From The Jetsons to Blade Runner via The Fifth Element, flying cars are a mainstay of science fiction, and for Australian entrepreneur Matt Pearson, owning one was a boyhood dream.
Pearson is the founder of Alauda Racing (opens in new tab), and creator of Airspeeder (opens in new tab) – a new sports league specifically for what he calls "Ferraris of the sky". Manned drones will compete head-to-head, streaking around a track at speeds up to 200kmph. The company has already presented showcases featuring three-quarter scale prototypes, and will unveil its first full-scale prototype at the Goodwood Festival of Speed (opens in new tab) in July.
It's an incredibly ambitious project, but Pearson makes it sound like the most natural thing in the world. His first business was a software startup, but he found his attention drawn skyward.
"I wanted to do something a little bit bigger, so I founded a space startup aiming to put small satellites in space for internet connectivity," he tells TechRadar. "Australia and a lot of other parts of the world really suffer from terrible internet connectivity, and there’s a lot of industrial equipment and things outside of cities that need to be connected, and so I started working on that and last year we put four satellites in orbit, which is pretty cool."
The company spend five or six years getting a foothold in the space industry, but again, Pearson got itchy feet. "I thought, well, that that seems to be going well enough,'" he says. "Let's do something really crazy and found a flying car manufacturer."
The driving experience – airborne
Pearson's ultimate aim is to take flying cars mainstream and make them accessible to everyone – as easy to pilot as a terrestrial car is to drive – but the technology is still in its infancy.
"We formed a company called Alauda Aeronautics and we set out to scale drone technology bigger and bigger and bigger, and see if we could turn it into something that could carry a person," he says.
"This was before everyone else came out – before EHang (opens in new tab) revealed itself to the world, CityAirbus (opens in new tab), Volocopter (opens in new tab) – so when we started talking about how we were going to build flying cars, everyone thought 'OK, you’re certifiably crazy'. But after about a year of work, articles started to come out all over the place, and suddenly they went 'Oh, yeah, that makes a lot of sense.'"
Alauda's flying cars will be different, though. Companies like Boeing and Bell are are working on flying taxis as an easy way to get from A to B.
"This is what revolution looks like, and it's because of autonomy," said John Langford, president and chief executive officer of Boeing subsidiary Aurora Flight Sciences at the launch of Boeing NeXt (opens in new tab) – a prototype air taxi. "Certifiable autonomy is going to make quiet, clean and safe urban air mobility possible."
Such projects are cool, Pearson says, but he wants to preserve the driving experience as much as possible. His vision of a flying car is something that's as simple to operate as an ordinary sedan, but airborne: "instead of the complexity of flying a helicopter or plane, having something that's easy to control as a car that anyone can drive, but through the air."
A Ferrari of the sky
A totally new form of transport involves a lot of research and development, but Pearson had a plan – a way to step on the accelerator and drive the technology forward.
"I really wanted to build something really, really exciting," he explains. "Something necessarily expensive. And the very first version we created was going to be a very low volume, high cost vehicle. So I thought well, let’s start with a sports car or, you know, or hyper sports car – essentially a Ferrari of the sky."
Rather than waiting 10 years for the aerial mobility industry to catch up, Alauda set about building a market for flying cars from first principles with a dedicated racing league.
"Since the beginning of motoring you’ve had racing, and so much good stuff comes out competition, right?" Pearson says. "You have enormous amount of money and expertise and talent just poured into pushing the technology further and further. So that really made a lot of sense.
"And we’ve seen things like Formula One spinning off Formula E (opens in new tab), drone racing (opens in new tab) has come up, Roborace (opens in new tab) has come up – they’re trying to find the next step in racing. And we figured merging those things into electric vehicle racing makes total sense.
"I always say that building a race around this, you capture an enormous audience. We build a market for our vehicle at Alauda."
That market is Airspeeder – a prestige sport featuring four-meter-long electric vehicles racing head-to-head in some of the world's hottest locations.
"it captures the motorsport audience," says Pearson. "It also captures the esports and the drone-racing audience, and I always say ‘Who is not going to watch a flying car race?’
Taking flight in 2020
The showcase at Goodwood in July will mark the start of a new stage for Alauda and Airspeeder. Manned test flights will take place later this year, and the team are hard at work ensuring the vehicle meets safety standards.
"You see a lot of things on YouTube, like people hovering a lawn chair, or hovering a bathtub or whatever," says Pearson, "but we’re doing something quite different. If you want to do something for performance you need much bigger motors, bigger propellers, a lot more power."
Alauda is working closely with regulators to make sure it's playing by the rules. As Pearson notes, certifying a vehicle is one thing, but certifying it for sport is something else entirely. The company is working to a tough timeframe, but it's determined to do everything by the book.
It's also in talks with big landmark sponsors and broadcasters for the first world championships, which are scheduled for next year. Pearson isn't giving too much away just yet, but he says things are taking shape and Goodwood really marks the kick-off.
One thing Alauda's not struggling with is finding pilots to strap themselves in for some serious G-forces.
"There’s this really interesting mix of people who are current motorsport racing drivers, drone pilots and then ex-military people as well," Pearson says. "But we also get a surprising number of people who are just like, ‘Sign me up! When can I get in one? Let’s do this!’"
For more info, keep an eye on Airspeeder.com (opens in new tab). From July, things are going to move fast.