Flying cars coming in five years, says Intel drone chief


Anil Nanduri says it’s cheaper to put cars in the air than under cities in tunnels.

Intel drone leader Anil Nanduri
Intel drone leader Anil Nanduri

 

Drones are useful today for real estate photos and gas pipeline inspections. They could be useful tomorrow for home security and package delivery. But in a half decade, they could well shuttle you to work over the heads of drivers stuck in traffic.

That’s what Anil Nanduri, general manager of Intel’s drone group, expects. Drone innovation combined with people paying their way out of gridlock will mean flying cars will transform from exotic to accepted in the next few years.

Some companies agree, perhaps most notably Ehang and Uber, which wants to launch air taxis by 2023. But there are plenty of safety, engineering and social challenges. Not to mention the fact that Elon Musk — the CEO of Tesla, SpaceX and the Boring Company, who has a knack for figuring out what’s just within our technological reach — thinks we’re better off putting cars in underground tunnels.

Nanduri’s job is closer to today’s tech. He’s trying to automate drone operations such as inspecting bridges for cracks or choreographing constellations of drones in a kind of digital fireworks. The latter is a publicity stunt, most recently on display at Super Bowl 53, but smoothly coordinating 2,000 drones that’re flying up to 8 meters per second is also a dress rehearsal for tomorrow’s more complicated airspace.

Nanduri sat down with CNET’s Stephen Shankland for an exclusive interview at the All About Autonomy 2019 conference. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: Let’s look five years in the future. Do you think we’re going to have flying cars?
Nanduri: There will definitely be flights with flying cars in five years. At scale? Probably not. But definitely you’ll see them starting to be up in the sky. The most amazing thing about autonomous air traffic is that airspace solves the three-dimensional challenge that the ground traffic is faced with.

Watch this: Uber reveals more about its flying taxi ambitions
2:53

What about 10 years? Will it be more common?
Nanduri: In 10 years, you’ll start to see air taxis. It’s our job to make it happen.

A business guy can run the economics and see how the cost models work out at the ecosystem level. When you see that, you know it’s going to happen. And you have these huge pain points. Traffic is only getting more and more congested, and people want instant gratification — they want everything delivered.

Now, how do you put it all together and get the regulations and get the compliance? Once you see that one instance of it working, then you’ll see it rapidly roll out.

I worry about that one instance where you see it not working. People are famous for making decisions based on avoiding negative outcomes.
Nanduri: It’s absolutely something the industry should be cognizant of. A recent example is what happened at the Gatwick Airport [when a drone shut down air traffic]. We got to acknowledge it, embrace it. And we need to know that technology can solve it. It slows it down, but because the economics and the pain points are there, it will eventually cross that barrier.

Intel Shooting Star lantern-equipped drone
One of the 150 Intel Shooting Star lantern-equipped drones used in Super Bowl 53’s half time show.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

When an ordinary car has a problem at 60 mph or 30 mph, it’s still stuck to the ground. With flying cars you have this problem called gravity. Is that something you can overcome?
Nanduri: You have 40,000 people per year who die in car accidents. Yet people accept it, and they drive. When you have two hours stuck in traffic and you can shorten that, especially in commuting, you have to adapt. If you go today to Bangalore or Beijing, it’s so congested, you are literally in a parking lot.

Once you see [flying cars], the benefit far overrides the hurdles. If I give you two hours back, you get to watch that movie or spend more time with your family.

They have to be safe. There are always early adopters willing to take bigger risks. But as time progresses, more and more people will get comfortable.

Three dimensions gets you a lot more room than being confined to the surface of the Earth. Elon Musk [head of Tesla, SpaceX and the Boring Company] wants to build tunnels under Los Angeles and Las Vegas. What do you think of tunnels for cars?
Nanduri: It’s very simple. It’s a cost. Putting it into the sky is lot less expensive than having to touch physical infrastructure.

The same thing goes with the cost of deploying fiber versus wireless communication. That’s why 5g is so much more exciting. I can get, you know, the huge bandwidth without the expensive infrastructure costs of laying out cables.

Where will we see the first use of passenger drones? The worst gridlock is in urban areas already crowded with news helicopters, skyscrapers and maybe delivery drones.
Nanduri: It’ll come from different avenues. There are always gonna be the entrepreneurs and high-net-worth people who can showcase the new technology.

I think there will be cargo drones moving supplies and equipment — that will drive a lot of the innovation. You may be not even surprised if the initial versions of these will have a pilot in there, just to give that sense of safety. It will evolve from being manned to eventually becoming unmanned.

You get a half an hour of battery life out of little camera drones weighing 100 grams. What about when it’s 100 kilograms of human payload?
Nanduri: You hit on the biggest challenge. If you look at the physics of a multirotor system, no matter what size and scale, you’re going to have 30 to 45 minutes of battery life with existing battery technology. With a larger drone, you can put more battery in it, but you’re carrying more weight. That’s why people are looking at hybrid EVTOL [electric vertical takeoff and landing] systems. They can take advantage of the aerodynamics of tilt-rotor designs. Once you are in flight, you’re more like a traditional aircraft, but then you’re able to take off and land vertically. That has its own challenges, so you see a lot of innovation to extend your flight time.

Intel is hoping others will adopt its scale for drone autonomy, similar to one already used to grade self-driving car abilities.
Intel is hoping others will adopt its scale for drone autonomy, similar to one already used to grade self-driving car abilities.

