Tag Archives: FLying

Meanwhile, they’re testing flying cars in Japan

If you asked people 40 years ago what they expect for 2020, staying home and social distancing wouldn’t have made it too high on the list. But you know what would have? Flying cars — and that’s exactly what a Japanese company is trialing.

Credits: SkyDrive.

It’s not exactly The Jetsons, but the century-old dream of flying cars is finally starting to take shape. Toyota-backed SkyDrive has carried out a successful, albeit small-scale test where a single-passenger vehicle was showcased.

SkyDrive featured the SD-03 — the smallest electric VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) vehicle in the world. According to the company, the flying car has 8 rotors that help it fly safely even in the event of a motor failure.

The single-seat vehicle took off early in the evening and circled about for 4 minutes, hovering some 2 meters above the ground. For now, the car can fly for 10 minutes at most, but according to SkyDrive, they’re aiming for 30 minutes of fly time, which would already offer real-life potential.

“Of the world’s more than 100 flying car projects, only a handful has succeeded with a person on board,” Tomohiro Fukuzawa, who spearheads the company, told The Associated Press. “I hope many people will want to ride it and feel safe.”

“We want to realize a society where flying cars are an accessible and convenient means of transportation in the skies and people are able to experience a safe, secure, and comfortable new way of life,” he added.

Of course, actually achieving that goal is still a ways away, although we’re on the right track. In principle at least, VTOLs could be much quicker and safer than other flying devices including helicopters, but actually making them practical is a much more challenging issue.

For starters, their autonomy needs to be increased substantially, and it’s not entirely clear how that will happen. Secondly, SkyDrive hasn’t offered any details about the potential price of such a device. As cool as it is, it needs to be at least somewhat affordable to be used, realistically speaking. There’s also the matter of capacity: a one-seat car isn’t exactly a car, and although SkyDrive is also working on a two-seater vehicle although that one hasn’t been showcased yet.

For now at least, the progress is encouraging. It wasn’t smooth sailing for SkyDrive: three years ago, the first test drive went poorly. Now, the issues seem to have been addressed (in part thanks to funding from the likes of Toyota and the state-owned Development Bank of Japan).

It might seem like flying cars are little more than an expensive pipe dream, but that was also the vibe when technologies like cars or airplanes were first introduced. It will take a while, but the Japanese government seems to be determined to support this endeavor. They’re still in the very early stages, but in a year like 2020, we’ll take everything we can get. Early-stage flying cars don’t even sound that bad.


Fossil Friday: Alcmonavis poeschli, the second-oldest bird we’ve ever found

Researchers have discovered the second species of Jurassic bird capable of flight and christened it Alcmonavis poeschli.


Image via Pixabay

The fossilized remains of the earliest-known primal bird were discovered in 1861. Since then, this species (Archaeopteryx) has been considered the only bird to live during the Jurassic period. As such, it was the direct ancestor of all of today’s birds, as well as the oldest-known flying representative of the bird family.

However, a group of researchers led by Professor Oliver Rauhut from the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences as well as the Bavarian State Collection of Paleontology and Geology repot finding a new, previously unknown bird from the same period: Alcmonavis poeschli.

Pioneers of flight

“At first, we assumed that this was another specimen of Archaeopteryx. There are similarities, but after detailed comparisons with Archaeopteryx and other, geologically younger birds, its fossil remains suggested that we were dealing with a somewhat more derived bird,” says Rauhut, a paleontologist at the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences as well as the Bavarian State Collection of Paleontology and Geology.

All the fossils of Archaeopteryx we’ve found so far were recovered from the Altmühl Valley, which is part of the Solnhofen Archipelago in Germany. During the Jurassic (around 150 million years ago), this region comprised mostly of reef islands, basically a subtropical lagoon landscape. In such an environment, flight was definitely an advantage.

It seems that Archaeopteryx wasn’t the only one to figure this out. Rauhut’s team has taxonomically identified the new species from the fossilized remains of one of its left wings. They report that Alcmonavis poeschli was somewhat larger than Archaeopteryx and was probably the better flier out of the two species. Alcmonavis seems to have traits more similar to today’s birds than Archaeopteryx, suggesting that it was better adapted to active flight (the one that involves flapping wings) than the latter. The discovery also suggests that Jurassic skies saw more traffic than we’d assumed up to now.

