Another flying car company is preparing to join the race to the skies, as Australia’s Macchina Volantis gears up to build a prototype of its road-drivable 5-seat electric aircraft. With VTOL capability, winged flight mode and a diesel range extender, this thing promises to fly at three times highway speed and offer some serious range.

“Serial problem fixer” Stephen Fries is as sick of traffic as the rest of us, and ready to start commuting in three-dimensional space. Unlike most of us, however, he’s not planning to wait for somebody else to make it happen. He believes that practical, road-drivable electric VTOL aircraft are possible today, using existing and proven technology, and he’s decided to prove it by building one.

The plan is similar to other electric VTOL aircraft being developed in this space: the Vahana from Airbus, the Lilium, the Joby, but with a few wrinkles of its own. Fries is planning a large cabin with space for five seats and a carrying capacity that’ll allow each passenger some 25 kg of luggage.

On the road, it will be fairly limited, with a top speed governed to 60 km/h (37 mph). The design sees an enclosed trike with two wheels at the back and a driven, steerable wheel (or dual wheel) at the front with a modest 70 kilowatts (93 horsepower) of power to get it moving. It’s designed for the skyway, not the highway. In road mode, it’s compact enough to comfortably fit in a garage or single car parking space.

Australia's Macchina Volantis gears up to build a prototype of its road-drivable 5-seat electric aircraft

When it’s time to take off, its top wing will telescope out from its enclosures, and its bottom wings will fold down. There are ducted fans at each corner, each housing two 60-kilowatt (80 hp) electric motors with contra-rotating props. Covers on the lower wing slide back to reveal an extra two sets of ducted fans to give a total of 12 motors, enough to handle the high power load of vertical takeoff and landing in a 1,650 kg (3,638 lb) airframe about the weight of a decent sized family car. Each motor gets its own battery pack for redundancy.

Once you’re in the air, and you begin moving forward, the ducted fans will begin to tilt forward, and from an airspeed of 65 knots the wing fans will fold away behind their covers and the machine will become a high-efficiency winged aircraft. With a 100-liter (26.4 gallon) diesel fuel tank driving a range extending generator, Fries says you’re looking at an aircraft capable of 150-knot (278 kmh/173 mph) cruising speeds and a range in excess of 1,000 miles (1,600 km).

On top of the redundancy factor provided by the 12 separate motors, the aircraft will carry a ballistic parachute for emergency landings. And, much like the latest consumer camera drones, takeoff and landing will be highly automated push-button affairs leaving little to chance, and there will be the facility to plot a flight path and have the aircraft autopilot itself to the destination. Fries says it shouldn’t be looked at as an autonomous aircraft until it learns to handle all sorts of edge case scenarios – he’s only interested in building what can be achieved today without relying on future tech to fill any holes.

We sat down with Fries to discuss where Macchina Volantis is at, what makes them the right team to make this happen, and what the next steps will be. What follows is an edited transcript.

"Serial problem fixer" Stephen Fries is as sick of traffic as the rest of us, and...

Loz: So have you ever built an aircraft before?

Fries: No, I haven’t! But I’m a serial problem solver. I get annoyed when problems can be fixed and nobody’s fixing them. And I’ve been around boats all my life. I’ve designed, built, sailed and raced internationally. I’ve built vacuum bag molds … I’ve been sailing since I was nine, built a new boat every winter for the first nine years of my sailing life. I started out with steamed plywood, moved onto foam sandwich, then kevlar foam, and just kept going and going. Made my own carbon masts and put them together.

I’m quite au fait with this. I designed it in a freeware piece of software from NASA, aerospace software, so that’s how I know it flies. About this time last year we gave it to an aerospace company in Perth, and they third-party accredited the entire design.

We know it can be done. The ducts are available, you can currently buy them. The electric motors, we know we can get them. The batteries are available, in the sizes we need them. Better and cheaper ones will probably be available by the time we build it, so we prefer not to nominate anything in particular at this time.

