Fulfilling the Dream of Flying Cars (Part I)

[The Power to Create the Future Special] Tsubasa Nakamura, CARTIVATOR Project Leader, and Shoichi Arisaka, President and Representative Director of TechShop Japan

SkyDrive is a Japanese flying car with a planned worldwide launch in 2020. Its developer, CARTIVATOR, is a volunteer group based in Aichi and Tokyo. Fujitsu and TechShop Japan signed a sponsorship deal with them to support their cross-organizational volunteer commitment to innovation in next generation mobility (modes of transportation). CARTIVATOR is carrying out its research and development at TechShop Tokyo, a membership-based open-access DIY workshop.

This article is part of the Power to Create the Future Special. We interviewed Tsubasa Nakamura, CARTIVATOR Project Leader, and Shoichi Arisaka, President and Representative Director of TechShop Japan, to find hints for innovation.

A 1:43 scale model of SkyDrive. The design of the fenders that protrude from the four corners is a unique feature. "The design was inspired by water striders gliding over water." (Nakamura)

"I Always Wanted to Pass Down the Dream Cars Gave Me to the Next Generation." (Nakamura)

Arisaka: I first met you about four months ago. I remember becoming excited for the first time in a while when I heard about flying cars. I rarely have a chance to feel the future, but SkyDrive emits a very strong futuristic feeling. When I watched the video, I uniquely felt as if I were watching a scene from a sci-fi movie. This project may be the most exciting effort in Japan today.

Nakamura: Thank you very much. I feel flying cars are attracting more attention than I expected in this time of stagnation when the future cannot easily be predicted. We are conducting development under the theme of the shape of the near future, which is easy for children to understand, but we have also surprisingly received a lot of feedback from older generations saying it was cool and interesting, which delighted us.

Mr. Tsubasa Nakamura, CARTIVATOR Project Lead

Arisaka: In the West, flying cars are being actively developed to mitigate traffic congestion and for disaster relief; there, the competition is becoming more and more intense. What made you decide to develop a flying car?

Nakamura: I have always loved cars since my childhood; at one point, I resolved to become an automotive engineer to develop supercars in the future. I always wanted to pass down the dream cars gave me to the next generation. That is why I joined a car maker, but I found that young people these days do not strongly desire to own cars. To think up a completely new form of car that would make them want to drive it, I invited friends--mainly colleagues that joined the company the same year I did--to form a volunteer group. At first, it was more like a car-enthusiast club. Among the roughly 100 ideas we came up with during our discussion about what form of mobility (vehicle) could pique the interest of the next generation, the most inspirational was this flying car.

"Transformable Multicopters Can Do VTOL and Have Compact Sizes. They Can Take Off from Normal Roads Straight into the Sky." (Nakamura)

Arisaka: I'm curious about the mechanics. Could you tell us a little about them?

Nakamura: SkyDrive is a multicopter, which vertically ascends by turning the propellers like a drone does. It runs on three wheels in drive mode and levitates in flying mode using propellers located in the four corners of the multicopter. In flying mode, the fenders also transform into propeller guards. Flying cars with airplane-like wings would require runways and large garages, whereas transformable multicopters can do vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) and have compact sizes. They can take off from normal roads straight into the sky.

SkyDrive promotional video

Arisaka: How did you come up with these mechanics?

Nakamura: When I thought about how to get a car to fly in the sky, the first thing that came to mind was the DeLorean, the flying time-traveling car that appears in the movie Back to the Future. Unfortunately, my calculations revealed that it was impossible to materialize due to structural reasons. This was when I took notice of drones. At the time, drones were already being sold in the US and had started to come into use little by little in Japan; I thought drones might work for flying cars as well. I wondered how large a drone would have to be to actually carry the load of a person's weight, so I did some calculations, which revealed that such a drone could be as small as a car. Car-sized drones would suit personal use, so I adopted that design.

