Uber's Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) aircraft, an aerial taxi of the future

First degree in flying car engineering opens its doors to students

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The first “nanodegree” in flying car engineering has been launched by online education organisation Udacity.

In a blog post the company said that students taking the course would be on the “cutting-edge” of the “future of transportation and aerial robotics”.

With companies from Airbus and Amazon to Uber throttling up development of their own autonomous aerial vehicles, Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun believes “in a few years’ time, this will be the hottest topic on the planet”.

In April last year pre-orders opened for a $1m (£780,000) flying car set to launch in 2020, while Uber has developed an electrical flying car concept designed to tackle congestion in busy cities.

Thrun, the 50-year-old PhD computer scientist and former Stanford University professor, co-founded Udacity in 2012 after working with Google for some years.

His experience in steering the search giant’s early forays into self-driving vehicle technology led him to set up the self-driving car program at Udacity that has attracted 50,000 applicants since 2016.

Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun

Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun

Image credit: reuters

He expects the new flying car curriculum, which opens in late February and begins taking applications on Tuesday, to draw at least 10,000.

The program is comprised of two terms of 12 weeks costing $1,200 (£850) each and includes a course in Aerial Robotics and one in Intelligent Air Systems. It provides an online certification in a fraction of the time of a traditional degree course.

In an interview, Thrun said his motivation in creating the flying-car program was similar to what drove the school’s widely publicised self-driving car course.

Thrun said “it’s almost impossible to hire qualified people” to design and engineer future vehicles – both terrestrial and aerial – that employ advanced technology, including robotics, artificial intelligence and machine learning.

“There is a huge shortage of engineers. There are plenty of smart people – the missing link is education,” he added.

Thrun remains an advisor to Google parent Alphabet and retains close ties to Alphabet CEO and co-founder Larry Page.

Page is an investor in Kitty Hawk Corp, a two-year-old startup based in Mountain View, California, whose stated mission is “to make the dream of personal flight a reality”. Thrun is chief executive of Kitty Hawk and a co-owner.

Kitty Hawk’s first prototype, dubbed the Flyer, is not exactly a flying car, but more of a one-person drone that is capable of vertical takeoff and landing and does not need wheels.

“‘Flying car’ might be a bit of a misnomer – more of an attention grabber,” admitted Thrun, who said he has been working with Page and others to develop autonomous aerial vehicles.

“It feels like science-fiction now,” Thrun said. “But with Google and Amazon moving in, there is going to be enormous activity around this in the next year or two.”

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