It’s been about a month since Kitty Hawk, the stealth company working on a flying car and backed by Google cofounder Larry Page, unveiled its first public prototype of the Flyer. Footage of the airborne craft, more flying jetski than flying car, immediately turned heads.
But what is it like to actually fly one of these things? How tough is it to learn?
Kitty Hawk provided Business Insider with new, behind-the-scenes video of some of the early test flights and the pilot training, a process that involved connecting the Flyer to a special tether to help master the feeling of floating on air.
Cameron Robertson and Todd Reichert, the co-lead engineers of the Kitty Hawk Flyer also answered some questions by email about how the Flyer works and how they designed it to be as simple to operate as an Xbox.
First check out the video:
Here’s what the engineering bosses told us about getting the Flyer off the ground:
Business Insider: What kind of experience/background did the test drivers have and what kind of training did you give them before setting them loose in the sky?
Reichert: The pilots had a variety of backgrounds, that was key to our training exercise. They ranged from sports pioneers, to paraglider enthusiasts, to helicopter pilots. We wanted each tester to transition smoothly into this new experience, whatever their history.
The flight controls use thumbsticks just like an Xbox.
We gave each tester a personalized training program that gradually acclimated them to the experience of flying. They started on a flight simulator with replica controls, then practiced in the real-world using a scale remote-controlled model of Flyer. The first time each tester took Flyer to the air over water, we used a tethered float that reduced their speed and altitude for increased safety. This build-up and increasing familiarity with the full experience ensured a smooth transition to free-flight. We took extra precautions and did exercises in preparedness – including contingency planning, water escape training, and a dry-run with the aircraft strapped to the ground.
BI: I’ve heard that the Flyer controls are very similar to a video game controller — How does a person actually pilot a Flyer, and how did you — as the designers — manage to simplify all the complexity into such an intuitive set of controls?
Robertson: The flight controls use thumbsticks just like an Xbox. The right thumb lets you tilt the Flyer in any direction, and the left controls the altitude and heading. We aimed for an experience that was as universal and familiar as possible.
Our system makes flying easy by handling all the things that usually make other aircraft more complex. The flight computer assesses the altitude and thrust of the aircraft at all times, and in the background, controls each motor to maintain stability. The pilot’s intentions are taken by the computer and translated into smooth actions. This “fly-by-wire” control scheme is only now making it into conventional helicopters, but is a powerful approach.
The great benefit of this software-based control scheme is that the engineering team can easily tweak and modify the handling, responsiveness, and feel of the aircraft. We can quickly create the best possible user experience.
BI: It seems like the goal is for the Flyer to be as simple as riding a bike, but doesn’t operating a vehicle in 3 dimensions add an extra level of complexity that most people aren’t accustomed to?
Reichert: Our focus is to reduce the workload for the user, so the immediate benefit of flying can be realized. On a bike, you have only one control input you need to handle all the time –– steering. With Flyer, technically you can have no input at any given time and you’ll float comfortably in the air. The aircraft actively manages altitude and level. Only when you want to change something (i.e. move forward, or get a little higher) do you need to give input. Our goal is for flight to be only what you want to be doing, and for your intentions to be easy to express. The rest of the complexity and stress should fall away.
BI: What was the most surprising thing you saw as you taught these first testers to fly and how has that affected your vision for these machines and their potential?
Robertson: We were blown-away by how quickly flying became fun! Our tester’s expression of the uniqueness of the experience, the transformative freedom was wild. The intimidation of flight and a flying vehicle quickly disappeared and this became the realization of everyone’s “flying dreams.” Preserving this fun dimension of flight will be critical in the future. Making flight ubiquitous will be about making it enjoyable, as well as easy, safe, and accessible.