"To Allocate as Much of Our Funds as Possible to Making Prototypes, We Rented an Elementary School Building No Longer in Use as a Garage and Held Meetings at Members' Homes or Cafés." (Nakamura)

Arisaka: Building an actual machine requires a substantial amount of funding, doesn't it?

Nakamura: Fundraising has always been a source of concern. A 1:5 scale prototype cost around 500,000-600,000 yen to build, and we had about 10 members at that time; thus, it cost 50,000-60,000 per person. At first, we could build small prototypes with our leisure money. Then, it turned out that a 1:1 scale prototype would unexpectedly cost tens of millions of yen. (Laughs.) For this reason, we turned to crowd funding and conducted joint research with other researchers who were developing a multicopter similar to SkyDrive in terms of structure in order to reduce experimental costs as much as possible. Since it costs hundreds of millions of yen to build a solid prototype for a world debut, we now have various companies sponsoring development.

Arisaka: At first, you didn't have a proper development base, did you?

Nakamura: No, we did not. To allocate as much of our funds as possible to making prototypes, we rented an elementary school building no longer in use as a garage and held meetings at members' homes or cafés. We even scheduled a camp during vacation to use a short period of time to accelerate development. We really appreciate the support from Fujitsu and TechShop Japan, which enables us to use the latest DIY workshop as our base in Tokyo.

"People with Various Skills, Knowledge, and Ideas Frequent This Place, Leading to Synergy that Enables Everyone to Compensate for Each Other's Deficiencies." (Arisaka)

Shoichi Arisaka, President and Representative Director of TechShop Japan

Arisaka: Because it looked so fun, it was more like me asking you to let me join than offering support. I was really curious about closely watching the process of developing a flying car and so impressed with your personality and enthusiasm that I wanted to assist the project as much as possible.

Nakamura: TechShop Tokyo has a convenient location and excellent atmosphere. Its location, Roppongi, is convenient for meeting up after work, and the spacious floor makes it comfortable to spend time here. It makes me more open-minded and facilitates idea generation.
In addition, it provides a variety of first-rate machining tools for shaping and welding metal, which are needed to actually build prototypes. TechShop Tokyo is a place that enhances one's manufacturing mindset in terms of both hardware and software.

Arisaka: Environment is important for innovation. It is difficult to conceive creative ideas in an office. That is why you need a more open place.
In addition, new innovative products are rarely created from nothing. Instead, they are likely to emerge when bringing together existing values or combining various technologies and knowledge. So, the other point, besides providing openness, is how well the environment facilitates fostering a community.
In this sense, I would like all of you to use TechShop even more and mingle with the community here. People with various skills, knowledge, and ideas frequent this place, leading to synergy that enables everyone to compensate for each other's deficiencies.

CARTIVATOR members. "The name CARTIVATOR is a portmanteau that means cultivating exciting experiences by car." (Nakamura)

Nakamura: Community is key to starting something new. At present, the CARTIVATOR team consists of about 100 members of various occupations from diverse companies, ranging widely from students in their teens to veterans in their fifties.
The majority are engineers and designers, but some have participated in Birdman Rally or Robocon, some are businesspeople that run ventures, and others own private helicopters. Though they all have different skills, they are not quite satisfied with their jobs and very passionate about making something; this is what we share in common. (To be continued in Part II.)

Tsubasa Nakamura
Born in 1984. He received his master's degree from Keio University, where he majored in science and technology. In 2009, he joined a major automobile company and engaged in designing mass-produced cars. In parallel, in 2012 he established CARTIVATOR, a volunteer group, to produce a flying car that suits the next generation. The flying car is under development aiming for a 2020 debut with 100 members of various generations from different organizations.

Shoichi Arisaka
President and Representative Director of TechShop Japan
He joined Fujitsu Limited in 1998 and engaged in marketing ICT systems in the US, Europe, and other Asian countries. He assumed the post of President and Representative Director of TechShop Japan in October 2015. He opened TechShop Tokyo in Minato, Tokyo in April 2016 to spread the maker movement in Japan and help form a society in which many people can give shape to the content of their imagination.
"Every idea is good and worth a try."