The vehicle, topped with folding wings, is meant to be driven on roads as a car and capable of vertical takeoff and landing from any helipad-sized area such as a parking lot. The form of the craft, in development for two years, has been a closely guarded secret by NFT’s founders, husband-and-wife team Maki and Guy Kaplinsky, serial entrepreneurs based in Silicon Valley. The company released the first images of the craft yesterday.
NFT’s founders believe an autonomous “door-to-door” car which can conveniently change “modes” — ground to air to ground — will allow the well-heeled, and later the mass market, to live far from city centers, with a better quality of life; the company is targeting an airborne range of 350 mi (560 km) and ground range of 100 mi (160 km), assuming a single passenger. The Aska (“flying bird” in Japanese) is comparable in size to the sport utility vehicles (SUVs) popular in the US, but shaped as a coupe. The cockpit seats three passengers, with the traditional “hood” and “trunk” areas containing ten ducted fans. Four additional ducted fans, a pair in the rear and another at the wingtips, are tilted for the transition from vertical to horizontal flight, one of the major technical challenges of eVTOL (electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing) designs. NFT says the ducted-fan design is quiet, efficient, and safe, particularly in ground mode as there are no exposed rotor blades.
The Kaplinskys understand the herculean barriers to marketing an autonomous flying car certified for both road and air, and believe the Aska is the most promising approach, for several reasons:
- Manufacturing will be done by an automotive industry player (to be determined), able to provide low-cost mass production and high quality
- Although the initial acquisition cost is targeted at $200,000 (€175,000), NFT believes this price will drop by 75% as production ramps up; there will also be a subscription model available, competitive with car-leasing rates
- Light infrastructure impact: dedicated vertiports with electrical substations are not necessary, as the Aska can be driven to and from launch sites (e.g. rooftop parking lot in a city) and refueled at filling stations or recharged while parked at home or on the street.
- The hybrid electric design will assure long range in Aska’s first version with current battery technology; a hydrogen-based propulsion system will come later.
- Horizontal winged flight is far more efficient than rotors, increasing the range, and will also allow controlled gliding to a landing in case of emergency, safer than rotor-only eVTOL designs
- Aska will have automotive-style autonomy on the ground and in the air, with destination being indicated by a passenger and software managing a sense and avoid system. While in flight mode, the vehicle will be monitored remotely and controlled if necessary
- In case of inclement weather, an Achilles heel for today’s light aircraft and tomorrow’s eVTOLs, Aska will land and continue the journey on roads or highways
- Safety — a critical issue in new urban air mobility (UAM) designs, especially at low altitudes in populated areas — is said to meet FAA requirements, with software monitoring of components and redundant systems. Of course, as a motor passenger vehicle, the Aska will also need to be compliant with automotive safety standards
The Vertical Flight Society has catalogued over 130 eVTOL projects worldwide; major aerospace manufacturers are building “demonstrator” aircraft such as the Bell Nexus, Airbus Vahana, and Boeing PAV. Most eVTOLs use distributed-electric propulsion (DEP) — often 6, 12 or more rotors — and are designed to fly autonomously, or under remote control. However, many manufacturers are planning to seek flight certification with an onboard pilot — to be phased out later — to reassure both regulators and a jittery public concerned about noise and safety.
NFT is seeking investors and an automotive industry partner and believes prototype flight tests can begin next year. The company will also license its sense and avoid software and monitoring/control platform to other air taxi manufacturers.