A drone’s flying test may help pave the way for flying cars. In early December, U.S. regulators gave their approval for unmanned hover tests of a miniature flying car model made by the company Terrafugia. Such testing would provide feedback for eventually building a full-size version of a flying car capable of hovering for vertical takeoff and landing.
Contrary to some more breathless news headlines, this does not mean the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has cleared a hover-capable flying car for flight tests in U.S. airspace. Instead, Terrafugia only received special permission to operate a “one-tenth scale TF-X vehicle” under the classification of a small Unmanned Aircraft System weighing less than 55 pounds. The small-scale model of the TF-X prototype—basically a small drone—will have to operate at altitudes below 400 feet and at speeds under 100 miles per hour. Still, it’s a crucial step on the road to creating a flying car with the likeness of the futuristic vehicles seen in science fiction films such as “Back to the Future,” “Blade Runner” or the “Star Wars” prequels.
A full-scale version of Terrafugia’s TF-X would represent a flying car capable of parking normally in a car garage and driving on roads whenever it’s not airborne. The hybrid vehicle would supposedly have a price equivalent to high-end luxury cars and operational safety better than that of modern cars. In the air, it would have a range of 500 miles and a top cruising speed of 200 mph. And it would have hover capabilities so that it could take off and land on communal versions of helipads.
The TF-X won’t be ready for production for at least another decade. But within the next year or so, Terrafugia plans to begin selling its Transition vehicle that is described as a “roadable aircraft” or “street-legal aircraft.” Unlike the flying cars of Hollywood’s imagination, the Transition basically represents a personal aircraft that still requires a runway for takeoffs and landings, but can also fold its wings up to drive on roads.
Once a full-scale version of the TF-X is ready for flight, the FAA will have to figure out how it wants to classify the flying car under its current guidelines. That classification could make a big difference in terms of the flight time required for certifying any would-be owners of a flying car.
In 2010, Terrafugia managed to get the FAA to classify its Transition roadable aircraft as a light sport aircraft, despite the Transition being over the class weight limit of 1,320 pounds. That light sport aircraft classification means that Transition owners could operate their roadable aircraft after just 20 hours of flight training. Since 2010, Terrafugia has bumped up the proposed weight of the Transition from 1,430 pounds to 1,800 pounds and is once again petitioning the FAA for a waiver that would allow the Transition to be classified as a light sport aircraft, according to Aviation Week.
It’s uncertain how much the TF-X will ultimately weigh and how it will be classified by the FAA. But the TF-X will include autopilot functions that enable the flying car to automatically dodge bad weather or other vehicles in midair, avoid restricted airspace and generally fly in “automatic” mode to find its way to its destination. Such safety features may help convince the FAA that future flying car owners can handle their vehicles without requiring intensive pilot training.