With the pandemic crushing the pace of innovation, most flying car projects backed by American tech giants have remained grounded. But a Japanese startup is quietly taking a manned prototype to the sky and aims to make travel by flying taxi a reality by 2023.
Tokyo-based SkyDrive, showed off a test flight of its SD-03 flying car model earlier this month in the Japanese city of Toyota; a video was released on Friday. The single-seat car, powered by a battery and four pairs of propellers, was lifted to six feet above the ground and hovered in a netted test area for about five minutes. Most significantly, the car had a pilot on board.
It was SkyDrive’s first manned flight with the SD-03 model. The company, backed by Toyota (the automaker), aims to turn the prototype into a two-seater commercial model by 2023. It’s the same timeline targeted by the Japanese government to roll out flying taxi service in dense cities like Tokyo and Osaka.
Right now, the SkyDrive model can fly for only five to ten minutes at a low speed of several miles per hour. The next step is to raise its speed up to 60 kilometers per hour (40 mph) and extend flight duration to 30 minutes. That would mean a capacity to fly nonstop for 20 miles, making the car a suitable candidate for exporting to other countries, CEO Tomohiro Fukuzawa said.
“Of the world’s more than 100 flying car projects, only a handful has succeeded with a person on board,” Fukuzawa told The Associated Press on Friday. “I hope many people will want to ride it and feel safe.”
A flying car, or vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) vehicle, is different than an airplane or a helicopter in that it doesn’t require a special takeoff and landing site and is designed to provide quick door-to-door transportation by both ground and air.
The SkyDrive car is about four meters long and two meters high, just small enough to fit into two average parking spaces and ideal for urban use.
“In developed countries, flying cars are expected to be used as a means of transportation to ease traffic jams and respond in times of disaster, while in developing countries they are likely to be used as a form of transportation that requires far less infrastructure,” the company said in a statement earlier this month.
In the U.S., multiple flying car projects have been in the works for years. But none of them has made it to commercialization due to infrastructural and regulatory challenges, as well as their own problems. In May, Uber (UBER) downsized the department supporting its flying cab development as the coronavirus hit hard on its ride-hailing business.
Another frontrunner, Kitty Hawk Corp., launched by Google co-founder Larry Page a decade ago, also shifted the direction of its flying car research recently. In June, the company closed down the team behind its ultralight flying car model, the “Flyer,” to focus on building a larger model.