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Pop.Up Next prototype
Audi, Airbus and Italdesign are showing off a quarter-scale prototype of their “Pop.Up Next” drone-car hybrid at the Amsterdam Drone Week conference. (Audi AG Photo)

A flying car developed by Airbus, Audi and Italdesign took a high-profile test flight today at the Amsterdam Drone Week conference, but its size was low-profile.

The modular vehicle was a quarter-scale demonstration model of the “Pop.Up Next” transportation system that the three companies are developing.

The idea is to have a passenger compartment that can sit on top of a four-wheeled electric vehicle to travel the roads, or attach to the bottom of a quadcopter to fly through the air. At the Amsterdam show, the three companies displayed impressive full-scale mockups of the flying car, but the gizmo that actually flew was basically a drone with brackets attached.

When the drone landed onstage, a toy car drove up beneath it, and the car’s chassis was pulled up to the drone’s underside. Then the drone flew off, leaving the car’s four-wheeled base behind. During the final part of the demonstration, the drone set down again, waited for the wheeled vehicle platform to drive beneath and deposited the chassis on top.

You can see how it worked in this video:

Audi and its subsidiary, Italdesign, took the wraps off its partnership with Airbus earlier this year, but this week’s Amsterdam show served as a coming-out party for the small-scale prototype.

“Flying taxis are on the way. We at Audi are convinced of that,” Bernd Martens, who is an Audi board member and Italdesign’s president, said in a news release. “More and more people are moving to cities. And more and more people will be mobile thanks to automation.”

Audi is already conducting tests of on-demand air taxi services in Mexico City and São Paulo in cooperation with Voom, an Airbus subsidiary. Customers can book helicopter flights through Voom, and get a ride to or from the airport in an Audi.

Airbus and Audi are also gearing up for a flying-taxi test project in the German city of Ingolstadt, Audi’s corporate headquarters.

“Services like this help us to understand our customers’ needs better,” Martens said. “Because in the future, flying taxis will appeal to a wide range of city dwellers. With Pop.Up Next we are simultaneously exploring the boundaries of what is technically possible. The next step is for a full-size prototype to fly and drive.”

It’s not clear just how quickly Pop.Up Next will turn into a widely available commercial service. Audi says it could happen “as soon as the coming decade.”

Meanwhile, other flying-car efforts are gathering steam: Uber says it will begin pilot projects in Dallas-Fort Worth, Dubai and Los Angeles by as early as 2020. Boeing is involved in several ventures targeting the air-mobility market, including Aurora Flight Sciences (a Boeing subsidiary that’s working with Uber) and SkyGrid (a platform partnership with SparkCognition).

Other companies working on electric-powered, vertical-takeoff-and-landing vehicles, also known as eVTOL aircraft, include Opener, Kitty HawkJoby Aviation, TerrafugiaVerdeGo Aero, Britain’s Aston Martin and Rolls-Royce, the Dutch venture PAL-V, China’s EHang, Germany’s Volocopter and Lilium, Switzerland’s Passenger Drone, Slovakia’s AeroMobil and Japan’s Cartivator Project.

Pop.Up Next isn’t Airbus’ only foray into flying cars: Airbus Ventures is supporting the development of Vahana’s electric-powered air vehicles, which went into flight testing early this year in eastern Oregon.

All this activity is what led Jaiwon Shin, NASA’s associate administrator for aeronautics, to say during a Seattle conference this month that there’s a “revolution coming in aviation.” Over the next few years, NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration are planning a series of Urban Air Mobility Grand Challenges to lay the groundwork for what they hope will be a peaceful revolution.

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