Commuters could be catching a taxi in the sky from the Sunshine Coast to Brisbane by 2030, if a new student project goes to plan.
Experts, industry leaders, high school and university students have joined forces at the University of the Sunshine Coast, to take their ideas for an electric vertical take-off and landing vehicle (eVTOL) sky high – and they meet in person for the first time this week.
The goal: To have it flying for the 2032 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Aeronautical engineer and UniSC Special Projects Lead Tim Kelly said similar concepts were already being developed around the world, but this design featured a new approach to vertical take-off and landing.
“The concept leverages some well-understood existing platforms, and in simplified terms can be thought of as a combination between a very large quadcopter drone and a canard configuration general aviation aircraft,” Mr Kelly said.
“What sets it apart from other vehicles is that it doesn’t involve either tilt wings or rotors, nor does it carry redundant propulsion systems to transition from vertical to horizontal flight.
“Instead, the passenger is safely secured in a type of reclining chair so that they’re sitting normally through their entire flight."
- UniSC Special Project Lead, Tim Kelly.
“You would summon a ride to your nearest VTOL port and it would fly you to your destination at around 250 kilometres per hour. That’s quick enough to get from Maroochydore CBD to Brisbane CBD in under 30 minutes,” he said.
While the vehicle will initially be remotely piloted, the plan is to make it completely autonomous, with smaller models offering potential for surveillance, freight or firefighting.
Mr Kelly says autopilot systems for aircraft are simpler, more mature, and technologically established than they are for cars, which are complicated by human interaction, pedestrians and intersections.
“Ironically the technical aspects aren’t as difficult as the regulatory and social acceptance aspects because we’re all used to the standard aircraft configuration for personal transport,” he said.
UniSC Engineering Discipline Lead Dr Adrian McCallum said the project was a learning opportunity for students across multiple fields, but it also offered a pipeline of engaged students the chance to network with established companies in everything from aerospace to software engineering.
“This isn’t a straight engineering project. We are building an engineering organisation from scratch, and all the networks, skill transfer and collaboration that comes with it,” Dr McCallum said.
“We know that students - whether they are working on racing cars or space rovers – are significantly more engaged, have better technical competency, and also gain more social and emotional skills when they work together as a team.
“The students have skills and interests in computer-aided and mechanical design, software, manufacturing, business and more; and they’re joined by mentors and industry experts with expertise across mechanical, manufacturing, electrical, software, operations management and marketing."
Program collaborator Tim Hall, from local manufacturing company Greaseboss, is keen to be involved to help grow their business over the coming years.
“The skills that these students will learn through this team will be directly applicable to our business,” Mr Hall said.
“Not only will they be able to plug in and start adding value on the technical side immediately, they will also be better at working in a team environment and will have a better sense of the commercial realities of business.
“Considering the ongoing challenges around talent attraction, this team will be a huge competitive advantage for manufacturers in our region,” he said.
UniSC Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research and Innovation Professor Ross Young said collaborative projects like this offered a way for universities to engage students with industry on viable projects with the potential to transform the transport sector.
“This project may seem like a flight of fancy, but major companies are already advancing this technology,” Professor Young said.
“As a country, we already have enormous potential in innovation through research, but we still have a lot of work to do in teaching high-volume manufacturing and effective commercialisation strategies.
“By building on these partnerships, we can provide valuable industry insights from end-to-end, so that students gain a rich perspective on how to innovate and develop a product like this, and harness the capacity and capability of some of the 1400 manufacturers we have on the Sunshine Coast.”
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