A Japan-based company that’s developing flying cars — yes, flying cars — has set up a temporary office in Beaufort as it explores entry into the U.S. market.
SkyDrive, backed by venture capital from some of Japan’s largest brands, is just one of several international companies checking out Beautiful Beaufort by the Sea, as it’s known, thanks to a new office hub called the Southern Carolina Landing Pad that companies can use for free while they develop their sea legs in unfamiliar waters and consider dropping anchor in U.S. markets.
But SkyDrive, a Tokyo-based aero-tech start-up, might offer the most intriguing product of the bunch.
Since 2018, in Japan, SkyDrive has been developing electric vehicle take-off and landing vehicles, or EVTOLs, along with cargo-carrying drones, William Fugate, SkyDrive’s U.S. business development manager, told the Beaufort Gazette and Island Packet from his Beaufort office.
It all may sound like something out of the 1982 science fiction movie “Blade Runner,” which featured fictional flying cars.
But SkyDrive has already developed a zero-emission, two-seat flying car for real, with vertical take-off and landing capability. It’s the only company in Japan, it says, that’s successfully conducted manned test flights. It’s now in the process of getting its latest model certified by Japan regulators. It plans to unveil that model in the World Expo 2025 in Osaka. Commercial sales could follow in 2026.
“People,” Fugate says, “don’t realize how fast it’s coming.”
SkyDrive is one of about 100 firms involved in the research and development of EVTOLs worldwide, says Fugate, and “we’re kind of Japan’s foothold in that market.”
How quickly the flying vehicles enter the air space will depend on infrastructure such as landing areas, electric charging stations, air traffic management, FAA approval and other aspects, says Fugate, and those are the types of issues it’s investigating from its new office in Beaufort.
One of the biggest drivers of the flying vehicles, Fugate says, is the Biden administration’s goals to slash greenhouse gas emissions.
“It will create a lot of jobs,” Fugate says, “once these ecosystems are in place.”
Future models eventually could be manufactured in the United States, he says.
For now, SkyDrive hasn’t committed to setting up operations in Beaufort.
But the hope is that once companies like it experience the services offered through the Southern Carolina Landing Pad program, and get a taste of life in the Lowcountry, it will position Beaufort County well when future decisions are made on investments, such as where to locate headquarters and research and development or manufacturing facilities, creating new jobs and tax bases.
“We think if we treat people well,” says John O’Toole, executive director of Beaufort County Economic Development Corp., “they will fall in love with Beaufort.”
The Southern Carolina Landing Pad is a collaboration between Beaufort County Economic Development, the city of Beaufort, the Southern Carolina Regional Development Alliance and others.
The mission of the program is to assist companies from around the world that are considering investing in the region for the first time.
First, a free physical location is provided where companies can “land” — the second-floor offices at 500 Carteret St. for up to 90 days — as they explore local markets or transition into them.
Through the program, local economic development and city officials also work with the companies on a host of issues that can be overwhelming in a new market. They include connecting them with experts who can discuss legal, tax, accounting, human resources and other issues.
“Any question they will want answers to,” O’Toole says, “we’ve got firms to step up and offer pro bono services.”
SkyDrive is the first company to take advantage of the Landing Pad, which Beaufort Mayor Stephen Murray calls “pretty darn exciting.”
“It’s a very cool company,” Murray says.
The Landing Pad is a place where international firms can establish a presence and build confidence in the region before making significant investments, says Murray. The coastal city of 13,400, he says, is working to attract “advanced manufacturing” companies that create “primary jobs,” and the Landing Pad is an important tool in the effort to diversify the economy.
“It sets us apart from a lot of other areas,” he says.
Up until now, SkyDrive has focused on the domestic market in Japan. It’s already selling drones that can transport cargo. The company is in the research and development phase of EVTOL aircraft. Now that it has what it considers to be a globally viable product, Fugate says, it’s broadening its focus to international markets with its initial focus on the United States.
Today, most of the EVTOL market is developing what Fugate describes as larger aircraft vehicles that could travel between cities. He compares them to buses. SkyDrive is taking a more conservative approach and developing smaller vehicles — he likens them to taxis — that could be used within a city. Pilots would taxi passengers with the means to pay for the convenience and speed. It would be kind of like booking an Uber driver, he says, possibly even using a phone app.
When he first learned of the flying cars, Charlie Stone, a BCED project manager, says he immediately thought of the “Jetsons,” the 1960s animated cartoon in which the family’s mode of transportation was a flying sports car.
But SkyDrive isn’t the only international company producing interesting products that is interested in landing in Beaufort.
BCED officials have also had conversations with representatives of a company from Sweden that makes electric trucks, an autonomous delivery car manufacturer based in Estonia, and a Great Britain battery manufacturer with offices in Toronto, about using the Land Pad services.
BCED officials also are talking to a Finnish electric vehicle automotive supplier. “I think it’s a pretty dang good lead for us,” Stone says of the company, “and they seem interested.”
Skydrive’s Fugate connected with the BCED officials through the Japan External Trade Organization, a Japanese government-related organization that promotes trade and investment relations.
Fugate came over from Japan to Beaufort and met with local officials on a scouting mission. Fugate is originally from the U.S. but has lived in Japan for 30 years.
“They exceeded all of our expectations in almost every way,” he said of the Landing Pad.
He returned to Japan and presented the idea to the board of directors, which includes investors such as Suzuki Motor Corporation, the Japanese multinational corporation.
“I’ve been given the green light to start building our office here and that’s why I’m here now,” Fugate says.
The firm’s entrance into the U.S. market will be through Beaufort or the surrounding area, he says.
When Fugate arrived, he found the flag of Japan, with its distinctive red circle on a white backdrop, hanging on the wall, along with the stars and stripes.
“It’s a great town,” Fugate says.
This story was originally published September 3, 2022 6:00 AM.