Fly­ing cars’ time might have come

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It looks like a goofy mos­quito, its fat cock­pit shov­ing through the wind while aloft, its wings folded up like a drag­on­fly while grounded. And it marks the big­gest step to­ward a real, com­mer­cial fly­ing car.

The Ter­rafu­gia Tran­si­tion earned an ex­emp­tion Mon­day (NZ time) from the United States’ Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion in the US as a ‘‘light sport air­craft,’’ mean­ing it is on track to le­galise the first fly­ing car.

Af­ter a few more rounds of au­dits and pa­per­work, the Tran­si­tion, a two-seated fly­ing thinga­ma­jig, can take to the skies un­der the com­mand of sport pi­lots, a low-thresh­old clas­si­fi­ca­tion.

Ter­rafu­gia can also com­mer­cially pro­duce the air­craft with­out re­peated bur­den­some cen­tral gov­ern­ment air­wor­thi­ness tests.

Fly­ing-car in­dus­try ex­ec­u­tives say their prod­ucts should en­ter the con­sumer mar­ket – al­beit at a high price – in the next decade.

But all that de­pends on clear­ing reg­u­la­tory hur­dles both as au­to­mo­biles and fly­ing ma­chines.

‘‘We’ve worked with the FAA, and you’re go­ing to have your bu­reau­crats and peo­ple who don’t want any­thing to change, but other peo­ple can see the fu­ture,’’ said Paul Moller, pres­i­dent and chief ex­ec­u­tive of avi­a­tion firm Moller In­ter­na­tional.

Light sport air­craft should weigh no more than 600 kilo­grams, seat two peo­ple, have non-re­tractable land­ing gear and strict speed lim­i­ta­tions.

The Tran­si­tion gained ex­cep­tions to be heav­ier, caused by fed­eral au­to­mo­bile safety re­quire­ments, and to ex­ceed the speed lim­its, be­cause a heav­ier air­plane has to fly faster.

Pi­lots can op­er­ate the air­craft with a ‘‘sport’’ li­cense, which re­quires 20 hours of lessons.

The light sport clas­si­fi­ca­tion was cre­ated in 2004 to al­low air­plane mak­ers to de­sign per- sonal air­craft with­out the in­tense reg­u­la­tion re­quired for larger fly­ing ma­chines. Bring­ing a new model air­craft to mar­ket in heav­ier ‘‘gen­eral avi­a­tion’’ clas­si­fi­ca­tions costs at least US$50 mil­lion (NZ$70.2m), said Carl Di­et­rich, Ter­rafu­gia’s co-founder, chief ex­ec­u­tive and chief tech­nol­ogy of­fi­cer.

In the be­gin­ning, light sport clas­si­fi­ca­tion did spur in­no­va­tion among air­craft mak­ers. Cessna, Piper and Cir­rus all made light sports, then dis­con­tin­ued them. Profit mar­gins were bet­ter on heav­ier, more lux­u­ri­ous air­craft.

That left the cat­e­gory mostly to in­ven­tors and small busi­nesses that made planes for fun, said Dick Knap­in­ski of the Ex­per­i­men­tal Air­craft As­so­ci­a­tion.

And it left the skies open to fly­ing cars.

A ba­sic small car – the Toy­ota Corolla, for ex­am­ple – weighs 1270 kilo­grams. Strip out ex­tra ma­te­rial to help it take flight, and it’s not hard to meet FAA weight re­quire­ments, es­pe­cially with a waiver.

Ter­rafu­gia’s waiver shows a path for other fly­ing car com­pa­nies to get a fed­eral go-ahead. Be­tween road­wor­thi­ness and air­wor­thi­ness, ex­perts say, ap­proval in the lat­ter is much more dif­fi­cult to at­tain.

In other words, it’s eas­ier to make a street-le­gal air­plane than an air-le­gal car.

The Tran­si­tion, and mod­els from other com­pa­nies look­ing to utilise the light sport clas­si­fi­ca­tion, have the foot­print of a large pickup truck. They have side-view and rear-view mir­rors or dis­play screens that elim­i­nate blind spots caused by fold­ing wings.

Ter­rafu­gia de­signed the ve­hi­cle so those with ba­sic driv­ers li­censes can use it on road­ways, pend­ing the ap­proval of fed­eral auto reg­u­la­tors.

They’re part of a camp in the fly­ing car in­dus­try that sees their ma­chines tak­ing off and land­ing on a run­way, like a con­ven­tional air­plane, then driv­ing the ‘‘last mile’’ to a fi­nal des­ti­na­tion. Oth­ers see the con­trap­tions lift­ing off and land­ing ver­ti­cally with­out the use of a run­way.

Both can utilise the light sport cat­e­gory.

Slo­vakia-based Aero­mo­bil also makes a fly­ing-car-type ve­hi­cle that uses a run­way. ‘‘We’re try­ing to type-ap­prove it as a plane and one that is recog­nis­able as a plane, then we’ll try to ap­prove it as a car,’’ said Dou­glas MacAn­drew, Aero­mo­bil’s chief tech­ni­cal of­fi­cer. ‘‘Those things are cer­tainly tech­ni­cal chal­lenges, but they’re not leg­isla­tive road­blocks as of now.’’

The Ter­rafu­gia Tran­si­tion F.JPG The Ter­rafu­gia Tran­si­tion Fly­ing Car.

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