The car you can fly – the aircraft you can drive.
“He talked to me about the idea, but I thought it was a bit crazy. Too much James Bond.”
Mike Stekelenburg is the chief engineer for PAL-V, an innovative two-person vehicle for on the roads and in the air. This autogyro, which is being made in the Netherlands, will be available from 2021. NLR was jointly responsible for designing the composite rotor blades and the propeller, developing the requisite manufacturing methods and manufacturing the first products for flight tests and other testing.
Mike was one of the first to become involved in the company, back when it was being founded in 2008. He still had to be convinced though, when Robert Dingemanse – the CEO of PAL-V – approached him to take part.
“Robert and I knew each other from when we’d worked together previously, and he came round to my place one evening. He talked to me about the idea, but I thought it was a bit crazy. Too much James Bond”
In the first instance, therefore, he said no to the proposal; actually, he didn’t know all that much about the automotive or aviation worlds. Until he took a more in-depth look and found that the concept was feasible. Mike’s background in revolutionary innovations and breakthrough projects meant that PAL-V was a project that he simply couldn’t let pass him by. He wanted to take that step, rather than read in the papers later that someone else had done it.
From the concept to the prototype
The first day at work for PAL-V. “We started with a team of four guys and we dived right into everything, from the laws and regulations to the technology for the car aspect and the flying aspect. You soon discover then that getting aircraft and cars certified is a broad-ranging subject. You can find everything you need to know online, actually, but there’s a huge amount of it and it’s very complex. You need to devote years to it.” Finding partners was also important at the start. NLR was a partner right from the start, as was Carver.
The assignment in 2008 was to show that it works: that it can be flown and driven and that it can be converted from one mode to the other. The essence is that you are flexible, because PAL-V lets you travel much more easily from door to door. If the weather is bad, for instance, you can always continue to your destination by road.
The car you can fly – the aircraft you can drive
In 2012, the PAL-V team showed the world that it is possible. They demonstrated a conceptual model to the world at large and explained the technology behind it. They issued a press release together with a clip. “We hadn’t expected it would draw the media attention that it did. We even had to take people on to answer the phone.”
This was then followed by all the points for improvement on the vehicle, such as exhaust emissions, fuel consumption, weight, safety on the roads, stability when landing and the action radius. There was still a Wankel engine in the vehicle in 2012, for instance, the same type of motor that used to be in a Mazda RX-8. A very nifty principle, but not economical and clean. So it couldn’t meet the emission requirements.
“At a certain point, we had to bite the bullet and say we’d use a different engine and redesign the entire power plant.”
A great deal of attention was also paid to the design, both inside and out. They collaborated with design agencies on this. “Right from the start, we’ve said that people must feel comfortable with it and must be able to be proud of it, because it comes with a price tag. And you can see that reflected in the wonderful dashboard and the use of leather.”
Certification and the burden of evidence
The PAL-V is now lighter, better, beautifully designed and cleaner. So that makes it time for the details – and there are a lot of them. “Then along came the authorities to inspect the car part, and that revealed a number of points. Although we thought we’d covered everything. Such as the gap between the hubcaps and the body – important for the aerodynamics. A pedestrian could get caught in that, so we had to change it so that they would be pushed aside instead. Something that seems small can really have a lot of consequences. For example when there’s a knock-on effect in another system.”
The experts at EASA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, do their work very carefully and it takes more time and effort to familiarise themselves with the PAL-V, with all its innovations, than it does for example with a standard helicopter. “For a standard chopper, they pluck a list of requirements from a drawer, but determining the basis of the certification for us took years.” The emphasis through to 2020 is therefore on providing the evidence, because there are a lot of innovations in the PAL-V.
PAL-V has more to follow: electric flying and vertical take-off and landing
There are now plans to follow up PAL-V together with NLR by developing an electric variant, the eVTOL. “Electric is popular throughout the world, and important for sustainability both in cars and in planes. In the second phase of the collaboration with NLR, we’re going to be looking not only at electrically powered flight but also at vertical take-off and landing. That adds new possibilities such as using it in urban environments – from roof to roof.”
Cooperation with NLR
“We’ve been working with NLR since 2008 and we’ve done a lot of projects together on a wide range of subjects. NLR is good at translating research into practice, into the commercial sector. They’re exceptionally good at that. Which is why we like working with NLR on technically complex problems. We’ve been doing that since 2008 and we’ll continue to do so. If it involves innovation, we’ll be looking to NLR.”