The COVID-19 crisis could be the propulsion the vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) technology needs to really take off and become a means of urban transportation over the coming decades. Many start-ups have designed, and some have developed, jet engine-powered suits for human flying. Others have ideas to build flying motorcycles that could overcome the two-dimensional constraints of urban traffic.
An early investor in Tesla and SpaceX believes that VTOL technology could be the answer to urban mobility in a decade or two. Tim Draper, the venture capitalist and founder of the early-stage venture capital firm Draper Associates, is backing two start-ups that look to change the way people travel, offering jetpack suits or developing flying bikes.
The VTOL technology is likely to be used first for military and medical purposes. Still, it could also offer flying motorcycles for personal use later. Jetpack suits are currently an entertainment for wealthy thrill-seekers, while the flying motorcycle has years of testing designs ahead until it could, eventually, become a way of commuting in congested cities, for example.
Nevertheless, Draper Associates founder Draper—who believed in Tesla and SpaceX in their early days—thinks that human flying could be the future.
“Right now, we are stuck in cars, long distances require driving to an airport and getting on a plane. Imagine you can just strap on a jetsuit and take off and fly where ever you want to go. I think VTOL technology is what we are all looking for,” Draper told CNBC.
Draper Associates has invested money into two start-ups, JetPack Aviation and Gravity Industries.
It’s not only start-ups that are looking to develop VTOL to overcome the current constraints of road traffic, especially commuting and shorter-haul rides. Uber is working on launching its Uber Air ridesharing service in a few years. Safety, environmental impact, and noise reduction are the key features of the future Uber Air service, which is working in its initial launch markets of Dallas, Los Angeles, and Melbourne to bring this product to life as soon as 2023, Uber says.
JetPack Aviation, one of the Draper-backed start-ups, offers jetpack training with a certified instructor and jetpack flying. In addition, the company is developing what it calls “the world’s first flying motorcycle” in two versions—recreational and military or commercial use. JetPack Aviation is already taking pre-orders for the recreational version of its Speeder flying motorcycle, which, it says, will be the first turbine-powered, fully stabilized VTOL personal aircraft ever built. The flying motorcycle will be able to take off from practically anywhere and is expected to fly at over 150 mph (241 km/h).
The military/commercial version could be used to fly patients to hospitals faster, medevac wounded personnel from the battlefield, or resupply between ships faster than a helicopter, JetPack Aviation says.
The other start-up backed by capital from Draper Associates, Gravity Industries, was founded in 2017 and offers flights with the jet suit it has developed. The jet suit weighs 27 kilograms or 59 pounds, and the flight time is five to ten minutes. The current speed record with a Gravity Industries jet suit is 85.06 mph (136.89 km/h), set by the company’s founder Richard Browning last year. This record is in the Guinness World Records for the fastest speed in a body-controlled jet engine-powered suit.
Gravity Industries says it has a growing portfolio of patent-pending technology across search and rescue, tactical mobility, and entertainment.
While those start-ups currently make money off wealthy thrill-seekers, they could one day be leaders in future mobility.