Singapore start-up aims to take homegrown ‘flying car’ to US skies in 2020

(From left) Neo Aeronautics founder Neo Kok Beng, project manager Damian Cheng and aeronautical engineer Wayne Ong and aerospace engineer Aravinda Charles, with the Crimson S8. — Handout via TODAY
(From left) Neo Aeronautics founder Neo Kok Beng, project manager Damian Cheng and aeronautical engineer Wayne Ong and aerospace engineer Aravinda Charles, with the Crimson S8. — Handout via TODAY

SINGAPORE, April 26 — It may not be ready to take on passengers yet, but homegrown company Neo Aeronautics hopes its made-in-Singapore flying car will be the go-to mode of transport in American cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco and Palo Alto from the end of next year.

The one-seater manned personal aerial vehicle, named the Crimson S8, is still being developed. It can already fly, but is not ready to take humans on board.

At an unveiling yesterday, the company showed the media videos of the Crimson S8 in action, but was unable to do a live demonstration, saying there were space constraints.

How does it work?

The Crimson S8 fits into a standard car-park lot, takes off and lands vertically, can fly at a minimum height of 15m with a top speed of 100km/h, and take on a load of up to 100kg.

Associate Professor (Adjunct) Neo Kok Beng, the chief executive and founder of Neo Aeronautics, said this means that when it is fully operational, it will be able to fly above double-decker buses and expressways, and accommodate the weight of the average American or Singaporean.

However, the company plans to launch the vehicle, once ready, in the United States only, he said, because Singapore regulations do not allow for personal aerial vehicles to be operated in the open.

In the US, they can be flown in suburban housing areas, while heavily populated urban areas are out of bounds.

This makes the Crimson S8 ideal for commuting to work or to the nearest supermarket, Assoc Prof Neo said. If a user flies the Crimson S8 out of the authorised zones, geo-fencing technologies will automatically force the vehicle to land.

By 2025, Neo Aeronautics hopes that there will be 1,000 Crimson S8 each in 25 cities, making 50 million trips yearly.

The flying car has been developed as an “ultralight vehicle” under the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules, so that anyone would be able to use it, Assoc Prof Neo said. Under US law, operators of ultralight vehicles do not need a pilot licence. There are also no age or experience requirements.

However, the company is looking at only permitting those aged 16 and above to pilot the Crimson S8, and plans to require users to attend simulations and short training sessions of about one to two hours.

“Flying the Crimson S8 will be as easy as flying a drone”, Damian Cheng, the project manager at Neo Aeronautics, said.

The vehicle will also have auto-pilot features for point-to-point trips, but it will not be fully autonomous, he added.

The team is also installing Light Detection and Ranging (Lidar) sensors to detect obstacles and help users avoid collisions, he said.

The company hopes to cater to the masses by operating a membership model, under which members may use the vehicle for several hours or an entire day.

Members will be able to use a mobile application to find the nearest Crimson S8, and "park" the vehicle into any standard car-park lot — without any additional infrastructure required.

The development model of the Crimson S8 can fly for about 20 minutes, but the four-man team behind the project plans to increase this to between 30 and 100 minutes with a hybrid generator.

Assoc Prof Neo said that the cost of using the Crimson S8 will be comparable to taking a taxi in the US, with charges of about US$50 (RM200) for 30km.

He added that he first had the idea for the flying car in 2000, when he frequently encountered traffic jams while working in Silicon Valley, US. However, he held off the idea as drone technologies were not mature then.

He said he only started working on the idea in earnest last August, nearly two decades later. In the seven months since, his team has created the development model of the Crimson S8 and filed four patents.

What’s next?

Neo Aeronautics is looking to further refine the flying car and develop a production model by December this year.

The company also plans to hold its first manned flight test in California next March, with FAA approval targeted from September next year.

Flight tests here so far have been unmanned, and can only take place in an indoor warehouse at Loyang — going by the rules of the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore.

The company has so far poured S$200,000 into the development of the Crimson S8, and is open to external funding, Assoc Prof Neo said.

The competition

Neo Aeronautics is not the only start-up vying to make the world’s first flying car.

Malaysian drone company Aerodyne Group is looking to produce a passenger and cargo drone, and it is slated to be ready to fly as early as June.

In February, Malaysian Entrepreneur Development Minister Datuk Seri Mohd Redzuan Md Yusof said that the country would reveal its first “flying car” developed using local technology later this year — a claim that was met with scepticism by various parties, including “shadow finance minister” Khairy Jamaluddin.

German aviation company Volocopter has also developed an urban two-seater air taxi, which it tested in Dubai in 2017. The company will also be conducting trials in Singapore later this year.

And Chinese drone-maker Ehang first unveiled its concept of the world’s first passenger drone, the Ehang 184, at the Las Vegas electronics trade show CES in 2016.

Both Volocopter and Ehang have conducted trials with people onboard their drones. — TODAY

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