Exploring the future of flying cars by looking at patent data
The concept of flying cars isn’t new, but are we getting closer to them being a reality? Looking at the patenting activity and what has been happening in this technology space, we pinpoint some key drivers, influencers and major players making the idea a reality.
Elon Musk suggested that “flying cars” will never happen, or shouldn’t. However, the research and investments in this technology area show there is genuine interest in making them happen. For example, Germany-based start-up Lilium recently secured a $90m (£69m) investment from, among others, Chinese tech giant Tencent and Atomico. They are far from the only active players in this technology space. We had the opportunity to hear from Volocoptor’s CIO Alex Zosel and Lilium investor Yann de Vries of Atomico at Tech Crunch Disrupt Berlin in December. Zosel sees his technology being applied within the next two to three years and de Vries sees Lilium reaching the market within the next ten years.
Why is the development of air taxis taking off now?
While the idea of personal flying vehicles is old, advancements in technology have reached a point to make this vision a reality. Flying cars, roadable aircrafts, VTOLs (vertical take-off and landing) and personal air vehicles, are a few of the synonyms for air taxis. Air taxis are now being developed to provide short-haul flights, for example, a 19km journey from Manhattan to JFK airport could last as little as five minutes in a Lilium jet, or as an on-demand form of door-to-door transportation.
While the race to develop flying cars has started to gain momentum in recent years, the concept has been around for decades. One of the earliest attempts at a flying car was by Glenn Curtiss who built the Curtiss Autoplane, a roadable aircraft (Figure 1.) in 1917, detailed in his patent US1294413A, that never achieved full flight. Several subsequent attempts were made during the last century to bring flying cars and autonomous aircraft to the market, but recent developments have paved the way for personal air transport to become a technological reality.
Figure 1. A sketch of the Curtiss Autoplane from Glenn Curtiss’ patent US1294413A
Reasons why air taxis are an attractive idea
Convenience and ease of congestion
Currently, traffic congestion is a major problem in most urban areas and air travel requires planning and time wasted at airports. For commuters in busy cities, air taxis would ease traffic and reduce daily commute times. For air travel, imagine the convenience of being able to travel with your luggage from your home to your local airport to check in for a flight, instead of dealing with airport parking and shuttles. The idea is that air taxis would operate much like the Uber or Lyft app, an individual would be able to request an air taxi to pick them up from a location at their chosen time, and drop them off directly at, or close to, their chosen destination.
The rate of innovation may be aided by Government mandates to reduce emissions and improve safety
Advancements in technology have helped to dismantle barriers to market feasibility for air taxis. Examples include software, materials, sensors, and battery technology. Air taxis need to be lightweight and composite materials such as carbon fiber help to reduce the weight of the vehicle, thus allowing for the addition of more batteries or payload. The development of distributed electric propulsion in the aircraft industry has improved the thrust efficiency and reduced emissions.
Battery technology has rapidly advanced and significant research is funded to further the emergence and adoption of electric cars and autonomous vehicles. Advancements in technology for autonomous and electric vehicles lend themselves perfectly for air taxis. Electric power rather than conventional fuel-powered flying cars is particularly important because the proposed air taxi infrastructure will be integrated into urban cities, and for the network to be viable, noise and emissions must be kept to a minimum.
Additionally, government initiatives are helping to make these technologies a potential commercial reality. For example, Britain has declared a ban on all diesel and petrol cars and vans from 2040. Dubai has outlined a self-driving strategy that aims to carry out “ 25% of its passenger transportation with the help of autonomous means of transport.”
While there is skepticism, the costs associated with building the infrastructure for an air taxi network may be more cost-efficient than building infrastructure for ground transportation. Without having to build and maintain roads and the peripheral structures to support them, the infrastructure required for air taxis costs are far less than that for ground transportation.
Air taxis, in particular, those that have vertical take-off and landing capabilities, don’t require runways. As this recent white paper from UberElevate highlights, existing infrastructures can be exploited for air taxi use. UberElevate proposes “Vertiports” that have charging facilities, hubs, and pads for take-off and landing that could be developed from existing unused land, tops of parking garages or existing helipads (Figure 2.).
Figure 2. Uber’s vertiport design
Intellectual property activity in air taxi space
Patent filing timeline for air taxi technology
We learn about the future of air taxies by understanding the patents filed and by whom. Figure 3 below shows the number of currently “live” patents filed each year since 1997. The shaded region shows a drop in the number of patents filed, though this is merely a result of patent applications that have not yet been published. There is a significant rise in patents filed between 2014 and 2015. During this period, we see a number of smaller players such as Zunum Aero, Joby Aviation, and XTI Aircraft, enter the space and file patents, driven perhaps by the developments in electric propulsion for aircrafts.
