Ah, the flying car. Every year a new concept or company appears with promises of taking us off the road and in to the fluffy clouds, and it’s always just two years away. But one new company, Airspeeder, has a different goal in mind: flying car racing. Specifically, a new 200km/h single-seater flying race series.
The press release proudly lays out the end goal: “Airspeeder combines the ethos of Formula E, the drama of air racing and the glamor of F1.”
Motorsport in the sky, people racing head to head, pit crews replaced with ground crews. Sounds like something out of a video game, right?
At the 2019 Goodwood Festival of Speed, the company brought along a scale model of its Mk IV racer and a smaller, flying, scale model to demonstrate what it would look like.
But that was controlled by a man on ground, and a human-operated one will apparently be flying in Mojave as soon as the end of the year. It starts with drones and then, ideally, goes to piloted craft.
“Since cars were invented, people have raced them,” the company’s website boasts. “Today we are racing flying cars. Airspeeder is a battle of turbo-charged manned electric vehicles racing in airborne circuits! Who wouldn’t watch that?”
The Mk III that will supposedly take to the skies this year won’t be as polished as the slick Mk IV on display, but it’s there to work out the kinks.
I spoke to Airspeeder’s head honcho, Australian entrepreneur Matt Pearson, to figure out whether it’s a cool thing that’ll definitely happen or an utterly insane deathtrap.
Thing is, Pearson’s basis in motorsport seems quite smart—after all, a whole heap of automotive tech was born on the track.
“Everyone’s building flying taxis,” he said. “I looked at the industry and kind of went ‘Ah. You know, it’s the most exciting transport revolution in 100 years. Do we really want to build a taxi? Why don’t we build something a little bit more fun?’ So I wanted to build flying sports cars, flying hypercars, flying supercars eventually but the industry has a bit of a way to go.”
He added: “We need the regulatory environment to change: the battery technology has to come a long way, all the flight control systems, and the autonomy systems.”
So as it stands, nothing actually seems ready for his grand vision. I asked about the legality of it. Currently in many parts of the world you need a licence to fly certain kinds of drones professionally, and even then you can only take to the skies away from built up areas.
What happens when you put a person in that? Is it legal at all?
“That’s the challenge for the industry,” Pearson said. “It’s not yet... We’re working with regulators really closely, and it’s a stepping stone process. They’re understanding that this is prototype technology. They’re excited about the future and they’re trying to figure out how to regulate it as well. So working with them and keeping them with us the whole way through, understanding where the pitfalls are, and working on creating these regulations.”
Which, Pearson says, is why a skybound motorsport (floatersport?) is an ideal place to iron out any kinks in the machine itself, and the regulations, before unleashing it on the public.
“So that’s why racing appeals to us,” he said. “For the next five to 10 years we can hone the technology in controlled environments, get better and better and better, and then have all that technology spill over into mainstream later.”
Pearson also praised the rise of the flying taxi concepts that litter auto show floors, as he reckons it’ll accelerate development further. He said: “People are adopting the technology and going, ‘We’ll bring on flying taxis.’ So they’ll steamroll the way forward for us.”
A lot of confidence, considering the justified scepticism around flying cars. Most people are bad at driving on the ground. And what about licensing? Do you need one for a car? A plane? Well... neither. You need a new kind of licence that doesn’t actually exist yet. As such, Airspeeder is working with authorities to figure out what is needed where and when.
The next step is the Mk III, a tech-heavy thing to act as a test machine. It’ll be designed for drop testing, code testing, the works. The goal is to make it as safe as possible before the Mk IV appears to race against other people piloting their own Mk IVs at the same time.
What kind of tech are they aiming for? A lot. Mars Lander-style airbags that cover the machine to soften impacts are a good start. Machine vision, LIDAR, the works. Pearson is aware that if there’s racing, there’ll likely be crashing, bumping, and all that jazz.
Obviously, if that happens in the air the human cost could be quite considerable, so the racers will be able to simulate a bump in midair if two get too close together. They won’t touch, but they’ll move as though they’ve traded paint.
Let’s be real—this idea is ambitious bordering on crazy. A single seater octocopter race series. I mean, come on. There’s so much that could go wrong here and so much that needs to happen to make it feasible that it’s hard to swallow, despite how theoretically fun and wonderful the idea is. At the moment the mere concept of a flying car is mad. Every year someone new pops up and reveals one promising much and delivering little.
Still, Airspeeder is actively trying to make these things happen. The Mk III is planned to fly, with a person at the controls on board, at the end of this year in Mojave. Once the tricky bits are ironed out and the tech is perfected we’ll see the Mk IV, and eventually racing.
In theory at least.
I went in thinking Airspeeder’s concept was ridiculous and could never work; part of me still does. But, Pearson’s tenacity and passion (and, probably, vast amount of funding) does lead me to believe it stands a chance. Small-scale example drone crash aside.
Tech like this is still in its infancy, and it’s developing fast. The idea of getting in one of these things and going nuts in the sky scares the shit out of me, but it’ll be the kind of thing that loads of people fancy having a crack it. If the tech’s right, and the work is done stuff like this could be a real thing. A bit like Wipeout on the PlayStation with propellers.
I’ll give Pearson the final word: “There’s no point in coming in five years from now. All the good spots will be gone. If we want to create a premium motorsport brand, motorsport property... you’ve got to be there from the beginning.”