Last updated June 12th 2018
Mobility experts claim it’s just a matter of time before flying cars will be swooping towards a location near you and it turns out some of the first prototypes of these autonomous aerial vehicles are being developed right here in Israel.
Just ask Rafi Yoeli, a veteran of aerospace research and development, who was recently noted as “one of the founding fathers of the unmanned vehicle industry” by US tech industry publisher TechCrunch. Yoeli has put together a team of experts from the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) for his Yavne-based company Urban Aeronautics to develop a compact verticle take-off and landing (VTOL) vehicle to lift cargo or people in emergency situations, he tells NoCamels.
Yoeli spoke to a group of international and Israeli mobility leaders, entrepreneurs, and investors about whether flying cars are in their future at the TechCrunch Mobility Conference in Tel Aviv on Thursday, the publication’s inaugural one-day event featuring notable industry experts and the best of Israeli tech in the mobility field. It wrapped up TechCrunch’s five-day Tel Aviv Innovation Week, which began on June 3rd.
“There is an awakening of realization that the aerial taxi is a real thing that will happen in the next few years,” Yoeli told NoCamels prior to the conference.
— NoCamels (@NoCamels) June 7, 2018
At the conference, TechCrunch took a real interest in the concept of flying cars, asking Waze co-founder Uri Levine during a panel discussion titled “The Future of Transportation” if he would ever travel in one.
After a long pause, Levine replied “Why not?” before quickly pointing out that “flying cars will probably always be illegal in Israel,” given its geo-political situation.
During the discussion, Levine said that travelers and commuters were looking at three main factors when considering transportation, speed, cost, and convenience and that while flying cars may be faster, traveling in them is not likely to be cheap.
Dave Waiser, the CEO and founder of Gett, seemed more enthused, saying the prospect of traveling in a flying car “could be fun,” though there is always the issue of safety.
Both entrepreneurs envisioned a future where cars are driverless, with Levine saying that the generation after the next one will “think we were crazy for driving our own cars.” Waiser said that in 50 years, people will no longer have or need driver’s licenses.
Yoeli was set to hold his own panel discussion about the future of flying cars alongside Eviation Aircraft CEO Omer Bar-Yohay, whose company is developing an all-electric aircraft that flies nine passengers plus two crew members from city to city.
Yoeli’s Urban Aeronautics has been working on a prototype for what it calls the Cormorant, an airborne vehicle that company says will likely find use in war. It is set to be launched in 2021.
The unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is a single-engine passenger drone in the works by Urban Aeronautics subsidiary Tactical Robotics. It would be capable of flying and operating inside complex and natural environments where it can be difficult for regular helicopters or other aerial vehicles to maneuver or land, the company says.
The aircraft, Yoeli explains, is “like a helicopter, but without the exposed rotors.” Still, he adds, it “doesn’t look at all like a helicopter” and insists it’s much more “like a car” in that it is the size of a small truck or van.
Like a helicopter, however, the Cormorant will likely be used as an evacuation vehicle in search and rescue operations, there are some key differences between this UAV and a typical helicopter that make it ideal for emergency situations. First, of course, is the fact that it doesn’t need a pilot inside the aircraft – an important breakthrough. Instead, the aircraft can be controlled from the ground or it can be set to fly autonomously.
Helicopters have their limitations, Yoeli points out. They have difficulty maneuvering and landing in certain environments, and sometimes have to land miles away because of difficult terrain. This would not happen with the Cormorant, as it is designed to land in areas that are not possible for the traditional helicopter, he says. A search and rescue helicopter also has a crew, which easily be put in harm’s way, he adds.
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Perhaps the biggest difference between Urban Aeronautics’ Cormorant and the traditional VTOL helicopter has to do with the helicopter’s external front and rear rotors, supporting the weight of the helicopter and helping to thrust it forward. A helicopter’s blades can easily get rammed in narrow spaces and cut power lines, he says.
“These rotors get in the way of a search and rescue operation and cannot get into obstructed terrains,” Yoeli says, which doesn’t make them ideal for rescuing injured soldiers. The Cormorant, on the other hand, will have rotors located inside the aircraft, which will not only be safer for landing and for allowing people to stand closer to the aircraft, but it will also be much quieter, even blending with city traffic.
The Cormorant can reach speeds of up to 115mph and altitude of up to 18,000 feet. It can carry as much as 1,100 pounds, the company says.
The aircraft made its first solo flight in November 2016 and despite minor glitches, the test was a success, Urban Aeronautics says.
Since then, the company has conducted over 250 test flights with its prototype.
Yoeli tells NoCamels that the idea for the Cormorant came after the Second Lebanon War in 2006. It was at this point that the Israel Defense Forces realized it needed a new kind of vehicle to rescue wounded soldiers. “Helicopters could not land near where the person was injured,” Yoeli explains, noting that the terrain sloped in many areas making it extremely difficult for a helicopter to touch ground.
“The helicopter would end up needing to land at least a kilometer (a little more than half a mile) away. It was the same problem in Iraq, Afghanistan — especially in urban areas,” he says.
It would also take up to five-and-a-half hours to ferry the wounded from the front lines back to the hospital. The goal was to do it in one hour, Yoeli says, which is what the Cormorant is capable of doing now.
Having no pilot in the aircraft, the Cormorant is said to be able to enter situations too risky for helicopters and deliver supplies or cargo as well as evacuate up to two casualties from the battlefield and transfer them to a base for medical treatment.
Last month, Tactical Robotics completed its first live demonstration of the unmanned aerial rescue vehicle with representatives of the Israel Defense Forces. The milestone was announced at the Israel Combat Rescue and Emergency Medicine conference where the company also presented its unmanned aircraft system.
Yoeli says he hopes the IDF will be the company’s first customer, followed by others.
The company is also working on a manned version of the Cormorant, called the CityHawk, which will be able to hold a maximum of five passengers plus a pilot. Yoeli told Vertical magazine last month that the company “plans to start establishing a certification basis for CityHawk together with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) or Transport Canada as early as this year.”
The Cormorant, too, is tailored to meet FAA requirements for powered lift vehicles though it has not been fully approved yet.
Yoeli says that whether or not flying cars may be in our near future, Urban Aeronautics’ aircraft “has a groundbreaking capability that will change the face of aviation.”