Knowledge & News

It's 2019 - where's my flying car?

10 April 2019

This article first appeared in Birmingham Post.

"Mark my word: a combination airplane and motorcar is coming. You may smile, but it will come." – Henry Ford, 1940.

At the time Henry Ford spoke these words, imagining the year 2019 may have conjured predictions of a world filled with technologically-advanced civilisations colonizing other planets and, in Ford’s mind at least, travelling in flying cars.

Whereas it is likely that Man will step foot on the surface of Mars in the next few decades and perhaps form a Martian colony within the next century, the idea of flying cars seems as futuristic and far-off now as it must have done to many in 1940.

The technological hurdles to overcome in designing a commercially-viable flying car are numerous and any potential design needs to answer many questions.

For instance, how will such a vehicle travel safely both on the road and in the air? Where and how will the flying surfaces (e.g. wings) and thrusters (e.g. propeller) be stored when on the road? Will the operator require a pilot’s license? Will the vehicle be sufficiently environmentally friendly both in terms of low CO2 and noise emissions? Is the vehicle affordable to produce and to maintain?

Recently, there appears to have been a resurgence of research and development in flying cars with the number of related patent applications growing substantially over the last decade.

Between 2008 and 2018, the number of “flying car” patent applications published globally grew seven-fold from just 60 in 2008 to over 400 in 2018.

China appears to be leading the way, with over half of the patent applications published in 2018 originating from the Far-East. However, around one quarter originated from European countries including the UK.

It is likely that recent advances in quadcopter drone technology and artificial intelligence (AI)have fuelled the upward trend in flying car patent applications.

In the past, flying car prototypes tended to be little more than a car with removable wings and a propeller. More modern designs incorporate multiple rotors which allow the vehicle to take-off vertically like a helicopter – something which is much more practical in urban environments.

Recently announced prototypes are set to fly autonomously and use AI to ensure that passengers arrive at their destination safely. With recent advances in material science, manufacturing methods and AI, Henry Ford’s 1940 prediction may come true sooner than many might have thought.

Understandably, the number of businesses which are actively researching and developing flying car technologies is relatively small.

For example, less than 20 companies have filed four or more patent applications related to “flying cars” in Europe and the US since the year 2000.

Interestingly, the top filer of such patent applications in the US and Europe in this period is AeroMobil, a little-known Slovakian company.

AeroMobil received €3 million in investment funding in 2016 and looks to be one of the first companies to put a flying car prototype into production. The correlation between AeroMobil’s patent output and its investment/innovation is unlikely to be a coincidence.

It is especially vital for small-to-medium sized enterprises (SMEs) working in new and emerging technological fields to protect their inventions through patents.

A portfolio of patents not only prevents other (larger) companies from using your ideas for economic advantage, a good patent portfolio makes your company look more attractive to investors and may also provide an additional revenue stream through licencing agreements.

If you have an invention you want to obtain patent protection for, do not wait until the day our skies are filled with flying cars before contacting a patent attorney.

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