Flying cars are not as fictional as we once thought. Recent advancements in the autonomous vehicle industry and drone technology are introducing society to new forms of transportation. You might be wondering, who is actually working on this technology and what does it even mean to work in the industry of flying cars?
Bernd Rietberg, a Flying Car and Autonomous Flight Engineer Nanodegree program graduate, can tell you a lot about the flying car industry. He is on the Silverwing team that just made it to the final round of Boeing’s GoFly challenge. We had a chance to sit down with him and learn about how he and his team are pioneering the next form of transportation.
How has your learning and career journey led you to flying cars?
As a kid, I always wanted to be an inventor. When I was 6, my dad told me that was called being an ‘engineer’. So I tried my hardest to remember that difficult word –Engineer!I would repeat that to myself late at night.
That interest and curiosity stuck with me through my childhood. When I went off to university, I chose to major in physics, which was incredible; I loved the broad nature of this field and its applicability in every form of engineering. I decided to enroll in a master’s program for Applied Physics, which I graduated top of my class from a couple of years ago.
With a background in physics, my first job out of school was actually as a physics teacher. What better way to engrain your knowledge than to share it with others. During that time, I also set up a small startup, which led me to find my true passion: connecting technology with entrepreneurship.
I began working at TNO, an applied research institute, where I focused on bringing my physics background to disruptive high-tech systems in sustainable mobility.
I still work there, now at the defense research unit, which investigates counter drone systems and utilizes drones for reconnaissance, among other things.
Working in the mobility industry has kept me curious about drones. Last year, I began noticing an acceleration in the development of flying cars. I grew excited about the complexity of developing this technology and integrating it into society today. As a physicist, I really enjoy complex problems that require a multitude of disciplines.
2. What motivated you to enroll in Udacity’s Flying Car Nanodegree program?
I started reading more about the electrification of flight and flying cars in general. I was studying several disruptive mobility systems, such as the Hyperloop, self-driving taxis, drones, and avatars when I stumbled upon the Flying Car Nanodegree program. The course content was very similar to the topics I had been researching and this seemed like a great way to dive deeper, beyond research, and actually obtain flying car related skills. At the same time, I was a bit nervous. The projects were beyond my current skill set and the projected time commitment in tandem with a full-time job seemed like a challenge. I weighed the options and decided to go for it.
It was a great decision. Indeed, it was a big challenge to do alongside my job, but it brought me so much in terms of my programming skills, network, and mindset.
3. You’re now working to build a flying car with Team Silverwing, how did this evolve?
When I enrolled in the Flying Car Nanodegree program, I was immersed in a new community of like-minded engineers. I was also able to implement some of my Nanodegree program skills in my current role, specifically researching the integration of flying taxis into society.
Through the network of engineers working on flying cars, I ended up hearing about this extremely cool student team here at the TU Delft called Silverwing. This team was actually attempting to build a flying car themselves with the hope of winning the Boeing GoFly challenge.
I was immediately interested––this seemed like a great opportunity. I thought to myself: “How cool is it to actually try to build a massive fixed-wing drone?”
4. What is Silverwing’s main objective?
The team’s vision is to accelerate the road towards personal, electric and autonomous aviation. By joining the Boeing GoFly challenge, we will show the world that mobility is ready for the next revolution: safe, reliable, and quiet personal air mobility. We’ve already won the first two rounds of the challenge, and we hope to win the finale next year as well.
Silverwing is building a one-person, fully autonomous, electric, fixed-wing drone for the Boeing GoFly challenge. Our system kinda looks like a flying motorcycle. The interesting thing about our design is that it actually lands on its tail, like a rocket. This allows it to be super efficient for each stage of flight: During Vertical Take-off and Landing, it requires less energy and produces less sound; and during cruise, it utilizes the wings to provide lift – allowing it to stay aloft a lot longer. We don’t use seperate propellers or rotate the propellers for liftoff and landing, but actually rotate the entire vehicle. This makes it more aerodynamically optimized, reduces weight, and improves reliability.
Winning the Boeing GoFly Challenge will help us achieve this goal. After the competition, we will further develop our prototype into a scalable, manufacturable product for several applications and industries.
5. What is your role within the team?
My role as Lead Business Developer is to think about the future of Silverwing after the Boeing GoFly Competition. Can we find use cases for our drone, or continue to develop our drone for commercial applications? Would cargo transport be a better first option? And for which markets might an autonomous VTOL (Vertical Take-Off and Landing) heavy-payload drone be interesting?
6. Silverwing has made it to the final round of Boeing-sponsored GoFly competition, what does this mean for the team?
It’s a huge accomplishment. We’re amongst the best now, and I think we stand a chance to win. I’m incredibly proud of our team: we’ve gone from 8 people and a mere drawing on paper to 35 people with full-scale model production in less than a year.
Our design is the best but the final competition is tough. We’re up against people and companies with decades of experience.
7. In your opinion, what is the future of flying cars? What is the most important aspect of achieving this future?
The future is challenging. My prior job focused on researching the societal integration of the future of disruptive mobility systems. From a vehicle perspective, it’s definitely technologically possible within a couple of years. But from a societal implementation standpoint, there are still many challenges. Developing air traffic management systems, infrastructure changes, safety procedures, rules and regulations, certification, public acceptance, partnerships…those are all slow processes in innovation, especially in aviation.
We’re already seeing semi-autonomous heavy-payload drones being used for cargo and agriculture. I think we will see tests of autonomous passenger services with VTOL Aircraft traveling between existing helipads and airports within a couple of years. Next, we’ll see tests with VTOL services between nearby cities, in countries where legislation is quicker to adapt. But scaling this to dozens of landing platforms within cities and hundreds of flying taxis is in my view at least a decade off.
Of course, certain countries and cities will be quicker to adopt, so you might be lucky in San Francisco 😉
Congrats to Bernd and the Silverwing team, we’re excited to see how the final round of the Boeing Go Fly competition goes! Here’s a short snippet of our conversation with him.
To learn more about flying cars enroll in the Flying Car and Autonomous Flight Nanodegree program