J-STORIES - From Back to the Future to Blade Runner, flying cars have featured in science fiction for years. In the real world, however, they have never managed to quite take off. That could soon change as several Japanese companies are among firms around the globe that are developing eco-friendly, electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, or eVTOLs for short.
eVTOLs have a number of potential advantages over other conventional aircraft. They can fly lower than planes, are cheaper to operate than helicopters, and have zero CO2 emissions. They could also serve as an alternative means of transportation during emergencies, such as natural and other disasters.
SkyDrive, an eVTOL company established in 2018, has already signed a collaboration agreement with Osaka City with the aim of using the skies for “everyday mobility.” Based in Toyohashi—Japan's very own "Motor City"—SkyDrive has a technology partnership with car manufacturer Suzuki Motor Corp., and in 2020 it successfully completed a manned test flight of a single-seater eVTOL.
In September 2022, SkyDrive unveiled the designs for the SD-05, a commercial craft scheduled for launch in 2025. The SD-05 will carry a driver-pilot and two passengers, have a range of around 10 kilometers and reach a top cruising speed of 100 kph.
There are plans for such "air taxis" to feature at the 2025 Osaka Expo.
eVTOLs are in the developmental stages in several other countries around the globe, including Brazil, South Korea, Germany and the United States.
In October, Joby Aviation, a U.S. air taxi startup backed by Japanese automaker Toyota Motor Corp., became the first foreign manufacturer to begin the registration process for flying cars in Japan. Earlier in the year, Joby received certification from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration that allows it to begin air-taxi operations commercially with a conventional airplane, but plans to go into actual operation with its eVTOLs in 2024. It has also received backing from mobility outfit Uber, and acquired the company's aerial ride-hailing division, Uber Elevation, in 2020.
In June this year, the company announced it has received approval from the U.S. aviation authorities and is now ready for test flights - with a prototype ready for mass production.
Toyohashi-based SkyDrive has also used know-how from the development of its eVTOL aircraft to create a cargo drone. This device is capable of transporting loads of more than 30 kg and has been on sale since 2020. It is used to transport materials on worksites in mountainous areas, helping boost efficiency and improve safety.
In September, the company raised a total of ¥9.6 billion and in a news release issued at the time, CEO Tomohiro Fukuzawa commented: “We would like to create a world where goods and people can move through the sky with freedom.”
Amid these recent developments, the competition among companies is heating up nationwide. On June 9, a group of four Tokyo-based companies, including CTI Engineering and AirX, successfully conducted a test flight of an advanced air mobility vehicle over Iheya Island, Okinawa Prefecture.
Translation by Tony McNicol, Desiderio Luna
Top Page Photo by Lazy_Bear/Envato
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