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Passenger drones and flying cars promise to revolutionize mobility – yet again. Powered by an electric engine, these mini planes can take off and land like a helicopter but are much more quiet. And so energy efficient they’re even able to compete with electric cars. How soon will this future arrive?
Kitty Hawk is one of the most prominent startups in this new industry: Backed by Google co-founder Larry Page, the Californian company is headed by Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford AI expert, pioneer of self-driving cars and founder of online university Udacity, which he launched at Burda’s innovation conference DLD in 2012. From January 18-20, the brightest digital minds from all over the world will once again meet in Munich ahead of the World Economic Forum in Davos for DLD Munich. Thrun will be one of the highlight speakers of the conference so we asked him five questions on the new age of aviation ahead of the conference.
What’s the big promise of these new, electric flying vehicles?
Our goal is to free the world from traffic, once and forever. I firmly believe we can build a totally new, urban transportation system that is roughly five to ten times as efficient as cars, at least ten times as safe, and also cost-competitive.
When you have a lot of vehicles suddenly flying around, especially over cities, how do you coordinate the traffic?
We will control the airspace in a similar way it is controlled today. When you fly a commercial jet, air traffic control separates planes in the air so that no two planes are in the same segment at the same time. Similarly, each air taxi will get its own, separate air space.
Kitty Hawk is one of many companies pursuing a vision of small, electric planes for personal use. Why do we see this proliferation of projects right now?
The key innovation has been the advent of high-performance batteries that deliver enough energy to make this concept feasible. You can fly over 100 km on a single charge, and you can do this for just pennies in energy costs. Second, you can now create distributed propulsion system, using many rotors for a single vehicle. That means it’s not a big deal if one of them fails. And thirdly, electric motors are very, very quiet. So you can fly over cities and no one can hear you. This all is very different from helicopters.
In terms of noise, how does a Kitty Hawk vehicle compare to an electric car or a vacuum cleaner?
First of all, you’re further away from it, of course. At a distance of 500 meters the sound is below 38 decibles. That might feel like a cryptic number but it means it’s almost as quiet as sitting in a library. So you will not hear Heaviside flying over you if you’re inside your house.
When it comes to flying, many people are very concerned about climate change. Even electric aviation requires a lot of energy. How do you address these concerns?
With basic math: Our vehicles use about 10 percent of the energy for lift and staying in the air. The other 90 percent is used for the forward motion (or “drag“), which is equally required on the ground. And because you cut the distance of travel by about 15 percent by going on a straight line, our vehicles are more energy-efficient than cars.