Figure 3. A patent filing timeline showing the number of live patents filed per year since 1997 with lapsed patents removed
We can also look at where these patents are being filed. Figure 4 shows that the largest number of filings are being made in the US. China follows closely behind, however nearly half of these are utility models. Europe, Japan, and Russia are also granting a number of patents in this area. Companies such as Toyota, Sikorsky Aircraft, and Honeywell International have all filed patents in various technologies in Japan.
Figure 4. The top five jurisdictions for patent filings
What are the key features of air taxis?
The design of air taxis varies between manufacturers but there are common features. Most have been initially designed for pilot controlled use but some envisage that these aircrafts will be autonomous, thus reducing the costs associated with training and employing pilots. Boeing recently acquired Aurora Flight Sciences Corporation which will allow them to leverage Aurora’s expertise in autonomous systems, electric propulsion, and advanced flight control. Both Boeing and Airbus have introduced fly-by-wire systems into commercial aircrafts, incorporating this system in air taxis will further reduce their weight and enhance safety through system redundancy.
Vehicles have also been designed to allow for vertical take-off and landing using tiltable electric engines that allow the engines to be rotated depending on the flight mode. Several different designs for propulsion technologies have been used, for example, Urban Aeronautic’s CityHawk uses ducted fans, while the Volocopter has a design with 18 rotors (Figure 5.). In terms of safety, these hybrid vehicles have both airbags and parachutes for protection on the road and in the air.
Figure 5. Volocopter 2X electric VTOL design with 18 rotors
Analysis of the patents allows us to identify the technology areas that are dominating this space (Figure 6). Technology related to propulsion methods or systems have the most patents filed with more than double the number of patents than those relating to control systems and the design of the aircraft. Fewer patents exist on landing platforms or landing systems for aircrafts and wing design. These areas could present potential new opportunities for players to enter this space or maybe there is less opportunity to innovate here?
Figure 6. Technology Breakdown – patent filing activity
Propulsion may be the vital technology
Efficient propulsion technology determines the practicality of these flying vehicles and Figure 7 shows the number of patents filed by the top companies in this area.
Figure 7. A heat map of patent activity for propulsion technologies by top companies
Rotor design dominates this space with roughly three times as many patent filings as any other technology. Sikorsky Aircraft currently leads the way with their coaxial counter-rotating rotor technology. Ducted fan technology (Figure 8), is proposed by Urban Aeronautics, and Metro Skyways Ltd., its subsidiary has patented their Fancraft™ technology (e.g. US7918416). Urban Aeronautics are leaders in this area and they filed patents ahead of their competitors in the early 2000s. If Urban Aeronautics are successful in bringing their VTOL aircrafts, in particular, the CityHawk, into commercial use, these early Fancraft™ technology patents could be a barrier to entry for competing companies.
Figure 8. Example diagram of ducted fan VTOL vehicle by Urban Aeronautics (US7806362)
Who are the key players in the flying cars space?
There are a number of companies developing air taxis and their patent filings provide an insight into their business and R&D activity. The players with the strongest patent portfolios are Sikorsky Aircraft (now owned by Lockheed Martin), Boeing, Airbus and LTA (Figure 9).
Figure 9. Top ten companies filing patents in the flying cars space
Unsurprisingly, large aircraft manufacturers such as Boeing and Airbus (including formerly Eurocopter Group) appear in the top ten companies. However, it is notable that smaller players such as Larry Page’s start-up Zee Aero and Rafi Yoeli’s Urban Aeronautics are also building strong patent portfolios.
More interesting may be the appearance of Honeywell International and General Electric in the top ten. They are leading players in electric or hybrid-electric aircrafts, however, neither seem to be particularly active in manufacturing flying cars, or forming partnerships to provide systems or components for other manufacturers. Honeywell International has patented several control and propulsion systems for VTOLs or unmanned aerial vehicles, and General Electric have several patents on engines for short take-off or vertical take-off and landing vehicles. It may be interesting to see whether these experienced patent licensing companies exploit their portfolios as the industry expands and matures.
