An electric flying race car has taken flight for the first time in Australia, ahead of a proposed series of remotely piloted races later in the year.
The Alauda Airspeeder Mk3, a four-metre-long multicopter, has taken its first unmanned test flights in the South Australian desert, with approval from Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority.
Weighing 130kg, the vehicle has a thrust-to-weight ratio exceeding some of the world’s most advanced fighter aircraft.
Matthew Pearson, the founder of the firm that built the vehicle, Alauda Aeronautics, said it will be flown in a Formula One–style series of races, with up to 10 aircraft flying in the air at the same time. Three races will take place later in 2021, in locations yet to be announced.
Depending on the terrain, the vehicles will fly at speeds between 150 to 250km per hour, Pearson said.
The aircraft has space in its cockpit for a pilot, but for the moment is controlled by a “telerobotic avatar”. “We’ve got a robot in the cockpit, linked up to a pilot on the ground. When the pilot turns their head, the robot turns their head,” Pearson said.
If uncrewed races can be safely undertaken, the team hopes to shift towards physically piloted races.
The flying cars are equipped with lidar and radar systems that work in sync across different vehicles to avoid mid-air collisions. “Basically, the pilot has complete freedom … but we can create a virtual forcefield between the aircraft in the air, even at really high speeds,” Pearson said.
The vehicle is powered by a lithium polymer battery with a battery life of about 15 minutes of flying. Each race will last 45 minutes, requiring two pit stops for battery swaps, a process that takes about 20 seconds each.
From Back to the Future to Blade Runner, flying cars have been a common feature in sci-fi visions of the future.
Pearson said he hoped the race series, named Airspeeder EXA, would improve the safety of the technology and “accelerate clean air mobility for our cities”.
“It’s not just racing for racing’s sake,” he said. “Racing gave us seatbelts and disc brakes and rear vision mirrors.”
“Compared to other flying drones or flying taxis that are out there on the market, [the Mk3] might be the fastest,” she said. “The aerodynamic design seems to be appropriately adapted for an air race.”
The earliest practical use of flying cars in our skies may be for freight, such as parcel deliveries, which are already undertaken by drones, she said.
In 2019, Casa granted approval for a drone delivery business, run by an offshoot of Google’s parent company, to launch in Canberra.
“In the near future, whether we like it or not, for people who are not afraid it’s possible that we will be flying to work instead of driving to work,” said Mihaita, adding that a lack of charging infrastructure would be a major challenge to widespread adoption.
“You want to be able to charge these vehicles on demand anywhere,” she said. “Unfortunately we are very far away from that, because our current electric infrastructure needs a lot of upgrading.”