It is hard to believe the Jetsons, an American animated sitcom produced by Hanna-Barbera, originally airing in 1962, portrayed the life of a space-age family living in 2062 in a futuristic wonderland of elaborate robotic contraptions and whimsical inventions.
It is now 2018, and the year 2062 is less than 44-years away, but already a handful of the Jetsons’ contraptions exist including smartwatches, smart shoes, drones, 3-D printed items, holograms, robotic help, jetpacks, and even flying automobiles.
In particular, the fantasy of flying automobiles zipping around the skies of America could be taking flight within the next ten years.
That is according to Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenberg, who said, “it will happen faster than any of us understand,” in a Bloomberg interview.
“Real prototype vehicles are being built right now. So the technology is very doable,” he added.
Muilenberg said Boeing has been preparing for the new era of flying urban vehicles, and his company has been designing what would be the “rules of the road for three-dimensional highways” that carry autonomous flying taxis.
Bloomberg claims autonomous air taxis and parcel-hauling drones have the potential to disrupt the transportation industry as we know it, with Boeing and Airbus SE already situating themselves for an era of flying automobiles. Muilenburg claims the window to reshape the transportation industry is now. “Fleets of self-piloted craft could be hovering above city streets and dodging skyscrapers within a decade,” he exclaimed.
According to the latest research by Deloitte, more than a dozen drone and flying automobile manufacturers have already passed conceptualization/design phase, and a majority of the manufacturers are currently exiting the prototype stage into the testing phase, with most manufactures targeting launch/delivery by 2020.
“If safety and regulatory hurdles are cleared, passenger drones are expected to get wings by 2018–2020, and traditional flying cars by 2020–2022, while revolutionary vehicles could be a reality only by 2025,” Deloitte reported.
In the second half of 2017, NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate (ARMD) started examining the feasibility of what the government space agency calls “Urban Air Mobility.”
Here is how NASA defines Urban Air Mobility:
Our definition for UAM is a safe and efficient system for air passenger and cargo transportation within an urban area, inclusive of small package delivery and other urban Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) services, which supports a mix of onboard/ground-piloted and increasingly autonomous operations.
“NASA has the knowledge and the expertise to help make urban air mobility happen,” said Jaiwon Shin, NASA’s associate administrator for aeronautics. “We plan to conduct the research and development, and test the concepts and technologies that establish feasibility and help set the requirements. Those requirements then serve to make using autonomous vehicles, electric propulsion, and high density airspace operations in the urban environment safe, efficient and economically viable.”
Boeing signaled that it was serious about flying taxis last year by acquiring Aurora Flight Sciences, whose projects include a new flying taxi it is developing with Uber Technologies Inc, said Bloomberg. Other partners on the project include Textron Inc.’s Bell Helicopter and Embraer SA, a Brazilian aerospace company.
Bloomberg details the major players who are becoming more visible on the playing field of developing urban flying taxis:
Aurora has been inventing autonomous vehicles since the late 1980s, and its portfolio of novel flying machines includes a two-seat robotic copter known as an eVTOL (an abbreviation for electric vertical take-off and landing). For its rideshare of the not-too-distant future, Aurora plans to whisk passengers between rooftop “vertiports.” Test flights could begin as soon as 2020 in Dallas and Dubai, according to the company.
Others are also rushing rotorcraft concepts to market. Vahana, the self-piloting air taxi developed by A3, Airbus’s tech-centric Silicon Valley outpost, completed its first test flight on Jan. 31. Intel Corp. and EHang Inc. are also testing their flying vehicles.
But the next generation of Uber and Lyft Inc. vehicles can’t arrive by air until manufacturers and regulators figure out how to keep them from bumping into buildings, commercial planes, personal drones and each other. That requires leaps in artificial intelligence and sensor technology from today’s personal drones, which mostly fly within sight of operators.
“Right now, what we’re transitioning from is a hobbyist industry to a commercial industry,” said Darryl Jenkins, an aerospace consultant specializing in autonomous vehicles.
Deloitte explains there are numerous potential applications for these new forms of urban mobility vehicles:
Bloomberg mentions U.S. and foreign drone manufactures must demonstrate that catastrophic failures are so remote that they will not happen in a billion flights. Unless if Congress or the FAA eases regulations on standards for autonomous flying vehicles. Boeing and other manufacturers would have to show regulators that their high-tech flying taxis are incredibly reliable.
“It’s extremely costly to certify new aircraft, even when you’re certifying it for a well-established use and with well-established rules,” said Steve Wallace, a former FAA official who oversaw accident investigations and also worked in the agency’s certification branch. “Here we’re trying to open up a whole new use where there aren’t any rules. That’s an enormous task.”
Muilenburg said Boeing is heavily investing in sense-and-avoid systems and other technologies to prevent airborne disaster. “We are making investments there,” he said. “The autonomous car ecosystem is making investments there.”
Since Muilenburg took control of Boeing in 2015, he has expanded investment dollars into futuristic aircraft and created a venture capital arm called HorizonX to further the development of hybrid-electric propulsion.
As Boeing and other major corporations usher in a Jetsonian era of flying automobiles starting in 2020 and beyond. Nearly every automaker and major technology companies are pouring billions into the development of flying automobiles. Will this trend be another bubble, as we have seen many in this Central-Bank-free-money-anything-goes-induced environment, or is there something legitimate here?