A new breed of aircraft companies has emerged, aiming to bring personal aviation to the masses. Forget private jets - these companies want to put an actual plane on a consumer's driveway at home for the price of a Ferrari.

Some say we can even forget Ferraris - they're looking to give people their own aircraft for the price of a high-end Ford.

The highest profile of these companies in operation include ICON Aircraft, which is working on its amphibious light sport aircraft the A5; Cobalt Aircraft, with the Co50 Valkyrie, a five-seat, single-engine, propeller-driven craft; and AeroMobil, which wants to deliver nothing less than the world's first fully transformable flying car.

Welcome to the George Jetson future that our parents once thought was just around the corner - apparently it needed a few more decades to finally take off. The ICON A5 costs US$189,000, and the company hopes to have it available in 2016 - although people putting a deposit down today would have to wait until 2019.

ICON Aircraft CEO and founder Kirk Hawkins says: "We believe we [have] created one of the safest, easiest to fly, most fun and coolest light aircraft on the planet. Our mission is to make flying more accessible to the thousands who dream about it but consider it out of reach."

The Co50 Valkyrie, meanwhile, costs US$699,000 with a planned 2017 launch. The AeroMobil is yet to have concrete pricing or a launch date, but "around a few hundred thousand euros" has been quoted by those close to the project.

Design has played a key role in this new wave of aircraft design. ICON explicitly states that the company intends "to democratise aviation the same way that great brands like Apple, BMW, Ducati or Oakley democratise their products: by fusing outstanding engineering with world-class consumer product design. The end goal is to create products that not only deliver great functional benefit but also deeply inspire us on an emotional level".

AeroMobil agrees that good design is essential to the product's success. "It drives positive emotions and shapes expectation. The design is an inevitable part of the whole concept. We shouldn't see only the functionality of the vehicle, but also the aesthetical form of the object," says co-founder and CEO Juraj Vaculik.

"Every disruptive innovation started either in military or niche market. The customers for the first model of AeroMobil, the flying roadster, will consist of early adopters and technology enthusiasts. It will be a high-end luxury product combining a performance car and a full-fledged small aircraft, produced in a limited edition. The price will reflect this.

"As for the next product, we will make sure to bring it within the reach of the top end of the mass market."

It isn't just the independent start-ups that have their eye on the personal aviation prize - Airbus is investing £14.73 million (HK$173 million) in the development of an electric two-seater aircraft called the Airbus E-Fan. Powered by lithium-ion polymer batteries and 60kw dual electric motors, Airbus says the aircraft will be CO 2 emission-free and almost silent in flight when it enters service in late 2017 or early 2018.

So are we witnessing a revolution in the industry - the iPhone-isation of aviation, where billionaires and then millionaires will be able to upgrade their personal aircraft as they would their smartphone?

Possibly, say industry experts, but it will not happen overnight - and while the aim may be to bring the overall price down to make new products accessible to more people and not just the ultra-high-net-worth elite, it is going to cost the industry a great deal of hard work and money to get there.

"Right now there are a few, very expensive technologies that will help awaken interest in personal flight," says John McGinnis, US-based inventor, designer and builder of the concept aircraft Synergy Prime and a leading member of the Experimental Aircraft Association. "They will get a lot of attention as 'new' and 'innovative' ideas, but the truth is, nothing will truly bring in a new era until it is cheaper to fly a carload of people than it is to drive a carload of people over the same distance.

"Soon enough, it will be possible for a 'professional wage earner' to afford a plane that can fly them and their families anywhere they want to go. The technologies are all in place and by the time the aircraft can be built fast enough, the regulations will be too."

Before that happens, there needs to be a fundamental change in the way society sees aviation, McGinnis says.

"There needs to be an awakening to the fact that on-demand mobility is the largest single opportunity space in the modern world, and an awareness of why that is the case: because we skipped right to giant, fast jets and therefore failed to utilise the correct physics in our attempts to fly slower with high efficiency.

"Only aircraft that can deliver quiet, roomy, comfortable flight at high speeds, yet land slowly at tiny airstrips - all while getting better fuel economy than a car - can turn this opportunity into practical growth."

 

PACKING POWER

Fifty years after Sean Connery escaped from Colonel Jacques Bouvar's château using a Bell Rocket Belt in Thunderball - maximum flight time in real life just 22 seconds, as James Bond films are apparently not big on facts - the world is united behind one question: "Where on earth is my jetpack?"

For five decades nobody seemed to have a decent answer, but the wait may now be over thanks to New Zealand-based Martin Aircraft Company, lauded as the firm behind the world's first commercial jetpack.

Martin Aircraft listed on the Australian stock market in February last year. Its majority investor is Hong Kong stock exchange-listed Kuang-Chi Science, an emerging technology and innovation firm run by Dr Liu Ruopeng, the "Elon Musk of China", who also serves as a Martin Aircraft director.

Shares jumped more than 8 per cent in November when the company signed an agreement to supply up to 20 jetpacks and two simulators to the United Arab Emirates for use by emergency services.

"This is a real game-changer," says CEO Peter Coker. "People have been promised jetpacks since the 1960s, but until now technology has not been ready."

The emergency service model is expected to cost around US$200,000 per unit, Coker says, but the recreational model they have planned - an honest-to-goodness jetpack for the rest of us - should come in at around US$150,000.