Japanese engineers hope to light 2020 Tokyo Olympic cauldron with flying car

Tuesday January 17th, 2017

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Japan closed out the 2016 Rio Olympics in memorable fashion, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe dressing as Mario during the closing ceremony as part of a video game-themed teaser for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Now the country is hoping to open those next Summer Games in an even more memorable way—by lighting the Olympic cauldron using a flying car.

That’s right, just as the Japanese men’s 4×100 meter relay team flew around the track on the way to a surprising silver medal and a new Asian record in Rio, Japanese engineers are hoping to set their own kind of record by driving the world’s smallest flying car around the track in Tokyo. The plan is to drive the Olympic flame down the New National Stadium track before taking off and flying it to the cauldron.

The group behind these plans is a company called Cart!vator, a team of about 20 young engineers that is conducting experiments at an abandoned elementary school in the mountains of the Aichi Prefecture. Tsubasa Nakamura, who founded the company in 2012, was given permission by the city of Toyota to use the school as a garage and testing facility. If the team can complete a true working model by the 2020 Olympics, it will be a crucial first step toward its ultimate goal.

“We aim to create (a) world where anyone can fly in the sky anytime by 2050,” reads the Cart!vator website. “To realize our vision, a compact flying car is necessary with a vertical takeoff and landing type, which does not need roads and runways to take off.”

The proposed layout for the car, which the company calls “SkyDrive,” is a single-seat electric vehicle design that will have one front wheel, two rear wheels, and a rotor in each of the four corners. Each rotor will consist of two propellers that will allow the car to take off and land vertically. The final product is expected to measure roughly three meters in length and 1.3 meters in width, which the company says will make it the world’s smallest flying car. If everything goes as planned, the company thinks that SkyDrive can be the next stage in the evolution of the personal automobile.

“If technological innovation is achieved in the battery performance and other fields, the vehicle could be commercialized in the future,” Masafumi Miwa, a mechanical engineering professor and Cart!vator partner, told the Asahi Shimbun.

The company’s objective is to reduce the reliance on roads, which can help alleviate worsening traffic conditions everywhere. Beyond that, it believes SkyDrive could airlift injured people out of disaster zones, including areas of Japan that have been known to experience frequent earthquakes. According to the projected timeline on its website, Cart!vator is hoping to start selling SkyDrive to the public in 2023, with an eye toward mass production by 2030.

Of course, all those goals are still just dreams at this point. While the team technically has a functioning full-scale prototype, the current model can only fly at an altitude of one meter for a period of just five seconds, according to the Asahi Shimbun. The key to fixing that problem is to reduce the weight of the vehicle, which the group hopes to achieve by replacing the 180 kilogram aluminum frame with a 100 kilogram frame made of carbon fiber-reinforced plastic. The team is also trying to improve the computer program that controls the rotation rate of the propellers.

The company admits that there are other obstacles, too. “It’s very difficult to realize the compact flying car due to noise control, all weather treatment, and security of absolute safety,” it reads on the website.

Indeed, the No. 1 concern will always be safety. Most experienced drivers have probably experienced a car breakdown at some point during their lives, but most of the time that just means you’re stuck on the road, waiting for the tow truck to arrive. If that happens in the air, however, you’ll likely be bracing yourself for a fatal crash. And even if you’re lucky enough to avoid a breakdown in the air or if the car has a gliding system that can mitigate the effects, the mere possibility of such a disastrous accident would drive your insurance rates sky high.

On top of these practical problems, Cart!vator will be facing stiff competition from at least nine other companies that are also trying to build some version of a flying car. Google co-founder Larry Page has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in two different flying car companies. Slovakian company AeroMobil could be launching its own flying car as early as next year. And the Massachusetts-based company Terrafugia has already built a flying car that has received legal approval for personal use, although it’s really more of a street-legal plane.

Still, Cart!vator’s main selling point is that SkyDrive will be smaller and more convenient than any other flying car that is currently being built. Making the car a reality is the tricky part, and the company says that it needs 30 million yen (about $260,000) from investors to make the prototype ready for a manned test flight. That may be a high bar to clear, but the group has flown over its fundraising goals in the past.

After presenting a 1/5 scale prototype at a Maker Faire in Tokyo in 2014, the team set up a page on the Japanese crowdfunding website zenmono, setting its fundraising goal at 1.8 million yen. By January 2015, it raised almost 2.6 million yen (about $22,000 at the time). It used the money to purchase a full-scale prototype from a joint researcher, and that’s the prototype it’s experimenting with now.

If Cart!vator can raise the 30 million yen, the company plans to perform a manned-piloted demonstration of the car in January 2019. This will be preceded by a remotely-piloted demonstration in July 2018, and the group plans to release the full official design for the 2020 model of the car this July. Whether it can actually hit these target dates is another question.

SkyDrive’s chances of being ready for the 2020 Olympics seem to be very up in the air since the current prototype can’t, well, stay up in the air. Time, technology and money are all working against Cart!vator at this point, but if the company can pull it off, it would be an incredible showcase that could give the world a glimpse of the future. Even if the world isn’t convinced about the feasibility of flying cars, it would, at the very least, be a heck of a way to kick off an Olympics that promises to be one of the most high-tech sporting events in history.

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