Emerging Technologies

Flying cars are closer than you think

The flying taxi is seen in Dubai, United Arab Emirates September 25, 2017. REUTERS/Satish Kumar - RC15305D3A00

Helicopter prototypes foreshadow a new era of public transportation. Image: REUTERS/Satish Kumar

Janson Wigo
Marketing manager, Quid
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Aerospace and Aviation

You’ve heard the news: Uber’s flying cars could arrive by 2020. How about electric aeroplanes, drones that can transport people, or the return of supersonic jets? This might seem like something straight out of science fiction but the future of air travel that we’ve all dreamed about is closer than you might think.

Using Quid, we analysed what people are publishing online about the future of air travel and below is a summary of what we found.

Image: Quid, sourced from 3,521 articles from the last year

The network above contains 3,521 news and blogs articles about aeroplane startups. Each node represents an article or blog, while the coloured clusters signify unique themes. Links between each node represent semantic similarity between the articles. The stronger the similarity, the closer they get pulled in together.

Five topics stood out, mainly because they generated significant news volume but also because these specific topics are a dramatic departure from aeroplane travel as we know it today. The topics include supersonic flight, vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) technology, electric aeroplanes, drones, and transformative technology. In the image below, you can see where each topic is located and how they clustered together in different quadrants on the network.

Image: Quid

Supersonic flight

The “supersonic” cluster makes up 4.4% of the network, where the main focus is on companies developing a faster, more cost-efficient version of the Concorde jet. In this cluster, Wonderful Engineering explains that typical aeroplanes cruise the skies at around 570 mph and must avoid faster speeds since the associated high temperatures can strip off layers of material from metal.

A new type of protective ceramic coating called reactive melt infiltration was recently invented by a research team at The University of Manchester, which has opened the doors for startups to begin development.

With this new technology, the return of supersonic airlines is a reality. But which companies are leading the charge in this space? To get a better understanding, we switched over to a bar chart view filtered by company mentions.

We found that Boom Technology, a Denver startup who is aiming to create a 55 passenger civilian supersonic transport aircraft has the most mentions. Virgin Galactic has the second most mentions and we learned that Richard Branson is buying the first 10 Boom Jets with the goal of using them to commercially fly from New York to London in under 3 hours at prices that beat current business class rates.

Other companies with a high number of article mentions include Spike Aerospace, another player in the supersonic business jet market; and Stratasys, a company that Boom partnered with to use a 3D printing technology, known as fused deposition modelling, for production grade aircraft parts.

VTOL Technology

We then looked at companies focused on vertical take-off and landing technology.

Image: Quid

A number of articles discussed helicopter prototypes that use VTOL technology- potentially foreshadowing a new era of public transportation. Uber Elevate, which has its own cluster, is based on a white paper that Uber published outlining a proposal for commercialising VTOL public air transportation. The company is not planning to build its concept but instead is trying to organise and promote development from other startups. Their goal is to have flying cars in circulation by the year 2020.

Uber isn’t the only one interested in this technology. Google co-founder Larry Page has reportedly spent $100 million on flying-car startups, including Zee.Aero, whose flying car was reportedly spotted in Hollister in October. Zee.Aero is a division of Kitty Hawk – an electric flying vehicle that is designed to fly and land over water. Kitty Hawk has announced plans to start sales within the year.

Other noteworthy companies involved in VTOL include:

• German-based Lilium Jet, which has successfully test-flown the world’s first electric VTOL two-seater jet. The company just raised $90 million and is developing a five-seater to be used by ride-hailing services.

Airbus is also developing two vehicles: a single-person VTOL under its Silicon Valley arm A³, as part of its Project Vahana, and a flying taxi system called CityAirbus, which is a helicopter hybrid and would resemble a small drone.

• Slovakia-based AeroMobil unveiled its latest model flying car at an auto show in Monaco and started accepting pre-orders. It will start shipping in 2020 for around $1 million.

Terrafugia made its first public test flight of a two-seater car-aeroplane hybrid at the Experimental Aircraft Association’s annual AirVenture convention in Wisconsin in 2013.

