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Conquering the Third Dimension

Many large urban areas are facing the collapse of transport systems. Road space is a limited resource. Pop.Up Next now wants to conquer the third dimension with drone technology – for relaxing airborne mobility.

The Po nonchalantly meanders through the countryside south of Turin, past meadows and fields, man-made lakes and fallow plots. The river, which springs forth in the western Alps and drains into the Adriatic 650 kilometers later, is the lifeblood of northern Italy. Just before the Po reaches the Turin city limits, an expansive commercial zone belonging to the municipality of Moncalieri stretches out on the river’s eastern bank. At the southwest tip of the area there is an inconspicuous building complex surrounded by a white wall just higher than the average pair of eyes. A narrow gate provides access to the grounds. A few steps inside, the visitor reaches a small reception foyer – and enters a completely different world.

This low-slung ensemble of buildings is, after all, the home of Italdesign, a giant of European, indeed global, automotive design, engineering and prototyping. Now the company is setting the stage for its latest coup. With a modular drone vehicle, Italdesign wants to conquer the third dimension for individual transport. Pop.Up Next is the name of the flight- and driving-capable device which will, initially, carry one to two people from A to B, on the ground and in the air, autonomously and under electric power. At last year’s Drone Week in Amsterdam, the inventors in close cooperation with their partners Airbus and Audi flew a 1:4-scale model of the device for the first time. The astonished faces of the spectators can still be viewed today in a YouTube video.

Italdesign has been working on the project since 2016. At the time, recounts CEO Jörg Astalosch, they had gathered at Italdesign and thought about how the transport challenges in urban areas could be mastered in the future. Astalosch rose to the top spot at Italdesign the previous year after Audi, a brand in the Volkswagen Group, had completely taken over the venerable design company. Until that time, founder Giorgetto Giugiaro had still held shares of the company he established in 1968.

Jörg Astalosch, CEO Italdesign: “We have reimagined urban mobility.”

“We asked ourselves what we could do to use the third dimension for urban transport,” says Astalosch. The answer to that question is a system in which it is not the traveler who has to change the means of transport to get from A to C by way of B, but the means of transport itself that transforms: from a car to a flying taxi and back to a car. The passenger simply remains seated in the transport capsule. The capsule either rests on the base vehicle module and is transported to the destination via the road, or hangs from the drone, which moves it through the air. 

The idea of urban air mobility has existed for some time, says Astalosch. “But we are the only ones with a modular concept that connects the road and the air.” Italdesign partnered with aircraft manufacturer Airbus, which is currently working on a type of electrically powered drone helicopter and aims to test it on a German Airforce base in Ingolstadt. Indeed, many companies are working on air taxi concepts, from conventional carmakers and aviation companies to start-ups and mobility providers such as the online transport network company Uber. Experts see the developments as the mobility of the future. According to the latest forecasts, by 2035 there could be up to 23,000 air taxis plying the airways of the world’s urban centers.

Employees preparing the model for the autonomous drive to the drone

At Italdesign’s Virtual Reality Center in Moncalieri, visitors can get an idea of the technology. The real-life, 1:4-scale model of the Pop.Up Next stands at the center of a ballroom-sized hall. The model is an elegant sight, with its two skids and eight propellers mounted in pairs on four metal arms. At the head of the room, a large board displays model drawings of the Golf I, whose classic form was designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro in the early 1970s. The past meets the future in quite striking form here, tradition coupling with modern design and technology ideas.

  • 51 years of design history

    The Italian company Italdesign has been developing vehicles for the world's major automobile manufacturers for more than 50 years. 

    The Italdesign site in Moncalieri is an attraction for both design and automobile lovers. Scanning the bright rooms, the visitor discovers both familiar classics and futuristic-looking prototypes. It’s a bit like walking through an alternating landscape of period-piece backdrops or the set of a science fiction film. The first Golf and the Audi 80, the Fiat Panda and the Lancia Thema, Saab 9000 and Seat Ibiza – the design of these successful models took shape in these very halls. Exotic models like the DeLorian DMC-12, better known as the time machine in “Back to the Future,” the Zerouno sports car, a sensation at the 2017 Geneva Motor Show, and the DaVinci show car, which was presented in Geneva this year, also owe their extravagant and unmistakable forms to the designers of Italdesign. 

