Israel to test ducted-fan robot air jeep 'within two months'

Auto-stabilised for windowsill boarding


Paris Airshow Israeli developers working on a ducted-fan flying hovercar say that a full-size, turbine driven unmanned prototype will fly "within two months". Flight tests with a smaller electrically-driven model, they say, have validated their basic technology.

The Urban Aeronautics Mule being readied for testing in Israel

Sorry sir, your flying car isn't quite ready yet.

The Reg flying-car desk spoke today with Janina Frankel-Yoeli, marketing veep at Urban Aeronautics of Israel, at the Paris Airshow. Urban Aeronautics prefer to call their designs "fancraft", thereby distinguishing them from hovercraft, which can't actually fly.

"We've solved the three basic problems of ducted-fan craft," he says. "Our craft are stable, they can lift heavy loads, and they can fly fast - better than 100 knots."

Various ducted fan designs were tested for the US forces decades ago, and it was widely expected in some circles that "air jeeps" would soon supersede helicopters - and also take on many tasks that helicopters couldn't tackle, such as access to and from built-up urban areas.

The old US designs were marginal in terms of performance, however, and difficult to control. They never progressed beyond testing.

Frankel-Yoeli says it's a different world now. In particular, he argues that Urban Aero's patented arrays of control vanes above and below the lift fans make the craft hugely more stable and controllable. He demonstrated how, as the small "Panda" electrical prototype is tilted (as by someone boarding from a windowsill four floors up, for instance, in the case of a full-size manned version) the vanes automatically swivel to redirect the airflow.

Urban Aero say that the vanes, combined with modern fly-by-wire control electronics, will beat the stability problems that bedevilled their fancraft predecessors. The system will also allow an Urban Aero Mule or future manned X-Hawk to manoeuvre in any direction and rotate about its vertical axis without the need to tilt its thrust discs.

"Its great advantage is in urban areas," says Frankel-Yoeli. "Not just for military missions. Imagine a car accident, with both lanes of traffic blocked. A normal ambulance can't get there. A helicopter has no room. But we can land on the pavement."

The Israeli fancraft ticks a lot of flying-car boxes. It takes off and lands vertically, hovers, and can manoeuvre about between buildings without crashing blades into them.

All that said, Urban Aero "fancraft" still aren't shaping up as flying cars just yet. Large models capable of carrying people need to be powered by noisy gas turbines, unacceptable in residential areas. Then, the design is dominated by the need to keep the fan discs large - enough to seriously affect the useability of the craft. (This is why helicopters and tiltrotors have so far been the only serious vertical-takeoff craft: they can have nice big, efficient thrust discs.)

There's also the fact that it's pretty difficult to get mainstream aerospace and military people to take ideas like this seriously. Bell Helicopter in the States actually decided three years ago that it would take up the job of marketing Urban Aero fancraft to the US military. But there seems to have been little interest from the Pentagon, and the new CEO at Bell has disowned the project altogether.

But Frankel-Yoeli and his colleagues aren't giving up. The hovering fancraft could yet be a boon to the military and perhaps the emergency services - if they can really perform as advertised. The electric Panda seems to work, but the real test will come this summer when the turbine Mule takes to the skies. ®


Other stories you might like

  • 5G C-band rollout at US airports slowed over radio altimeter safety fears
    Well, they did say from July, now they really mean from July 2023

    America's aviation watchdog has said the rollout of 5G C-band coverage near US airports won't fully start until next year, delaying some travelers' access to better cellular broadband at crowded terminals.

    Acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen said in a statement this month that its discussions with wireless carriers "have identified a path that will continue to enable aviation and 5G C-band wireless to safely co-exist."

    5G C-band operates between 3.7-3.98GHz, near the 4.2-4.4GHz band used by radio altimeters that are jolly useful for landing planes in limited visibility. There is or was a fear that these cellular signals, such as from cell towers close to airports, could bleed into the frequencies used by aircraft and cause radio altimeters to display an incorrect reading. C-band technology, which promises faster mobile broadband, was supposed to roll out nationwide on Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile US's networks, but some deployments have been paused near airports due to these concerns. 

    Continue reading
  • Amazon shows off robot warehouse workers that won't complain, quit, unionize...
    Mega-corp insists it's all about 'people and technology working safely and harmoniously together'

    Amazon unveiled its first "fully autonomous mobile robot" and other machines designed to operate alongside human workers at its warehouses.

    In 2012 the e-commerce giant acquired Kiva Systems, a robotics startup, for $775 million. Now, following on from that, Amazon has revealed multiple prototypes powered by AI and computer-vision algorithms, ranging from robotic grippers to moving storage systems, that it has developed over the past decade. The mega-corporation hopes to put them to use in warehouses one day, ostensibly to help staff lift, carry, and scan items more efficiently. 

    Its "autonomous mobile robot" is a disk-shaped device on wheels, and resembles a Roomba. Instead of hoovering crumbs, the machine, named Proteus, carefully slots itself underneath a cart full of packages and pushes it along the factory floor. Amazon said Proteus was designed to work directly with and alongside humans and doesn't have to be constrained to specific locations caged off for safety reasons. 

    Continue reading
  • Tencent Cloud slaps googly eyes on a monitor, says it can care for oldies
    It's called 'i-Care' and it screams 'I don't, actually'

    Tencent Cloud has released an odd robot-adjacent device designed to provide telemedicine services.

    The effort is called i-Care and is the result of a tie up with USA-based IT services Millennium Technology Services (MTS)'s subsidiary Invincible Technology. The two companies set out to create "a digital solution that aims to improve patients' experience and quality of life as well as draw patients, families and caregivers closer than ever."

    "Customers' habits and expectations have evolved dramatically over the last few years across various industries including the medical and healthcare field, driven by the further emergence of digital technologies and cloud computing," said Tencent Cloud in a canned statement.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022