LAS VEGAS – For decades, the flying car has stood out as a vision for the ultimate in consumer technology among geeks (well, along with the Iron Man-style jet pack). Early versions never got very far, as they relied on large, finicky, expensive, hybrid car-plus-plane designs — inevitably inviting the problem of needing folding wings. With the advent of mass-market drone technology, and the decreasing cost and increasing capacity of batteries and electric motors, it was just a matter of time before a personal flying car — or at least a personal flying drone — would be possible. Japanese drone startup Aeronext is the latest to take aim at that vision, with its announcement of the Flying Gondola here at CES 2020.
Aeronext’s Flying Gondola
The person-sized device uses an array of small rotors, like most drones. But it also has the benefit of the company’s patented 4D Gravity technology. In a clever variant of the common approach of putting drone cameras on a gimbal on the company’s drones (its main business is producing stable drones for industrial and commercial applications), 4D Gravity puts the entire drone payload on an actively-gimballed system that makes it independent of the rotors and motors.
The company is only showing a model here at CES, but the model does have the gimbal. The founders demonstrated to me that if the drone motors are tilted (which is necessary in order for most drone designs to steer, change speed, or deal with windy conditions), the cockpit stays level. At the very high end, commercial designs like the one Bell is showing off can rely on tilting motors and other expensive control systems, but for a consumer-friendly product, Aeronext thinks its approach will be much more practical.
Your First Flight Will Need to Be In an Amusement Park
Of course, along with the technical challenge of building a person-carrying drone, there are plenty of safety and regulatory hurdles. Aeronext’s CMO told me she thought that it might be about 10 years before we saw Flying Gondolas out in the wild, but in the meantime, the company is going after controlled environments like theme parks. It certainly sounds like a lot of fun to zip around the air, even if it would only be an amusement park ride. And drone designs are certainly safer and much easier to fly than traditional ultralights, but to make money I assume they’ll have to have a number in the air at once. The trick will be providing the thrill of airplane racing without the hazard of possible bumper cars in the sky.
For now, the company is hoping to license its 4D Gravity technology to drone makers in Japan, the US, and elsewhere, and that they’ll pay up to 10 percent of the price of their drones for a smooth ride.
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