    Giorgetto Giugiaro and Aldo Mantovani founded Italdesign on 13 February 1968. Over the past 51 years, the company has worked with all the major car manufacturers. An overwhelming international success was the development of the first VW Golf, the shape of which goes back to company founder Giugiaro. Although the company has the term design in its name, it also works in the field of automotive technology. Engineering services account for half of the company's turnover. Since 2015 Italdesign has belonged completely to Audi.

Final once-over: Is the passenger capsule safely affixed to the drone?

There is not much time to ponder it all. Almost silently the base module and passenger capsule approach the drone from the right. Using two cameras and vast processing power, it rolls autonomously to the drone before coming to a stop between the skids. It’s a question of millimeters, for the drone coupling mechanism must be positioned directly over the passenger capsule. The drivetrain that connects the capsule to the drone hums quietly. Lifting off is not possible here and now; without further ado, the drone sets the capsule back on the driving module. End of demonstration.

“The biggest challenge was connecting the two worlds of the ground and the air,” says Board Member for Technology Antonio Casu. For the air taxi to lift off and maneuver in the air, it can’t be too heavy. To both drive and fly safely, it must be stable – in any weather and on any surface. Not to mention the operational safety of such a device, which is designed to do without pilots and remote control. “When the Pop.Up Next goes into production, it will be so safe that you can, in good conscience, let your children ride in it,” says Jörg Astalosch. That most likely won’t be before the second half of the next decade though, according to Technology boss Casu, so not before 2025.

The prototype is set to take off in 2020

Antonio Casu, CTO of Italdesign: “We are exploring new forms of mobility.”

For although the underlying technical challenges of the project appear to have been resolved and a 1:1-scale prototype is slated for takeoff within the next 18 months, there are still some hurdles to clear along the way. Antonio Casu notes that there are still no batteries with sufficient capacity to power the Pop.Up Next reliably.

Another area where there is still work to be done is the air taxi’s connectivity. “We are currently conducting tests with 5G technology,” says Casu. The future mobile communication standard is 100 times faster than the current 4G/LTE and enables real-time communication between connected devices in milliseconds – an absolute necessity for an autonomously flying air taxi. “We assume that the Pop.Up Next will have to prove its mettle in a traffic environment comprised of autonomous driving and conventional vehicles, both electric and conventionally powered cars,” says Casu. “And the notion that 2 metric tons are flying over our heads, and without a pilot in control, is something that will take some getting used to for all of us.”

It all still has the air of science fiction, concedes CEO Astalosch. “But the concept is realistic and ready to be implemented.” Granted, one should not image that the Pop.Up Next will be bought and flown by thousands of private owners. “Our aim is not to ease the mobility of elites, but rather to improve mobility overall in major urban centers,” says Astalosch. The Pop.Up Next, he says, is a product that would be well suited for ride-hailing or ride-sharing which the user rents for a specific purpose. In practice that would mean that a large city has three or four hubs at which passengers can switch from driving to flying and vice versa. And there would be prioritized routes, such as between an airport and downtown area. 

As Jörg Astalosch knows all too well, it will take much more than just a lot of research and development work by his company before that can happen. “We have to completely reimagine the vehicle,” he says; “we’re dealing with a completely new type.” Before the air taxi can take off, the regulatory environment will have to be adapted and air traffic management broken down to accommodate the requirements of urban areas. Who, for example, will regulate and monitor traffic in the air? Will right-of-way rules require a third dimension? What about accident liability? These are all questions that remain to be answered. “We can’t resolve all of this ourselves,” says Astalosch, adding that he hopes that lawmakers, regulatory authorities and potential operators will work together. In the end, it should be as simple as possible for the user: the entire service is booked and billed via an online platform, the customer simply gets into the capsule and the provider takes care of the rest.

Concept studies for the life-sized Pop.Up Next

If it all succeeds, the Pop.Up Next will be an intelligent way to get around the smart city of the future. Designer Nicolas Bussetti has no doubt of that. He has been working on the development of the flying taxi since the outset. It’s a very exciting project, he says, and not just because of the revolutionary modular architecture. It’s only thanks to digital technologies like virtual reality that it is even possible to get such a project on its feet in such a short period of time. “We have a data-driven approach nowadays and require many fewer models than just 20 years ago,” says Bussetti. Technology and design go hand in hand. That opens up new spaces in which ideas can quite literally take flight.