Humans have always been fascinated with flight. In Greek mythology Icarus’ escaped gravity with wings made from wax and feathers. Unfortunately he became overconfident and instead of playing it safe with this amazing new invention.... in his hubris he flew too close to the sun - which melted his wings and so he plummeted to his death.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, the amazing genius that was Leonardo da Vinci designed a helical screw and a parachute way back in the 15th Century. Then in 1783, the Mongolfier brothers for the first time in human history achieved practical, free flight with their hot air balloon design.
Gliders followed, but it took until 1903 before Orville & Wilbur Wright made the first powered flight. Aircraft design accelerated beyond belief during the first world war, but after the invention of the jet engine in 1930 by RAF engineer Sir Frank Whittle, there were far fewer big technological leaps in aeronautics.
Today, many believe that’s about to change – and that we currently stand on the cusp of the next big technological leap thanks to the combination of AI, drone and battery technology.
Professor Iain Gray, director of aerospace at the UK’s Cranfield University, says that “We’re seeing new materials.. We’re seeing new technologies around autonomy [self-flying aircraft] and artificial intelligence for the first time applied in aerospace. And we’re seeing really exciting opportunities around electric propulsion.
He may be right - electric propulsion and AI may well be the driving force in the next generation of innovative aircraft.
Airbus believe their pilotless, vertical take off or landing sky taxi will be able to carry four passengers and be operational within the next five years.
The benefits are hoped to be greater convenience, less pollution and less congestion. Of course, the production version will need to be a little bigger than the prototype pictured – but AirBus are committed to having the full size version flying by the end of 2018.
New start-up Volocopter have a similar idea and goal – their design uses 18 rotors to ensure safety in case a motor fails and has room for 2 passengers.
It might seem a little far fetched, but this company is funded to a tune of 30 million Euro’s by sponsors such as Mercedes and Intel and unlike AirBus, a full size prototype has been flown both with a pilot and fully autonomously. Check out the amazing video...
Neither company can relax though, as the competition isn’t far behind. Companies such as China's Ehang, Israel’s Tactical Robotics, ride-sharing giant Uber and California-based Vimana have all made bold claims in the field.
We live in exciting times and I wonder just what Leonardo da Vinci would have made of it all. He’d probably be advising these clever companies to play it safe and not fly too close to the sun.
Hubris can be dangerous.
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