Start-ups having an impact
Several start-ups are making an impact. AeroMobil s.r.o. has made significant technological advancements and their early patent filings in aircraft design filed in 2011 reflect this (Figure 10). Notably, AeroMobil filed a patent with the PCT in 2011 (WO2013032409A1) on the transformation method of a hybrid vehicle from the ground to the air. The strength of their patent portfolio attracted investors and they unveiled AeroMobil 3.0 at the Pioneers Festival in Vienna in 2014. They have also recently received funding from InfraPartners Management and are hoping to bring VTOLs to Asia through IPM’s connections, to help ease the congestion in cities in Asia. AeroMobil may be a key competitor in this area up against companies such as Zunum Aero and Zee Aero. These two companies have also received significant investments, with Boeing Co. and JetBlue Airways Corp. investing in Zunum Aero, and Larry Page investing in Zee Aero.
Figure 10. A heat map of patents for aircraft design
Uber Elevate’s partnerships suggest that they will become one of the key service operators in the Air Taxi service. They are planning to debut their network of on-demand VTOL aircrafts by 2020. They envision this will operate in the same way their Uber taxis do, with an in-app option which could be used to request an UberAir at roughly the same cost as an UberX. UberAir have partnered with several companies such as Aurora Flight Sciences, Pipistrel Aircraft, Embraer, Mooney, and Bell Helicopter, who will manufacture and design the aircrafts. Mooney International has partnered with Carter Aviation Technologies to produce electric VTOL aircrafts for Uber which use slowed rotor/compound technology. It will be interesting to see how this technology performs against Bell Helicopter’s tiltrotor technology for Uber’s air taxis. It is also uncertain what effect Boeing’s recent acquisition of Aurora Flight Sciences will have since Aurora is a crucial linchpin in Uber’s Air Taxi network plans.
Uber Elevate has also contracted with Dallas-Fort Worth and Dubai to be their launch partners and more recently has unveiled plans to test the network in Los Angeles. Dubai is racing ahead to become one of the first in the world to have an air taxi network, and the support from the Dubai Road and Transport Authority will be key in advancing this VTOL network. For example, their funding for studies into the pricing and demand of this network will have a huge impact on the adoption of air taxis. Uber’s recent partnership with NASA will also help them to develop air traffic management systems, a crucial step in implementing the network. In terms of vertiport development, Uber has partnered with real estate developers Dubai Holdings in the UAE as well as Hillwood Properties in Texas. They have also partnered with ChargePoint who will design the VTOL chargers, based on their ultra-fast DC chargers for electric vehicles. Aside from Dubai, Dallas-Fort Worth and Los Angeles, Uber’s partnership with Mooney International and Pipistrel Aircraft may demonstrate their attempt to get a foothold in the Chinese market.
With the push for Dubai’s self-driving strategy mentioned earlier in the article, and evidence from Volocopter’s autonomous aerial taxi and Ehang’s autonomous aerial vehicles gaining headway in Dubai, we can anticipate that there will be fierce competition between companies to become the first to develop the air taxi network in Dubai. We wonder if Uber will decide they need patents in this space in the coming years and then launch a patent acquisition program like they’ve done for their existing business. There is little evidence from the landscape that they themselves have an aggressive patenting program.
Car manufacturers are also involved in air taxi technology
Volocopter has secured €25 million investment from Daimler and the technology investor Lukasz Gadowski for its VTOLs. Daimler is part owner through the acquisition of HERE mapping which makes them well placed in the value chain. But Toyota is also investing and has filed patents in propulsion technology and VTOL control systems. Geely is another automaker who has entered the air taxi space and are planning to bring flying cars to the Chinese market with their recent acquisition of Terrafugia, a small start-up designing flying cars.
Observations and takeaways
A review of the patents in this area highlights the diversity of designs and technologies that are enabling flying cars to become a reality. We see a range of small companies entering the space and building portfolios to strengthen their position in this market. We also see large players investing, acquiring or partnering with start-ups in order to acquire expertise and technology in the race to bring air taxis to the market. This benefits smaller players in that they gain access to capital and a platform upon which they can rapidly develop their ideas. We are also observing open innovation, with Uber’s business model being a prime example, collaborations between several players and standardisation of certain aspects (e.g. flight control) will be key to turning the air taxi network vision into a reality.
Like the world of mobile communications, and more recently automotive, we see incumbents, disruptive new entrants and large tech companies fighting to find their way into an exciting high value market, not all of them are following up with a comprehensive approach to their IP strategies and whilst this article provides an insight into this emerging sector, a more in-depth analysis is essential to understand the full scope of the IP landscape, identify the key technologies being adopted, and determine which new players are the most innovative as well as identifying any IP risks that may impact business plans downstream.