wife team Guy and Maki Kaplinsky, they may soon be a reality on our roads and in the sky.
The founders of the Silicon Valley-based startup New Future Transportation (NFT) are developing the Aska Drive & Fly, an electric, autonomous flying vehicle that they say will take commuters door-to-door at a reduced cost and environmental impact. NFT unveiled the design of the vehicle last week ahead of Israel’s EcoMotion conference, the largest smart mobility event in the country.
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The Aska, which means “flying bird” in Japanese, looks like a sleek, futuristic vehicle with wings stored on its roof that unfold to about 40 feet (12 meters) when in flying mode. It will be able to take off vertically and fly autonomously – no pilot required – for a range of up to 150 miles (240 kilometers), NFT says.
The design, the company says, is in line with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) safety requirements including high reliability, back-up systems, and a safe landing feature in case of power system failure.
The company indicated it will start testing the vehicle in 2020 and may begin selling it as soon as 2025.
NFT operates an R&D center in the central Israeli city of Netanya, where Israeli engineers and experts are working on the vehicle’s autonomous features.
“The focus is on the autonomous flying aspect of the car,” Elena Olvovsky, algorithm leader at the Netanya R&D Center tells NoCamels at the EcoMotion event. “It takes off vertically like a helicopter and then spreads the wings in the air. It can fly for about an hour, so that’s a significant distance.”
The Aska, according to NFT, will allow the user to drive to a helipad, placed in central locations throughout the city, where it will employ its VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) and then fly autonomously to the destination. It will also have the ability to re-route, adjusting the location of the landing heliport depending on weather, turbulence, traffic or preference.
The model has been in its developmental stages for about a year. NFT has indicated that the initial cost of the Aska will run between $200,000-$300,000 but it hopes to eventually bring that down to a more affordable range of about $50,000.
“The target market for Aska is families with kids,” said Olvovsky. “It has to be practical and affordable without anyone needing a flying license.”
However, the company is also working on a subscription-based model that may replace the need for other modes of transportation such as Uber and other ride-sharing systems, Guy Kaplinsky, who serves as NFT chairman, tells NoCamels in a phone interview.
When the Aska goes to market in 2025, customers will be able to use the car as needed on a subscription-based model, he says. The option to own the car will still be available, but it will be more cost-efficient for people to pay yearly based on how much they expect to need the vehicle.
“In the future, people will not need to own the car, because 90 percent of the time the car is sitting in your garage,” Kaplinsky said. “Let’s use the car when you need it. If you need it from eight to nine, we will deliver it to you from eight to nine.”
In that case, the vehicle will fly to the subscriber autonomously, leaving from and arriving at a central helipad site.
The helipad, at only 20 by 20 meters (65.6 by 65.6 ft) is possible because of the VTOL capabilities of the vehicle. Whereas other flying cars may need a runway or terminal in order to take off and land, the helipad allows for Aska to be brought to smaller, more urban areas.
“Because ASKA is both drive and fly, it can be parked on the street/in a garage, and charge in existing charging stations,” the company said. “For takeoff and landing, minimal infrastructure is required.”
The helipad also addresses the challenge of noise. Because they are powered by an electric propulsion system, the vehicles will likely be loud, Kaplinsky says, making it less attractive to put helipads near neighborhoods. Instead, they will be placed in central locations such as near malls and off the highways.
The propulsion system is still in its developmental stages, not only for reducing the noise, but for reducing its environmental impact.
“Our target is a 100 percent electric propulsion system,” the company says. “The first Aska model will have a hybrid system that works with current battery technology…and we are in development to have a hydrogen-based propulsion system for the next generation of Aska.”
For the first version of the model, the 100-percent-green battery is not a reality. With the lithium batteries available to the company today, Kaplinsky says, the energy capacity doesn’t allow the vehicle to fly for 350 miles, which is the target. The solution is a range extender, which will eventually be replaced by a new, green battery technology.
And while the car may go off-road for long distances, that doesn’t eliminate traffic concerns. Other companies, such as Urban Aeronautics and even Uber, are developing similar VTOL vehicles that will eventually populate the air and bring up the problem of air traffic.
The Aska design includes a “sense-and-avoid package,” Kaplinsky says, that can detect and avoid other airborne things, like similar aircraft or drones. But additional solutions will come from the private sector, he adds.
“Today, systems already exist that are managing maybe 5,000 aircrafts in the US,” Kaplinsky tells NoCamels. “But now it will be a million, or ten million aircraft simultaneously. So it would be more managing locally, and there are startups that are experts in developing air traffic control systems.”
Though the challenges are numerous and competition is rapidly expanding as companies all over the world are creating their own VTOL vehicles, Kaplinsky is hopeful for the future of the Aska.
NFT’s mission is not only to revolutionize transportation and reduce traffic congestion, but also to improve the quality of life and reduce the cost of living in big cities.
“Our main target is enabling people to move out of the major cities because of the cost of living,” Kaplinsky said. “If you can commute at a reasonable cost, you can have a better quality of life.”
Although flying cars may seem like a big step, even for major technological cities like Tel Aviv and Silicon Valley, Kaplinsky predicts that this is just the beginning for this mode of transportation.
“A lot of people are skeptical and I understand them,” Kaplinsky said. “[That’s] because they are not involved in the development and our discussion. Just give us time and we will show you.”