XTI Aircraft recently announced that it has sold 60 pre-orders of its new six-seater VTOL aircraft, the TriFan 600. The company claims the hybrid aircraft will make helicopters obsolete by reaching speeds of 345 mph and a range of up 1,200 miles. It plans to be in full production by 2020.

Electric commercial aircraft

We found 217 articles concerning electric airline startups and major financial backing announcements in the space. Estimates say that this new type of aviation will cut travel times by 40% and fares by up to 80%.

Two companies in this space stood out with the most mentions. The Mountain View, California startup, Wright Electric, is a company working on building 150-seat electric planes designed for faster and more efficient travel. It has designed its plane to have modular battery packs for quick swap, using the same cargo container that is in a regular aeroplane. The low-cost airline EasyJet has expressed interested in making the plane its fifth private jet.

The other is the Boeing and JetBlue-backed Zunum Aero startup, which is working on developing the first hybrid electric commercial passenger aircraft to fuel a regional travel revival. Zunum Aero is developing 10 to 50-seat aircraft with the hopes of bringing “a new golden era” of fast and affordable electric travel.

Its chief executive, Ashish Kumar, says: “The idea is to create aircraft that fit in dormant routes. These are routes that have fallen into disuse due to trends that favour larger aircraft serving bigger airports. Currently, only 2% of the US’s more than 5,000 airports account for 96% of air traffic; an indication that the bigger airports are crowded, making service at the smaller ones costly, if it even exists.”


Drones were another big part of the conversation, comprising three clusters accounting for around 9% of the network. We recently looked at how drones are evolving through our company’s dataset. We found new product developments, go-to market strategies, and uncovered that there are more to drones than just the consumer models we hear about. While we touched upon this last part in our previous analysis, in this network we found several companies, concepts, and strategies adapting drones for other purposes.

• Aerospace startup Echodyne Corp. has raised $29 million in Series B funding to give robots "radar-vision”.

Iris Automation raised $1.5 million in Series-A funding to develop collision avoidance systems for drones.

Airobotics, a startup building autonomous drones for the enterprise sector, just received $32.5m in funding to expand business into defence and homeland security.

Airbus is not only involved with VTOL, it recently announced its commercial drone service startup Aerial, which aims to bring aerospace engineering, satellite imagery and drone services together to target industries including agriculture, infrastructure, energy, and more.

Among others is Zipline, a California-based startup that uses drones to deliver medical equipment. Understanding that more than two billion people lack adequate access to essential medical products, the company has based its service around a small robot aeroplane that can carry the desired goods, conquering challenging terrains and gaps in infrastructure. Its fixed-wing design can fly further, faster, and in more inclement weather conditions than a quadcopter.

Go Unmanned is offering the ability to capture 3D models of worksites through the use of drones. Dr James Robbins, professor and ornamental crop specialist at the University of Arkansas, says: “This 3D model can be used as a sales tool (proof of concept), for materials management when determining quantity of materials needed to build hills or contours in the land, create rock walls or envision installation of different trees, bushes, flowers and other landscape elements.”

SkySkopes is now the first North Dakotan unmanned aircraft systems company to receive permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly at night under the agency’s recently implemented unmanned aircraft system rules. They are in cooperation with Xcel Energy as part of a research project that is exploring the use of drones to assess storm damage.

Amazon is, of course, mentioned for its recent demonstration of Amazon Prime Air delivery. Google Alphabet has also started testing an early version of a technology for managing unmanned drone delivery systems.

As the regulatory system starts to fall into place (of note, California recently banned marijuana delivery by drones), it seems that drone delivery methods will be commercialised in the near future, especially with these two massive corporations leading the charge.

Technology transforming airline travel

In the lower quadrant of the network, we can see a focus on technology with clusters like Machine Learning, Energy, and Displays and Manuals. These clusters are focused on implementing new programming, reducing costs, creating thinner and more durable materials, and improving energy consumption though advances in batteries.

Image: Quid
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