“The wing muscles indicate a greater capacity for flying,” Rauhut says about the new species, adding that its discovery “suggests that the diversity of birds in the late Jurassic era was greater than previously thought.”

The new species will likely also re-galvanize discussions around the evolution of active flight. We’ve previously seen some of the efforts researchers are using to find out when this ability first evolved, but the species they looked at in that study, Caudipteryx, lived in the early Cretaceous period — roughly 20 million years after Archaeopteryx and Alcmonavis. By contrast, Alcmonavis’ wing suggests that the “evolution of flight must have progressed relatively quickly,” says Dr. Christian Foth from the University of Fribourg (Switzerland), one of the co-authors of the study.

As for the name, Alcmonavis was named for the old Celtic word for the river Altmühl, Alcmona, and its discoverer Roland Pöschl, who leads the excavation at the Schaudiberg quarry where the fossil was discovered. The team explains that a fossil of Archaeopteryx was also discovered in the same unit of limestones as the new species — evidence that the two species lived during the same period.

The paper “A non-archaeopterygid avialan theropod from the Late Jurassic of southern Germany” has been published in the journal eLife.

Caudipteryx robot.

Feathered dinosaurs may have accidentally developed flying — while running

Flying is a pretty nifty way of moving around very fast. New research is looking into the dinosaurs’ earliest attempts at flight, an effort which ultimately led to the birds of today.

Caudipteryx Hendrickx.

Reconstruction of Caudipteryx Hendrickx at the Sauriermuseum of Aathal, Switzerland.
Image credits Christophe Hendrickx.

Two-legged dinosaurs likely started dabbling in active flight while running, new research reveals. The findings provide new insight into how these reptiles evolved the ability to fly, a debate that’s been raging ever since 1861 and the discovery of Archaeopteryx. The results point to an alternative evolutionary path that didn’t rely on an intermediate gliding phase, suggesting that the two types of flight have different origins.

Dinos of a feather flap their wings together

“Our work shows that the motion of flapping feathered wings was developed passively and naturally as the dinosaur ran on the ground,” says lead author Jing-Shan Zhao of Tsinghua University, Beijing. “Although this flapping motion could not lift the dinosaur into the air at that time, the motion of flapping wings may have developed earlier than gliding.”

To the best of our knowledge, dinosaurs perfected gliding-type flight much earlier than active flight. The sensible assumption, then, would be that active flight developed from gliding — the two are very similar, mechanically. However, Zhao and his colleagues weren’t convinced. The team studied Caudipteryx, the most primitive non-flying dinosaur known to have had feathered “proto-wings.” It weighed around 5 kilograms, very little for a dinosaur, and looked like a miniature, feathered, beaked T-Rex.

The first part of the research revolved around understanding how Caudipteryx moved about. Using a mathematical approach called modal effective mass theory, the team looked at how the various parts of this dinosaur’s body fared during running, how they moved, and what mechanical forces they were subjected to. From these calculations, the team estimates that running speeds between about 2.5 to 5.8 meters per second would have created forced vibrations that caused the Caudipteryx’s wings to flap. So far, so good — previous research has estimated that Caudipteryx could reach running speeds of up to 8 meters per second, so it could easily achieve the speed interval calculated by the team.

Caudipteryx robot.

Caudipteryx robot used in the tests.
Image credits Talori et al., (2019), PLOS.

Then came the fun part: in order to check their results, the team constructed a life-sized robot Caudipteryx and made it run at different speeds. This step confirmed the initial findings — running motions in the 2.5 to 5.8 meter per second range caused a flapping motion of the wings. To double-double check the results, the team also fitted artificial wings on a young ostrich. Here too, running caused the wings to flap. Longer and larger wings providing a greater lift force, the team notes.

So the first part of this hypothesis seems to pan out. Zhao says that the next step is to analyze the lift and thrust of Caudipteryx’s feathered wings during the passive flapping process, to see if the animal could actually sustain flight over meaningful distances, or just tended to hop around.

The paper “Identification of avian flapping motion from non-volant winged dinosaurs based on modal effective mass analysis” has been published in the journal PLOS Computational Biology.

Pink Squirrel.

North American flying squirrels are bright pink — under UV light

A chance sighting revealed that the North American flying squirrel (and its related species) glow bright pink under fluorescent light.

Pink Squirrel.

