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A Crowded Field In Ohio Is Working On Developing Electric Flying Cars

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Imagine hopping from place to place in a flying car. My kids talk about this all the time. This fantasy may be closer to reality in the next few years. Much of the development is centered in a most unlikely place. Ann Thompson of member station WVXU reports.

ANN THOMPSON, BYLINE: Call them whatever you want - flying cars, air taxis or large drones - their technical name is a eVTOL, electric vertical takeoff and landing. And the developing field is already a crowded one. More than 500 companies have concepts, and about two-dozen are in experimental testing phase. Most pitch their vehicles as a green and quiet transportation alternative. The Joby S4, which looks like a helicopter with wings, can travel 154 miles on a single charge. Here's the sound it makes in the air.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLE FLYING)

THOMPSON: Mike Hirschberg is with the Vertical Flight Society and is thrilled the technology is getting closer to reality.

MIKE HIRSCHBERG: We see this as an electric VTOL revolution where this has the same potential for a changing society for the better as smartphones did, you know, 10 years ago.

THOMPSON: Smartphones were largely Silicon Valley. Flying cars could be the Ohio Valley. Much of the development is centered here in Springfield, Ohio, a small town east of Dayton where developers are doing further testing with the goal of winning military contracts. The Springfield-Beckley Municipal Airport sits just down the road from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. The military wants to use so-called flying cars for things like transporting troops and medevacking the wounded. Air Force Colonel Nathan Diller is leading the effort.

NATHAN DILLER: For us, we see phenomenal capability and just early support for logistics on some of our ranges.

THOMPSON: One of the competing companies is Vermont-based Beta Technologies, which already has built an elevated charging station here with classrooms and living space. Engineer Austin Eggers says they need it to train pilots.

AUSTIN EGGERS: The pilots' quarter has, like, a little - it's like a hotel room, essentially, inside a container. So each of these sites here are kind of modular to fit the customer.

THOMPSON: The Beta aircraft looks like a big, mechanical bird. Another company, Joby, which recently went public, has installed a simulator here. And on the other side of this small airport is a company called Lift - not associated with the ride-sharing company. It's one-person, ultralight aircraft looks very different from the others, with a dozen and a half spinning rotors.

KEVIN RUSTAGI: Basically, think of a very, very large drone.

THOMPSON: Kevin Rustagi says you may not even need a pilot's license to fly one. When ready to market, Lift says it can fully train you to fly its vehicle. What's remarkable here is that companies from Vermont, California and Texas are in southern Ohio. Lift's Rustagi.

RUSTAGI: What really keeps us in Ohio is the incredibly warm welcome we've had from the state. We have here just such an incredible fount of technology partners, really hardcore level Ph.D. scientists who are developing other technologies we might add on to the aircraft that might make it even smarter.

THOMPSON: And it appears that more so-called flying car companies are headed here in part because of the flat flying space and a variety of weather to test their vehicles. That's good news for the state that boasts it was the home to the Wright brothers, who grew up in Dayton. Commercial flying car companies are expected to ramp up in the next few years. And prospective passengers are eager to take off. Lift says it already has 4,000 paid reservations. And another 15,000 are on a waiting list.

For NPR News, I'm Ann Thompson in Cincinnati.

(SOUNDBITE OF SECEDE'S "BORN IN A TROPICAL SWAMP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.