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The cars that are flying into the future


This week, KleinVision’s AirCar made headlines as it was granted an airworthiness certificate in its native Slovakia. Here we will take a look at some of the recent activity in this field as well as the trends going forwards.

As you may have guessed, the AirCar is a hybrid car-aircraft – a form that is generally referred to as a roadable aircraft. The AirCar is modelled on conventional aircraft characteristics when in aircraft mode, sporting a 5 meter wingspan combined with an aerodynamic fuselage that is also refined for improved lift characteristics to support the aircraft mode.

This aerodynamic design with large wings is obviously very important to the flight handling and safety, but a key hurdle for all of the players in this field has been how to then adapt this form for use on typical roads. AirCar have put a lot of thought into this and can boast of 12 patents that protect their mechanisms for the transformation. In particular, when converting to car mode the large wings fold along their length and swivel parallel to the fuselage to reduce the width of the vehicle, and the tail wing retracts to reduce the overall length. It is claimed that this enables the AirCar to not only be driven on typical roads, but also to be parked in a normal parking space; however you may want to be careful where you park it – you wouldn’t want to end up with a dented wing!

Reduction in overall size is not the only factor in the transformation, the general aerodynamics of the fuselage also need to be counteracted when in car mode so that a downforce enables the vehicle to grip the road. In the AirCar this is achieved by actuating a spoiler at the front of the vehicle as well as controlling the pitch of the elevator at the rear.

Before you rush to register interest for yours, there is of course one important consideration to take into account; apologies for stating the obvious here but, despite sophisticated autopilot technology that can take off and land without intervention, you need to have a pilots licence to fly the vehicle (and monitor whilst on autopilot). While the Aeromobil and Terrafugia’s Transition follow a similar design principle based on an aircraft with folding wings, PAL-V’s Liberty is a gyroplane. Gyroplanes, sometimes referred to as gyrocopters, also require a specific licence to fly, but gyroplanes have fewer controls than planes and so they are generally regarded as easier to learn and fly, potentially opening the vehicle up to a wider audience.

The PAL-V Liberty is already road legal in Europe and is understood to be currently working towards certification from the EU Aviation Safety Agency. Both the Aeromobil and the PAL-V Liberty are currently aiming for first customer deliveries in 2023 and so the sector really does seem to be on the verge of, if you will excuse the pun, taking off!

Due to the conventional aircraft design of the AirCar, a runway of around 300 meters to 400 meters will still be required for take-off and landing, which limits the utility for short journeys, particularly in and around urban environments. The gyrocopter design of the PAL-V Liberty enables a shorter take-off of less than 200 meters, but impressively can roll to a landed stop after only 30 meters, which opens up a wider array of landing sites. However, the step change for urban air mobility will be access to vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft.

The AirCar runs on regular petrol, rather than aviation fuel, and while it is not clear if the UK government’s planned ban on the sale of new petrol cars by 2030 would extend to cars that happen to also be aircraft, one must assume that it is only a matter of time until the electric revolution changes the roadable vehicles scene.

As we reported in mid-2020, electronic VTOL (eVTOL) aircraft will be key in the development of urban air mobility and, unlike many other aircraft, eVTOLs typically use pilotless automation. Wisk Aero is a joint venture between Kitty Hawk and Boeing that is focussed on developing an autonomous eVTOL for passenger use. We noted in our earlier report that, when looking at publication numbers for patent applications directed to VTOL aircraft having propellors that are fixed relative to the fuselage (CPC classification codes B64C29/0025), Kitty Hawk were leading the way in 2019 / the start of 2020. The joint venture started around that time and combining the numbers from Wisk Aero and Kitty Hawk for 2020 and 2021 show that their combined efforts are still holding onto first place in this technical field. This week, Boeing announced that they are investing a further $450m into Wisk Aero and so it appears that they will continue to be one to watch for some time to come.

Morgan Stanley have estimated that the urban air mobility market will be worth around $1tn by 2040 before climbing to $9tn by 2050, and so it is clear that there is a significant amount of investment and innovation to go on that journey. To protect this innovation and the corresponding investment, patents (and intellectual property in general) will be key for protecting the innovator’s position while also distributing the know how that has been developed to spur others on in creating alternative solutions to these problems. If you are innovating in this field then please get in touch and ask to speak to our experienced Future Transport team.

This article is for general information only. Its content is not a statement of the law on any subject and does not constitute advice. Please contact Reddie & Grose LLP for advice before taking any action in reliance on it.

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