Originally posted on gq-magazine.
Next year will see the launch of a race series for flying cars called Airspeeder, featuring manned electric multicopter vehicles that reach speeds up to 200kph. Airspeeder’s founder and CEO, Matt Pearson, explains how it will all work.
What kind of vehicles will be racing?
The company behind the series, Alauda Aeronautics, is in the throes of developing their first full-size, manned Airpseeders, due for completion later this year or early next. Powered by electric batteries, they will take off and land vertically (eVTOL), using up to eight propellers to fly at a top speed of 200kph. The maximum weight, with a pilot on board, will be 250kgs. Each battery should allow around ten minutes of flying time. Pilots will switch speeders at regular pit stops.
Manned flying cars all racing at once? That sounds a bit… dangerous
Alauda are developing “high-speed collision avoidance” technology to ensure the safety of pilots when many vehicles are simultaneously racing. This includes airborne radar, lidar and machine vision. “Getting multiple vehicles in the air at the same time is tricky,” says Pearson. “Even with autonomous vehicles on the ground, it’s a difficult thing to get right because computers have to make decisions very fast. But in a racing environment, you have a pretty controlled course and you have the ability to make all the vehicles cooperate with each other. You have a whole load of vehicles talking to each other, so if there’s an incident or a pilot slows down or there’s a traffic jam on the course they’re all aware of each other. This is something we think will revolutionise autonomous vehicles on the ground. It’s technology that will make flying cars a reality in our cities in the future.”
Where will these races take place?
So far, the two venues confirmed are California’s Mojave Desert and the desert near Coober Pedy in South Australia. Pearson says he is exploring further potential venues on every continent except Antarctica. “It depends on the state of the world. We want to do at least three races in the first season. We’ll start expanding after that.”
Why desert locations?
Flying cars inevitably involve more than a bit of negotiation with local authorities. “We’re creating these really beautiful exotic locations, infused with a sci-fi flavour, giving people a taste of the future we’ve all expected,” Pearson explains. “Apart from that, for safety reasons, it’s good to be in a controlled environment, where we can set up a course and race without interference. Deserts, islands, near lakes and bodies of water are all good. Typically, if you crash, you want to come down on something that yields a little bit.”
What kind of aerobatics will we see?
Pearson envisages his vehicles racing low to the ground through pylons and air gates, just as aeroplane pilots do in the Red Bull Air Race, for example. “We also want to use the landscape, so we’re looking for really interesting locations with natural features we can race around,” he adds. “Canyons and sides of cliffs, for example. I like the idea of being able to race off the side of a cliff, down the cliff face, over the sea and back up another cliff face. Wind strategy and aerodynamics will also come into play.”
It sounds like the pod racing in Star Wars – The Phantom Menace.
“Absolutely,” says Pearson. “We all saw that movie and fell in love with that idea. Everyone sees the similarities in what we’re doing. It’s exciting bringing that to life.”
Are there other sci-fi movies that have inspired Airspeeder?
Blade Runner, Back To The Future, The Fifth Element… Pearson says there are many sci-fi films featuring flying cars that have influenced him. “And, of course, Luke Skywalker jumping into his landspeeder in the first Star Wars movie,” he adds. “All these are definitely influences. This is why the world is so ready for what we’re doing. We’ve been building up to [flying cars] for a long time in our culture.”
Have any race pilots been confirmed yet?
Pearson remains tightlipped about who will be competing in the first season. But he has had many applications, especially after he showed off his technology at a US Air Force convention for flying car technology called Agility Prime. “We’d love more applications,” Pearson stresses. “We’re getting a great mix of ex-military pilots, commercial pilots, drone pilots and motor sports stars who see this as the next thing in motor sport. Watching the competition between all these different personalities from different backgrounds is going to be fun.”
What about the company behind Airspeeder?
Alauda Aeronautics is building its vehicles at its test facility in the Australian city of Adelaide. The commercial base is in London. Currently, the company has around 25 employees. “Adelaide is becoming Australia’s high-tech centre,” says Pearson. “The Australian Space Agency and several advanced tech start-ups are based here. Lots of sunny days and open desert.”
Pearson himself must have a solid background in science and technology…
You bet. An entrepreneur since his early twenties, he made his money in software and founded a telecoms satellite company called Fleet Space Technologies, which now works with the likes of space companies SpaceX and Rocket Lab. “Space technology opens your eyes to what’s possible today if you have the right engineering talent and vision,” Pearson says. “So over the last five years we’ve been launching satellites and building flying cars. It’s a fun existence.”
Presumably Pearson wants to be one of the first Airspeeder pilots himself
“I would love to,” he says. “I’m not sure the team would let me, whether they’d say goodbye to their meal ticket. I personally have crashed every drone I’ve flown. I don’t think I’m the best choice.”
During the testing phase, there must have been some spectacular crashes, then
“Oh, yeah,” says Pearson, who admits that destroying unmanned Airspeeder prototypes is all part of the testing process. “Crashing and rebuilding quickly is important. We must understand how a vehicle has a collision in the same way that [ordinary] cars go through crash testing. We push our vehicles pretty hard. Our mandate is also to understand the dynamics, how it behaves under stress.”
In the future, could flying vehicles become as ubiquitous as conventional cars?
Pearson admits that, initially, flying cars will be so expensive that only the very richest in society will be able to afford them. “People who own their own helicopter, for example, might own their own Airspeeder. Firstly, there will be luxury flying vehicles and air taxis, but eventually you’ll have vehicles for a lot of people. What we’re focused on at Alauda is a premium performance vehicle, a luxury eVTOL for private use by someone who wants to own their own aircraft. But over time these technologies will trickle down to the rest of the industry. It’s my big hope that people will be able to experience flying cars first-hand within the next ten to 15 years.”
What kind of technology needs to accelerate before then?
The Airspeeder test vehicles prove that the core technology for flying cars already exists. But Pearson stresses how battery technology must improve, as well as collision avoidance and traffic management systems. He has hopes that future 5G and 6G networks will offer the additional bandwidth needed for the on-board computers of countless flying vehicles to communicate in the air, thereby avoiding collisions. “All vehicles must be able to communicate with each other,” he says. “If you’re going to have this many vehicles in the air in the futuristic world we’re dreaming of, you can’t have air traffic controllers managing that. Imagine you have drones delivering packages, cars flying all over the place and Amazon blimps. You’ll have to have an automated traffic management system.” He points out how financial services company Morgan Stanley has suggested that flying cars could create a $1.5 trillion industry by 2040.