IN DERBY, A PAIR OF VISIONARY INVENTORS ARE BUILDING THAT MOST DREAMT-OF THINGS – A FLYING CAR, AND HELPING TO ADVANCE THE UK AVIATION INDUSTRY IN THE PROCESS.
It’s one of the most beloved pay-off lines in all of
cinema. “Hey Doc,” says Marty McFly, at the end of
Back to the Future, as he and his girlfriend Jennifer,
and the crazy scientist Emmett Doc Brown prepare
to send the garbage-powered DeLorean to 2015. “We’d better back up, we don’t have enough road to get up to 88mph.” “Roads?” drawls Doc, casually slipping his silver sunglasses-cum-aviator goggles over his eyes. “Where we’re going, we don’t need… roads.” And with that, the four-wheeled time machine rises 10ft off the ground, its tyres flatten outward, and the gravity-defying car whooshes off down the lanes of Hill Valley like a UFO.
From Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to Lady Penelope’s jet powered pink Ford, and Blade Runner’s ‘Spinners’, flying cars have had a grip on the public imagination for decades; as far back, in fact, as the 18th century, when an attempt was made to build a gliding horse cart (spoiler: it didn’t work). Following the success of the Wright Brothers in 1903 to launch a flying machine that was heavier than air, other would-be-pioneers have tried to get their motors aloft – some, with fatal consequences. In 1917, Glenn Curtiss, pretty much ‘the father of the flying car’, attempted to get his Curtiss Autoplane off the ground by the simple expedient of attaching a four-bladed propeller
to the rear – no joy. While in 1946, Robert Fulton tried the other tack of adapting an aeroplane for the road. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this worked – but he couldn’t get the funding. Always annoying when that happens. Later, partly inspired by Fulton’s ‘Airphibian’, “Molt” Taylor created the Aerocar – which happily cruised along at 120mphm airborne. Six versions were made, and Ford even planned to market one during the 1970s, but the American oil crisis saw that plan nosediving too.
Like Back to the Future II’s hoverboard, then, it seems
we’re still not quite ready for a mass-market flying car.
Or are we? In Derbyshire, home of Rolls Royce and
Bombardier, two visionary entrepreneurs think they’ve cracked it. Working out of a workshop at the iHub, in Infinity Technology Park, VRCO CEO Dan Hayes and VCRO chairman Mike Smith are building a “Fly, Float & Ground” prototype with the help of the University of Derby, who’ve given it a feasibility thumbs-up. Aimed at those with plenty of pocket money, the electric-powered NeoXCraft will initially have a range of 75 to 100 miles, with a 180 knots cruise speed and a 30-minute charge time. According to VRCO, it’ll be very safe, eco-friendly, and able to be charged exclusively on solar power. In short, they want to “produce the best, most elegant personal electric multi modal craft available”. It’ll be “a digital device – like a phone,” says Hayes, quiet and cheap to run, and will be available in limited numbers initially (fewer than 50 per year) before VRCO plan to develop four and six-seaters. It works by having
a wing shape through the centre, while turbines used for take-off turn double as both engines and wheels. And while there are other flying cars in operation, Smith and Hayes says theirs is less cumbersome, and will be able to take off (and land) vertically and on water, which the others can’t. It’ll also be able to land on a yacht, and in tighter spots than Helicopters.
Neither Hayes or Smith are from the flight industry –
“We’ve come at this from a no rules, no limits attitude,” says Smith – although aviation clearly runs in Hayes’ blood “We have a great aviation heritage in this country,” says Smith, “and a lot of people have been willing to help” like jet fuel: his mum was an air hostess, his uncle was a senior operating captain for the airline Flybe, his grandad was one of the founders of Nottingham Air Club – “and my gran did a wing walk”. It was while observing aviator Yves Rossy flying around the Swiss Alps with a jetpack, that Hayes hit upon the concept in 2016. Luckily, Smith
(who previously worked with Drones) didn’t try to talk him out of it. “There were some pretty crazy sketches,” says the latter, on the pair’s initial design ideas. In the course of building it, they’ve had to “invent lots of things” – including a super-conducting graphene phrase. “We have a great aviation heritage in this country,” says Smith, “and a lot of people have been willing to help”, such as local engineering companies, underlining the Midlands’ reputation as a hi-tech hub. They aim to have half a dozen cars ready for testing and certification by 2020, and hope their “showcase of UK craftsmanship and innovation” will
lead to highly skilled aviation manufacturing job creation. You get the feeling the civic-minded Marty and Doc would definitely be impressed.