From Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Back to the Future to Blade Runner and even Harry Potter, we’ve long been bewitched by flying cars on the big screen and longed for them to become a reality. In fact, across the decades, people have often said that the advent of flying cars will be the sign that the future has really arrived. Up until now that reality has been very much confined to the realms of science fiction. But what if I told you the future is closer than you think, and we’re just a few short years away from sticking your car in flight mode and taking to the skies? PAL-V is building the world’s first road legal flying car, and it’s really close to lift-off. The PAL-V Liberty is a stunning feat of engineering.
How can a car fly?
The PAL-V flies like a like a gyroplane. The gyroplane is different to a helicopter because the main rotor system is not powered by an engine. It has a propeller on the back that pushes it forward, and the main rotor spins by aerodynamic forces. It is a bit like a windmill but turned 90 degrees. This creates the lift. It makes it a very stable aircraft to fly, and therefore easy to fly, and very safe to fly. It can fly up to 3.5km with a maximum airspeed of about 180 km/hr. Once landed, the rotor system can fold easily back into drive mode, when it can be driven on the roads up to a maximum speed of 160km/hr. With a flying car, you can go from any door to any door in the world. PAL-V’s marketing director Joris Wolters says, “You can go from your house, drive to the nearest airstrip – there are about 10,000 registered airstrips in Europe and about 14,000 in the US – unfold your vehicle, take off, fly 500 km, land again, and drive to your final destination.”
What does it look like?
It feels a little bit like James Bond. We don’t have the ejector seats, but it looks like it. It has both electronic flight instruments for flying and a driving display. It’s a two seater, so it fits two people and about 20kg of luggage. It has both a normal steering wheel and a flight stick. The vehicle is lowered in drive mode to increase stability, and the rotors fold away so the vehicle is very compact – only 4m long. But in flight mode, it is raised by about 35cm and with the rotors extended it is almost 11m long. It’s quite an engineering challenge to get it from fully extended to a compact car that you can comfortably drive on the road, and even more importantly, that you can just park at a normal parking space. Because if you have a flying car that doesn’t fit anywhere, the practicality of your flying car becomes a lot less. The cabin is at the front of the vehicle, and the engines are in the back. It is powered by a Rotax four-cylinder engine.
Isn’t it too heavy to fly?
To keep the weight down, there’s only one wheel in the front and two wheels in the back. The seat itself is not adjustable, as that would add weight. So the pedals and the steering wheel are adjustable instead. There’s a lot of carbon, and the doors are made from composites. PAL-V’s 2012 vehicle, which they started building in 2009, was the first to fly. Built to show to investors, they also wanted to show the world that it was possible to not only build a flying car, but also to do so within existing regulations – important when you want to get a vehicle to the market in a realistic timeframe. Wolters explains, “Changing regulations takes forever, and building a vehicle within existing regulations is, to our opinion, the only viable way to get a vehicle to the market.”
A question of safety
A lot of testing happens on the ground for safety reasons. The company uses a range of different vehicles for testing, from an adapted Porsche containing an aircraft engine to their own PAL-V Liberty, to a four-ton pickup truck, used to test the rotor system, which generates a force of up to 3G, or 3,000kg. In the air, you would fly at a constant rpm, but while driving, it continuously has a different RPM so there’s a different load to the engine. The Liberty can be driven on the highways, but as soon as you convert it into an aircraft, it’s a normal aircraft, not a special category. This is important to comply with regulations. “Everything to allow this vehicle to be on the market is there,” says Wolters. “The infrastructure is there. Regulations are there. Licensing for pilots is there. We don’t have to create that. We only add a vehicle – and that part is already difficult enough. And we have been working on that since 2012 to get this vehicle to market.”
Are they electric
PAL-V intend eventually to electrify the whole system, but the batteries would be too heavy. The vehicle is 660 kilos, and for every kilogram added it loses about 7km in range. Installing batteries would reduce the range from 500km to around 100km. At the
moment, it’s not feasible to make a flying car that can have an acceptable range, although PAL-V is looking at synthetic fuels, so carbon neutral fuels or e-fuels, as a first logical step to decarbonize the aviation industry. Wolters says, “It’s not just our goal to sell a product onto the market, we also want to decarbonize the industry. We can do that by these little vehicles a lot easier than by the huge volumes that are required for different applications.” The company expects to see adaptations – including larger vehicles – by 2028-2030.
What are the barriers?
As in all things in aviation, everything takes time. Developing an aircraft from scratch to
getting certified takes at least 10-12 years. It doesn’t really matter whether you’re PAL-V or Boeing or Airbus, there’s a lot of paperwork that you must go through to make sure that the vehicle is safe to fly. Designing something is one part – but getting a certified is the biggest hurdle that you must overcome. PAL-V spends around 60% of their investments on certification. To deal with the company’s rapid growth and new-found need for strict data compliance, they needed a product lifecycle management software that could serve as a foundation for their business to build on. And they chose to host PTC’s Windchill PLM solution in the cloud.
Our experts says’…….
What is Windchill in the cloud
It’s a comprehensive PLM solution for data governance and traceability, providing this
authoritative source of truth for all kinds of data, whether it’s product data or process data. Its open architecture enables easy integration with other enterprise systems because we know product development is a team sport, and there’s a ton of other systems that you need to connect with. And this then serves as the foundation for the product-driven digital thread. This cloud-managed service offering that we have makes the PLM solution easier to configure to scale, and very importantly, it’s secure. It really helps around facilitating this collaboration and agility across the enterprise, both internal and the extended enterprise, including how to work in remote environments.
Is Windchill different from Windchill+ SaaS?
PTC has offered a cloud offering to customers for the last 10+ years. We do have industry
verticalized offerings for federal aerospace and defense, as well as medical device
manufacturers, given the high regulatory and compliance needs of those businesses. And this is important, I think, as we talk about PAL-V. We refer to this as a private cloud offering for Windchill to differentiate it from the Windchill+ SaaS offering on Atlas that we launched in April last year.
What are the benefits?
PAL-V chose Windchill in the cloud because it was the only out-of-box implementation that closely aligned with CM2 methodology. CM2 is a global enterprise standard for change and configuration management. And for many verticals like the one that PAL-V is in, this is a key piece. This is important because, when product changes are needed, Windchill provides the ability to capture the issues or enhancements as they come in from the product development teams as it helps to document and implement related updates and then send out information through a prototype change notice to all the stakeholders, whether they’re internal to the company, or maybe outside of the company. So, Windchill connects systems, and all effective teams are automatically updated across the enterprise. And at the end of the day, it’s really allowing them to focus resources on high-value business opportunities and business outcomes.
What part does Windchill in the cloud play in helping Pal-V achieve their certifications?
PAL-V’s unique design process needs mean the highly capable PLM system is a necessity. They started by studying the regulations they would need to comply with, and then designed the flying car with those regulations in mind. Before they implemented Windchill in the cloud, maintaining this compliance required tons of manual processes and paperwork. Now, they’ve combined PLM and quality management into a single system. As these processes are digitized, change management is at the forefront of driving compliance – both for local standards and for international regulations as well. In fact, PAL-V established this foundation for compliance across the entire company, but having this one system implemented in the right way means they’ve successfully complied with majority of the regulations all at once – and Windchill did 80-90% of what they needed to be compliant.
Thanks to Mark, and to Joris for showing us around Pal-V’s headquarters.
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This is an 18Sixty production for PTC. Executive producer is Jacqui Cook. Sound design and
editing by Ollie Guillou. Location recording by Liew Niyomkarn. And music by Rowan Bishop.