A transportation company is betting its sleek new hydrogen-powered electric flying vehicles will someday serve as taxis, cargo carriers and ambulances of the sky, but experts say they will have to clear a number of regulatory hurdles before being approved for takeoff years in the future.
With six rotors on the roof and seats inside for five people, a passenger model of the Skai (pronounced “sky”) unveiled Wednesday near Los Angeles resembles an oversized drone crossed with a luxury SUV.
Like a drone, the vehicle from Alaka’i Technologies takes off and lands vertically. It’s one of many similar electric flying crafts in production, including prototypes from Boeing and Airbus that made successful test flights this year, according to Vertical Flight Society, an industry group.
Most are powered by batteries, which can add a lot of weight. The Skai instead uses very light hydrogen fuel cells to run its rotors, giving it a range of 400 miles and the capacity to carry 1,000 pounds in people or freight, the company says.
“We just couldn’t get to the point where we could have enough batteries to get to the payload that we knew we needed,” CEO Stephan Hanvey said of the choice to switch to hydrogen power.
Alaka’i says it’s planning a test flight near its Massachusetts headquarters.
It would be flown by an on-board pilot using a pair of joysticks, but the technology exists to eventually fly it remotely and even autonomously, Hanvey said.
Dronelike vehicles such as the Skai must first simply prove their airworthiness, like any common plane, Lightfoot said. After that, getting commercial certification is another convoluted process, he said.
“The technology is interesting, but the regulatory road will be very long,” said Lightfoot, adding that the idea of allowing people to fly in a large aircraft without a pilot is “well outside the current regulatory regime.”