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Israel’s Urban Aeronautics

Urban Aero Photo 1

If Moses had a fleet of CityHawks or FalconXPs from Israeli flying car developer and manufacturer, Urban Aeronautics roughly 4,000 years ago, his conversation with the Pharoah might’ve been completely different. Instead of, “Let my people go,” it might’ve been, “We’re going. Goodbye!”

Urban Aeronautics, Israel’s entry into the flying car industry, has taken a multi-modal approach, if you will. Urban Aeronautics is the parent company of Tactical Robotics Ltd., which is pursuing unmanned aircraft for military and cargo deliveries via its Cormorant Aircraft. And, using modified versions of the Cormorant, its Metro Skyways brand is developing the CityHawk—and its larger version, the Falcon XP— flying vehicles for inner city and regional personal use, commercial transportation (air taxi-type) use, and MedEvac use to transport passengers in need of urgent medical care, whether they be in a city or a remote ravine hundreds of miles from the nearest hospital.

At the head of this organization is Israeli aviation expert Dr. Rafi Yoeli, a veteran with 35-plus years in developing aircraft – everything from fighter jets to helicopters to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) aka ‘drones.’ The team he has assembled have designed, developed, and modified aircraft for some of the world’s aviation leaders, such as Boeing and Northrup Grumman, and they have set their sights on the future of aviation – flying cars.

No Batteries, No Problem

“We’re skipping batteries [altogether] because VTOLs take four or five times the power than normal fixed-wing aircraft to carry the same load for the same distance,” Yoeli explains. “It doesn’t matter if you have wings or not. The rule of thumb is, that, in order to take off vertically, anything you might need to transport that takes 100 horsepower, with vertical takeoff, whether it’s helicopters or anything else, you need 400 horsepower.”

Speaking for a team that has decades of aerospace design experience – including electric aircraft – Yoeli says that while fixed-wing aircraft may employ battery power, “you’re talking about 200, 300 watt hours per kilogram. At 1 kilogram of normal fossil fuel, a battery has 5 percent of that energy per pound. The other 95 percent is dead weight.”

According to Yoeli, fixed-wing aircraft can get around that by compromising on range or payload capacity compared to a helicopter. “We decided not to compromise while trying to achieve a footprint about the size of a car but still have vertical takeoff by way of higher-loaded propellers.”

Going to higher-loaded propellers also led to Urban Aeronautics decision to bypass batteries and go directly to hydrogen as a superfuel. “Hydrogen doesn’t have 5 percent energy production per pound but 300 percent compared to fossil fuels,” Yoeli says. “Our goal is hydrogen-powered fuel cells, which we think has a very bright future. That’s where we think VTOL technology will go.”

Yoeli explains that, in the interim, the aircraft will operate on kerosene, similar to today’s Turboshaft-powered helicopters and in the future, when hydrogen is more widespread, make the transition to hydrogen.

While the distinction to use hydrogen fuel in the future sets Urban Aeronautics apart from its competitors, the second differentiating factor is that its aircraft are designed to all of the FAA’s current standards for helicopters. “We won’t need any waivers or special conditions pertinent to helicopters to get our aircraft into service. Once we get enough hours on it, it will be time to transition to hydrogen propulsion.”

If you try to build a VTOL aircraft based on battery power, you must reduce your design disk-loading and end up with a very large footprint. If so, Yoeli asks, “Where will these aircraft land? Aerocars have to be roughly the size of a car, be road transportable without any protrusions on the side, and be FAA-safe. This is where we have gone.” In California and some places in Europe, hydrogen-fueling stations already exist. As time passes, they will become more prevalent, making it easier for consumers of flying cars to fuel up.

“Don’t be fooled by the sexy shape of the aircraft,” Yoeli says. “These are helicopters. The challenges are not technological. The challenges begin when you want to sell a ticket to take a passenger from Point A to Point B. Then, according to the FAA’s rules today, you have to have a pilot.”

Yoeli, along with most  other aerocar developers believe it will be at least 10 years of commercial piloted flight before pilotless commercial aircraft will be certifiable by the FAA and its European counterpart, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). Urban Aeronautics is designing its aircraft so it doesn’t have to wait 20 years or so for these regulators to certify their newfangled aircraft. “That’s why we’re designing to existing standards. We need a vehicle that is not only certifiable for commercial operations today but one that is financially feasible, profitable to operate.”

How Far, How Soon, How Much?

To be commercially viable, these flying cars will have to be affordable. So, how much will one cost? “It depends on quantity produced,” says Yoeli.

Today, it’s rare for a helicopter manufacturer to produce more than 2,000 units of one model. Uber, Yoeli guesses, might be looking at 20,000 or 30,000. That potentially puts the cost in the $200,000 to $300,00 range per aerocar, a steep reduction from prices today that are closer to $1 million or $1.5 million each. “It’s possible with even larger production numbers, the cost may drop nearer to $100,000.”

Urban Aeronautics’ flying cars are expected to have a range of 60-100 miles (100 to 150 kilometers) carrying four passengers and a pilot. The larger version, the Falcon XP is targeting up to 14 passengers. They will be purchased and serviced through a dealer network Urban Aeronautics will arrange and their plans include partnering with one of the larger aerospace players to leverage their marketing infrastructure. Their engine-building partner is Safran based in France. Cert Center Canada, an experienced fight testing and certification company that works closely with the Canadian air certification agency, Transport Canada, is also a partner guiding the development of these aerocars.

Yoeli expects that the Cormorant, Urban Aeronautics’ unmanned vehicle sold under its Tactical Robotics brand, could enter commercial operations in four to five years. The manned version will take another three years or so to achieve FAA certification, so you – the modern version of George Jetson – could be commuting to and from work in your CityHawk in a mere seven to eight years.

Dave Clarke

Dave Clarke is a California-based writer who is fascinated by the way technology changes our lives.