A flying squirrel seen under normal (top) and ultraviolet light.
Credit: Kohler et al., (2019), JoM.

Dr. Jon Martin, associate professor of forestry at Northland College in Wisconsin, stumbled upon the discovery in his own back yard. He was doing an exploratory forest survey with an ultraviolet flashlight, trying to find what lichens, mosses, and plants fluoresced. By chance, however, a flying squirrel dining at his bird feeder startled him, and he beamed his flashlight at it — and it glowed pink.

Secretly pink

Martin set up a team to further investigate the issue, which included Allison Kohler, a graduate student in the Texas A&M University wildlife and fisheries department, as well as Dr. Paula Anich, associate professor of natural resources, and Dr. Erik Olson, assistant professor of natural resources, both at Northland College.

The team first requested access to the collection of the Minnesota Science Museum, to see if their hypothesis holds or if it was just a figment of Martin’s imagination.

“I looked at a ton of different specimens that they had there,” Kohler said. “They were stuffed flying squirrels that they had collected over time, and every single one that I saw fluoresced hot pink in some intensity or another.”

Next, they expanded their investigations to the collection of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. All in all, they looked at over 100 specimens ranging across numerous states by this point, and all of them confirmed their “pink theory.” They then looked at three live specimens of different species of North American flying squirrels — the Northern flying squirrel, the Southern flying squirrel, and Humboldt’s flying squirrel. “All three of them fluoresced,” Kohler recounts.

Comparison with flying species of other squirrels, like the American red squirrel and gray squirrel, revealed that the pink fluorescent color is unique to the flying squirrel (genus Glaucomys).

Exactly why they glow bright pink under UV isn’t known. They’re not the only species to show fluorescence, however. The team’s running hypothesis is that it aids in communication and/or camouflage, but they’ve yet to confirm their suspicions.

“They could be communicating with members of their own species by showing off their fluorescence to each other, or it might be a sort of mating display,” Kohler said.

“The other hypothesis is that they could be using this fluorescence as an anti-predator trait to communicate with other species, avoiding predation by other species by blending in or dealing with their potentially ultraviolet-saturated environments.”

So far, the findings don’t seem particularly important, since we don’t yet know where they fit in the larger picture. Kohler, however, says she will continue expanding on the issue while pursuing her master’s degree at Texas A&M — hopefully, this will reveal the full implications of the team’s finding.

“It could potentially help with the conservation of the species or other species, and it could also relate to wildlife management,” Kohler said. “The more that we know about the species, the more we can understand it and help it. This is opening a new door to the realm of nocturnal-crepuscular, or active during twilight, communication in animals.”

The paper “Ultraviolet fluorescence discovered in New World flying squirrels (Glaucomys)” has been published in the Journal of Mammalogy.

Parrotlet hopping.

These tiny birds’ hopping could teach robots how to navigate rough environments

While usually gracious and smooth, birds’ flight likely started off as a short hop-and-flap to help dinosaurs forage better. A paper from Stanford University analyzes the energy used by a type of small parrot as it hops from branch to branch during foraging, and reports that their movements optimize energy usage and could be similar to the way their ancestors learned to fly.

Parrotlet hopping.

Image credits Diana Chin, Lentink Lab.

If you’re trying to understand the origins of animal flight, parrotlets make for a wonderful set of lab assistants. These diminutive parrots live from Mexico to southern parts of South America and are easy to train or care for and have a rather general flight pattern, unlike certain species — say hummingbirds, for example. They’re also extremely cute.

More to the point, a team of researchers from the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the Stanford University reports that the tiny birds tend to conserve energy on short distances from perch to perch by jumping or hopping most of the way. This behavior could offer a glimpse into the early days of flight, when feathered dinosaurs were just taking off the ground.

“Sometimes they were more cautious, they would literally just step between perches,” says lead author Diana Chin. “There was one bird that would basically do the splits.”

Flying by degrees

The team worked with four Pacific parrotlets, rewarding them with a seed each time they voluntarily jumped between force-sensitive perches inside an aerodynamic force platform. When the researchers widened the gap between perches, the parrotlets started to add some half-wingbeats in their jump. Birds use this kind of hop-and-flap to navigate tree branches with minimal effort (and so minimal energy expenditure) while foraging for food.

“[…] we discovered that parrotlets direct their leg impulse to minimize the mechanical energy needed to forage over different distances and inclinations,” the paper reads.