Intel

Even little tiny quadcopters can get pretty noisy. If you’re talking about something big enough to lift a human being or big Amazon packages, with multiple flights a day to your neighbors’ houses, that really adds up.
Nanduri: It’s all social acceptance and social perception that’s going to drive it. It’s more important as they come into the urban, high-density areas. But is it really the loudness? You’ll be surprised — sometimes it’s the frequency of the sound.

Does “social acceptance” translate to “better get used to it”?
Nanduri: No! There is technology that will help make them quieter. If it’s a frequency problem, it’s how the rotors are designed that gives you the changes in the frequency tones. There’s research going on as to how I can make them more human friendly. These things become barriers to adoption. But at end of the day, the social acceptance comes down to value. If people see value, then they’re willing to deal with some of the irritating aspects that come as part of that.

Will we have landing pads at our houses and apartments and put giant QR codes on our roofs to help drones navigate to our homes?
Nanduri: It could be a mat with a QR code on it. But to be more seamless, depth-sensing sensors will map the environment. They’ll enable the systems to get very smart, to know even if there’s a pet in the backyard so they know not to land. The takeoff and landing elements and the safety around that are still things we’re learning. When do I land? Is it safe to drop a package? Do I land and then someone picks it up?

In the old days, we didn’t have mailboxes, and now we do. Will everybody have drone mailboxes?
Nanduri: It’s going to vary. You could say, I’m having a picnic in the park and I want my pizza delivered here. There’s not going to be an automated spot, but the system should be capable of knowing where is it safe and get it to me. You don’t have to be constrained to a location to get what you need.

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Charles Bombardier: drones are the future, not flying cars


Charles Bombardier, Canadian inventor and engineer, is the founder of Imaginactive, a non-profit dedicated to innovative ideas in vehicle design. Like his grandfather Joseph-Armand Bombardier, he has many great ideas that might change the transport industry as we know it. In this exclusive interview with AeroTime, Charles shares his insights about the future trends in aircraft design. 

What are your thoughts on current trends in aircraft design? What ideas should be tossed away and what concepts should be embraced on a wider scale?

I think that we are going in the right direction with lighter aircraft structures and more efficient engines (C-Series). The biggest problem we face is development cost. Companies take the risk to develop new technologies and that risk needs to be shared with the users and the countries that will benefit from them.

If we had the capital we could develop really high-tech airplanes but it would cost hundreds of billions of dollars to develop them. Are the customers and the public ready to assign that much capital to airline travel? Maybe it should be invested in faster trains? That is one of the problems behind development. I think that in the future more alliances will be made between countries and companies to reduce the risk associated with R&D and marketing, and we will be able to work on bold projects like the ones proposed by NASA.

 In your concepts you seem to use many elements from animal biology. What inspires you most – nature or science fiction?

Real problems inspire me the most. Technology inspired me the most to solve those problems. If the technology uses biomimetic principles then I will feature it. Science fiction is inspiring too but it lacks credibility. I am willing to avoid going into detail to leave room for interpretation but I am not willing to say something like “this is a Transporter and it simply teleports you”.

My goal is to inspire people including tinkerers, designers, engineers and policy makers. I would like to build a positive view of our future and encourage the next generation to talk about the world they want to live in. By sharing my ideas openly I am also asking indirectly to consumers a primordial question: are you interested in this idea? If a concept gets lots of attention, it helps to convince investors to finance a prototype. In a way, it’s a step before crowdfunding.

 How many of your own concepts have been brought to life?

A scale model of the Nunavik arctic express was built; Iruka and Wingsurf were also built as prototypes (not by me). I know there are more but I don’t keep track of them, and some tinkerers or companies might prefer to keep their projects confidential. Once I publish a concept idea, it becomes out of my hands.

I would like to try the Sekonride at home; it’s a VR powersport simulator. It would be cool to explore new worlds with it.  In airports I would really like to use a system like the Escatek concept to save time. In Montreal, a driverless motorcycle like the Cyclotron would be handy to commute daily. Of course I have lots of other favorites; these are just the ones that come to mind.

 

After more than 20 years in development, roadable aircraft AeroMobil 3.0 is expected to enter the market in 2017. How optimistic are you about flying cars?

I think light eccentric drones is the way to the future of solo or tandem flying, flying cars are too heavy. I think people will start using shared cars and shared drones depending on what they need to accomplish. So it will be more efficient this way for everyone.

From your point of view, could solar power aircraft be used to power large passenger airplanes?

I don’t see that happening. A glider with very fragile wings achieved this but imagine the power required to carry 800 people with their luggage and the structure designed to carry them safely! Solar power is limited by the surface you can cover. I think electricity storage is the way to go, in the meantime maybe hydrogen could be exploited but it’s too expensive compared to jet fuel. Like I said, lighter aircraft and more efficient engines and aerodynamics is the way to go. At least in the short term.

Will hybrid airplanes (such as the Airlander 10) be entering the market any time soon?

Well, you caught me there! I’ve been so busy these last few months that I missed its maiden flight, so I will need to take a look at it and get back to you. Anyway the problem is not finding new ways to fly, it’s the risk associated with developing the technology. There is simply not enough risk takers to support the amount of capital required to develop a plane. So what we need to do is become creative on how we will finance future aircraft designs and think outside the traditional box.

Watch the video. URL:https://youtu.be/kzYb68qXpD0