The idea of scaling up a drone to carry passengers isn't new. Who among us hasn't gazed up at a DJI Phantom and wished that we could be up there with it, soaring amongst the birds and transmitting data back to China?
Well, batteries are the obstacle standing between us and our glorious LaunchPad McQuack future. Current battery technology would offer limited range in a human-scale electric vertical takeoff and landing vehicle, even when burdened with only the skinniest of rich people on their way to Montauk. And if you build a machine like that without batteries, that's called a helicopter and it's something that will definitely get you on the naughty list at your HOA when you land it in your backyard.
But Alaka'i Technologies in Hopkinton, Mass., thinks that the solution to this conundrum is hydrogen fuel cells, which allow use of electric motors but offer range and refueling speed more in line with your friendly neighborhood gas station. Its debut vehicle, the Skai, claims about 400 miles of range (or four hours of flight time), with capacity for five passengers or 1,000 pounds, whichever comes first.
Top speed is a strangely specific at 118 mph and refueling takes less than 10 minutes. With six rotors and multiple fuel cells, Alaka'i is building in layers of redundancy throughout the flight systems. Nonetheless, there's also an airframe parachute, for that unbeatable "we've got a parachute" peace of mind.
The Skai, which was designed by BMW Group's Designworks studio, certainly looks futuristic, spare, and sleek. Alaka'i has initiated their test program to get certified with the FAA, and after that they see a lot of possibilities for the Skai: passenger flight, emergency medical response, cargo delivery.
OK, basically most of the things you could do with a helicopter, but presumably without as much noise and with only water as a direct emission (the indirect emissions will depend on the electricity source behind the hydrogen production). Plans call for a piloted version first, then followed by autonomous models.
If the idea of a hydrogen-powered autonomous electric flying machine strikes you as far-fetched, remember that a few years ago everybody pointed when they saw a drone and now nobody cares.
That's the day Alaka'i envisions: when a Skai flies by and nobody looks up.