Loz: In terms of emergency failure, have you given much thought to the “death zone” problem when you’re flying under 100 feet? Ballistic parachutes don’t have time to open out and be effective under that sort of altitude.

Fries: The way I envisage this aircraft, as soon as it clears any obstacles it’ll start going forward. And it’ll fly forward at such a rate that we hope we’ll be in winged flight within 60 seconds. We’re saying 100 seconds for sure. Once you’re there you can perform a controlled glide down even if you lose all but two motors.

Obviously these are edge case scenarios, but I see these things as a hundred times safer than a regular light plane. Those don’t have ballistic parachutes at all, they don’t have transponders. They can only land on a runway doing 100-plus kilometers per hour.

So we should start out being somewhat safer than the average kit aeroplane or experimental aircraft that’s out there flying today. At the moment, anyone can design an experimental aircraft, build it and fly it. You can get an experimental pilot’s license for 40 hours of training.

Loz: Have you got one of those?

Fries: No, I haven’t. I’m a sailor, not a pilot. This will eventually be far in advance of anything like that. It’ll be fully tested, fully computed, we’ll have a full detailed design and a fluid dynamics design.

But we’re looking at putting it into the experimental plane arena to get it out there and get it seen by the public. We’ll make it available as a kit. You’d put it together in our factory, under our supervision. The rules in relation to experimental planes require that the owner builds 51 percent of the plane. That might be a way to get it out there, get it seen, get it flying before we get it approved by CASA or the FAA in the US.

As far as using them as an air taxi, well, until it’s certified, you can’t make money out of it. The owner has to pilot it, and you can’t charge a fee for carrying people around. There’s a tiny loophole in that for carrying equipment or cargo. So that’s a potential early commercial use case. We’ll have the option that the seats can be removed and you can carry 450kg (990 lb) of cargo in there instead.

Loz: Why make your first aircraft a five-seater? Isn’t that a waste of space and weight? I’ve spent some time with Dezso Molnar, who’s starting up a Flying Car race series in the United States, and he gets angry when people even mention multi-seat roadable aircraft.

Fries: Well, I can make that thing a two-seater, and I’d save barely 20 percent of the weight of the vehicle. Yet I’ve restricted myself to one pilot and one joyrider. The pilot will be there much longer than people think, too – it’s a five or ten year job before these aircraft become autonomous and pilotless. Some people are happy to wait around for five or ten years until that happens, but I want something now!

Roads take up roughly 15 percent of the land space. Go upwards, and you can use 100 percent of the air space. Put every car on the road up in the sky and it still won’t look busy or cause traffic jams. It has to come about. It will come about. And I want a pilot to be able to take three or four passengers.

On the road, it will be fairly limited, with a top speed governed to 60 km/h...

Loz: OK, so anyone can fly a drone, they’re a piece of cake. They self-stabilize, most of it is done by the flight controller. But as you go to forward flight, you’re tilting props, generating wing lift, changing flight dynamics … Are you moving to a different control scheme? Will this be difficult to fly?

It’ll be exactly the same as a drone. It’ll be self-stabilizing. And the air speed over the wing, that’ll determine how fast the props spin. You won’t have to worry about that at all. You want to turn? Turn the steering wheel.

There’s no rudders or flaps. We’re relying on exactly what a drone does to turn a corner. All it does is power one fan up, tilt it and goes around. When it’s in full winged flight, we just power one side up or slow the other down.

Top speed is around 150 knots. Don’t forget, we’ve got two fans in each duct. We can drive it very differently to a regular aircraft. Each duct has two contra-rotating fans, and we can control the speed of each fan very precisely. So we can do a lot with that.

Takeoff will be fully automatic, nobody has to touch it. Same with landing, you’ll look at your screen, choose a landing point, and the system will check to make sure there’s no power lines or anything else in the way, and it’ll land it for you. That’s the beauty of these systems – with cars, because there’s so much traffic around, you need your autonomous software to be centimeter perfect. Up in the air, you can be 10 or 20 meter perfect and you’re still safe.