Less energy expenditure while searching for food means the birds could save up for situations when they really need it — such as fighting off a predator or competing for a mate. It’s likely that the first dinosaurs also used this hoping behavior to forage food, as the team’s computer models revealed that a single such “proto-wingbeat” could increase a feathered dinosaur’s jump range.

Parrotlet hopping 2.

Image credits Diana Chin, Lentink Lab.

Using data observed from the parrotlets and data from her previous studies, Chin put together a computer model showing the optimal angle of takeoff, and calculating the energy costs involved in different movements — for example the proto-wingbeats.

At first, while dinosaurs were still large and their feathers relatively small to their bodies this increase in mobility was negligible, but as dinosaurs got smaller and more specialized, the effect of the proto-wingbeat increased dramatically. Furthermore, the models revealed that these short jumps contain all the motions and tools to eventually develop into actual wing beats and flight.

Looking back at the way birds and their dinosaur ancestors learned how to hop around in trees (which are a pretty complex environment to navigate compared to a flat surface) could help design robots which could navigate very difficult or varied terrain.

Chin’s models could help design robots with both legs and wings. By conserving energy and using the most efficient motions to get around a cluttered area, a winged robot could significantly extend its operational range. The team now plans to look into how parrotlets can stick to the landing on a wide variety of surfaces, and work on designing and building the winged robots.

The paper “How birds direct impulse to minimize the energetic cost of foraging flight” has been published in the journal Nature.

Aeromobil wants to have their latest prototype flying car commercially available by 2017

Slovakian company AeroMobil just unveiled their newest prototype flying car in Brussels. The company CEO Juraj Vaculik announced that the company plans to have the vehicle, dubbed the AeroMobil 3.0, commercially available by 2017.

Promotional image of the AeroMobil 3.0

The advantages of a flying car are obvious: first and foremost, it’s awesome. Also it could be used in emergency situations where road infrastructure doesn’t allow regular vehicles to move fast enough.

For domestic users, it could cut commute times and allow for better medium-distance mobility. Slovakian company AeroMobil has been working since 1989 to build such a vehicle, and their most recent release is the 3.0 model.

AeroMobil 3.0 is the latest in a series of experimental prototypes that the Slovakian company has been toying with. The design brings several additional features and design improvements over older vehicles, and the company hopes to have it commercially available by the end of the year. One such improvement could be the passenger limit — currently, all of the company’s prototypes allow for two passengers, but Vaculik hinted this could change, calling the 3.0 the “first product in a series of innovative vehicles.” However, the company hasn’t released any details of future designs.

You can see the vehicle in the Justus Lipsius bulding in Brussels, were it will be on display until August 1st.

First U.S. testing of a man-carrying drone planned for later this year in Nevada

The Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems has granted permission to Chinese drone company EHang to test its on-demand, passenger-carrying aerial vehicle inside state boundaries. This marks the first time a passenger-carrying drone has ever been tested anywhere in the United States.

Chinese company EHang received testing rights for its EHang 184 model inside the state of Nevada on Monday, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reports. The vehicle is an autonomous human sized drone, which EHang was very happy to hail as the future of personal transport at the CES 2016 conference in Las Vegas. The company already produces a consumer model known as the “Ghost Drone,” which lead some to believe that the 184 is more of a marketing tool for their regular product.

Well, the vehicle certainly is eye-catching.

EHang 184 being presented at CES 2016.
Image via techcrunch

The press kit described the drone as “about four-and-a-half feet tall, weighs 440 pounds, and will be able to carry a single passenger for 23 minutes at a speed of 60 MPH. The 184 also has gull-wing doors and arms that fold up.” They also have a pretty cool video showing the drone in flight and its development process.


So does it have any merit on its own, or is it just a shiny “look at me” lure for the company’s staple Ghost Drone? We’ll have to wait for the test results, planned for later this year, to find out. But there is a lot of excitement at Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems (NIAS) for the testing.

“We will help them submit necessary test results and reports to the FAA and all that kind of stuff,” Mark Barker, the institute’s director, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

“It’s a big deal for EHang and it’s a big deal for NIAS and the state of Nevada because we will be helping them to test and validate their system.”

There’s a lot hanging on the outcome of these tests — alongside smart cars, autonomous flying vehicles like the 184 and Ghost Drone could very well be the future of transport. And possibly, the future of getting frisky.