The Jetsons has not been a good predictor of future technology. As many failed startups have illustrated the futility of building Rosie the Robot, so too have decades of laughable contraptions

But that hasn’t stopped companies from Airbus to Uber from pouring resources into flying car services to transport people and goods across cities. They are pinning hope on cheap new electric propulsion technologies (courtesy of the drone industry) promising cleaner, quieter, and simpler craft than today’s gas guzzlers.

As Uber gears up for its third Elevate Summit on June 10, pushing the vision of battery-powered planes, a startup called Alaka’i Technologies proposes instead using hydrogen fuel cells to produce electricity. Alaka’i today debuted a full-size mockup of its four-passenger (plus pilot) helicopter-style electric craft called Skai–based on a design by BMW Group’s Designworks. What’s more: A working model will begin flight tests in the coming weeks.

Hydrogen dreams

“Hydrogen has a few hundred times the energy density of the best of lithium ion battery technology,” says NASA vet and Alaka’i board member Bruce Holmes. Alaka’i claims that Skai can carry 1,000 pounds of people or cargo for 460 miles at over 100 miles per hour.

That would blow away battery-powered competitors. Uber, for instance, is requiring would-be aircraft suppliers such as Boeing and Embraer to build planes that travel 60 miles per charge, albeit at a faster speed of up to 150 miles per hour.

A mockup of Alaka’i’s five-seater (four passenger, plus pilot) electric chopper, Skai. [Photo: courtesy of Alaka’i Technologies]
Alaka’i also claims that fuel cells allow it to build a simpler craft–basically a six-rotor drone–that can fly through FAA certification. Craft running on Uber’s platform, or rivals from Airbus and Lilium, require a more complex design to save precious battery power. They transition from power-hogging, helicopter-style takeoff and landing to a more-efficient airplane configuration for the bulk of flight. With so much more power at hand, Skai can fly chopper-style the whole time.

Fast-track approval promises

In a regulatory world where just getting FAA approval on a modification to an existing airplane design can take five years, Alaka’i claims that Skai can get through the process in about a year. “All the components we have, it’s probably a quarter or less of a traditional aircraft,” says chief executive officer Steve Hanvey, a veteran of both the military and military contractors. He reckons that perhaps half of the FAA certification regulations won’t apply to Skai’s simpler design.