We’ll allow manual flight when you’re in the air if you want it. You might just choose a takeoff point and a landing point, but how you get there is your own business. You might want to fly along the coast.

There’s a whole lot of benefits to a ducted fan setup as opposed to exposed rotors. They can land a meter from a tree and not worry about it. It won’t hurt people. But most importantly, it creates 40 percent more power just by putting a fan inside a duct. And we’ve got two fans … the second fan doesn’t have 100 percent of the first fan’s power, it’s more like 50 percent.

Noise-wise, it just sounds like an electric motor. But that’s why we can only go 150 knots – if we pushed it to 180 knots the fan tips are going so fast, they’d go supersonic. We don’t want that squeal.

Loz: So what’s your timeline like?

Fries: It’s all totally dependent on funding. If we get some VC funding, we can go straight into the detailed design. Our software partner is the excellent Anushka Bandara at Elegant Media, who will handle the integration of the flight control and navigation systems. I’ve worked with him on two mobile app projects. We’ve found our people to do the ducts in America and Perth. Our electric motors are going to be designed in Germany. Aerodynamic design is probably going to be done in Adelaide, and probably wind tunnel testing here in Melbourne, either at RMIT or Monash University. We’ve found our builder, who can build these exotic composite products for us, he’s a boat builder up in New South Wales, and he’s used to doing one-offs at cost-effective rates.

It’ll be carbon with a titanium Nomex honeycomb core. It’s a honeycomb shape, like a sandwich, normally made out of paper or plastic, but we’ll use titanium for extra strength. It’s well proven in super yachts and motor yachts, things like that. We’ll use Kevlar on the inside to help make it puncture-proof.

So it’ll all be dependent on when the funds arrive. We believe we can do detailed design in six to nine months, and then build it in another 12 months.

And we’re not asking for a lot of money in this case. There are companies out there with $90 million worth of investment behind them that don’t even have a full-size prototype yet. We’re looking for 10 million dollars, US. A million to complete the design, and 9 million to build the prototype. We’re marketing it around the 350-400 grand US mark.

Loz: That sounds cheap for a flying five-seater!

We’ve got a full component list, and we’ve priced it. It’s just a little bit more than a Cessna – but it’s current technology. Those aircraft are 60 year old technology.

We see a lot of our market being in the United States, partially because of the much bigger population over there. But we want to build the prototype in Australia.

Loz: What issues do you see getting them road certified?

I’m glad you asked. The road certification will be harder than the flying certification at this point, because of the experimental category we can use to fly them initially. So going forward, one of the hardest parts will be the crash testing. We’ll have to prove the monocoque can take it.

Part of what we’re investigating right now is seeing what we can do to get it out there as a prototype, and maybe have some sort of road trial prior to crash testing.

If it ends up working better in America [due to looser road laws in the three-wheeler and motorcycle categories], we’ll take it over there if we have to. But we want to build it here. Australia has plenty of capability in building these sorts of one-offs cost-effectively at small volumes. This country’s skills in exotic constructions are second to none.

Loz: How do you expect to raise this kind of capital as somebody who’s never worked in aerospace before?

That’s why it can be so different! I spoke to a lot of aero folk early on, and they were so negative, it can’t be done. If you challenge an expert, it just doesn’t work if you’re trying to do something different. Experts are experts in their field, and they’ll try to protect their field. But we want to think outside of the field.

Being a yachtie and knowing aerodynamics extremely well, competing at international levels with sails, hulls and rigs I’ve built myself, I fully understand what’s required to get it done.

Having said that, I’d never do the final designs. I’m the project manager, and I’ve managed plenty of large projects before. $40 million dollar budgets, $20 million … they all require multi-talented teams. You bring them together all at once for a price, and for a time.

That’s where my skill is. Plus I have the initial ability to scope out the concept. But I’ll be relying on absolute experts to do the detailed design work, and managing the process with my team.

We look forward to following the progress of this project and wish Fries and his team the best of luck in securing funding.

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