Wings in vogue: Will drones make way for flying cars?


The dawn of the drone age has brought on a re-evaluation of common conceptions of objects that can and can’t fly. High-profile demos from Google and Amazon have punctured disbelief about deliveries by drone, and outright alarm has given way to prosaic concerns for logistics and safety.

But there is one contender for air space that continues to challenge our imagination.

Terrafugia, a startup based in Woburn, is building a car that flies, one that will take off in the next decade, said its COO Kevin Colburn.  “There’s more activity in the flying car industry than there ever was before,” Colburn said.

Since its founding in 2006 by MIT-trained engineers, Terrafugia has grown to 35 employees and is currently bankrolled by angel investors. This year, the company added institutional funding to the mix.

The company’s first vehicle is the “Transition,” essentially a road-worthy airplane — part Honda Civic, part Cessna, with a dash of race car thrown in. Its wings fold inwards, raptor-like, when the aircraft turns roadster.

The company has conducted initial flight tests with the model that have now progressed to tests for road-worthiness, Colburn said. A line of car-inspired features include a front “crumple zone” that will cushion a ground crash, and  dashboard and windscreen have been redesigned for passenger comfort, ease of control, and a much better view.

“It’s a niche product for a niche market,” said Colburn. “But it exists.”

The goal for the moment is to manufacture the Transition at the Woburn facility, up to about 50 a year to match demand. That will eventually pave the way for a second product, the TF-X.

The TF-X is more truly a car that flies, with a projected 500-mile range, and speeds up to 200 miles per hour. Colburn hopes this vehicle will be the one with broader appeal — but for the moment is decidedly more conceptual and futuristic.

An animation that Colburn presented to engineers at the IEEE Vehicular Technology Conference in Boston featured a hatchback-style vehicle, “a four-seat hybrid with wings,” rolling to a stop on a grassy lot, then taking off vertically, held aloft by twin vertical rotors that emerged from either side of the car.  If all goes according to plan, you won’t need a pilot’s license to drive the TF-X; an onboard computer will fly it for you.

Colburn’s goal is to have the TF-X follow in the path of the Transition, and establish manufacturing partners for this model that will bring down the cost. “Our vision involves making it as affordable as possible,” Colburn said.

It turns out being first comes with a lot of paperwork. In parallel with flight- and road-testing the Transition, the company is tackling more sobering terrain: regulatory and certification issues.

Since the first company-built vehicle took flight in 2009, commercial adoption of drone technology has helped introduce the idea of alternative flying vehicles to bureaucrats. “Purely from a regulation standpoint, the [unmanned aerial vehicles] are paving the way for us,” said Colburn.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at
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