A Japan-based company that develops flying cars – yes, flying cars – has set up a temporary office in Beaufort as it explores entering the US market.
SkyDrive, backed by venture capital from some of Japan’s biggest brands, is just one of many international companies to experience Beautiful Beaufort by the Sea, as it is known, through a new office hub called the Landing area that businesses can use for free as they develop their sea legs in uncharted waters and consider dropping anchor in US markets.
But SkyDrive, a Tokyo-based aero-tech startup, might offer the most intriguing product of the bunch.
Since 2018, SkyDrive in Japan has been developing electric vehicle take-off and landing vehicles, or EVTOLs, as well as cargo drones, William Fugate, SkyDrive’s U.S. business development manager, told the Beaufort Gazette and to Island Packet from his office in Beaufort.
This all may sound like something out of the 1982 sci-fi movie “Blade Runner,” which featured fictional flying cars.
But SkyDrive has already developed a zero-emission system, two-seater flying car for real, with vertical takeoff and landing capability. It is the only company in Japan, he said, that has successfully conducted manned test flights. It is now in the process of having its latest model certified by Japanese regulators. She plans to unveil this model at the 2025 World Expo in Osaka. Commercial sales could follow in 2026.
“People,” says Fugate, “don’t realize how fast it happens.”
SkyDrive is one of more than 100 companies involved in EVTOL research and development around the world, Fugate says, and “we’re sort of Japan’s presence in this market.”
How quickly flying vehicles enter airspace will depend on infrastructure such as landing zones, electric charging stations, air traffic management, FAA approval and other aspects, says Fugate. , and these are the kinds of issues he investigates from his new office in Beaufort. .
One of the main drivers of flying vehicles, according to Fugate, is the Biden administration’s goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“It will create a lot of jobs,” says Fugate, “once these ecosystems are in place.”
Future models could eventually be made in the United States, he says.
At this time, SkyDrive has not committed to settling in Beaufort.
But the hope is that once businesses like this experience the services offered by the Landing Pad program and get a taste of life in the Lowcountry, it will position Beaufort County well when future decisions will be made on investments, such as the location of corporate headquarters and research and development or manufacturing facilities, creating new jobs and new tax bases.
“We believe that 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 Landing Pad is a collaboration between Beaufort County Economic Development, the City of Beaufort, the South Carolina Regional Development Alliance and others.
The program’s mission is to help companies around the world considering investing in the region for the first time.
First, a free physical location is provided where businesses can “land”—the second-floor offices at 500 Carteret St. for up to 90 days—while they explore or transition into local markets.
Through the program, local and city economic development officials also work with businesses on a host of issues that can be overwhelming in a new market. They include connecting with experts who can discuss legal, tax, accounting, human resources and other issues.
“Any questions they want answered,” says O’Toole, “we have companies to step in and offer pro bono services.”
SkyDrive is the first company to take advantage of the Landing Pad, which Beaufort Mayor Stephen Murray calls “damn exciting”.
“It’s a very cool company,” says Murray.
The Landing Pad is a place where international companies can establish a presence and build confidence in the region before making significant investments, Murray says. The coastal town 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 industry. ‘economy.
“That sets us apart from a lot of other fields,” he says.
So far, SkyDrive has focused on the domestic market in Japan. It already sells drones capable of transporting goods. The company is in the research and development phase of EVTOL aircraft. Now that it has what it sees as a globally viable product, Fugate says, it is expanding its reach into international markets, initially focusing on the United States.
Today, most of the EVTOL market is developing what Fugate describes as larger aero 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 in a city. Pilots taxied passengers with the means to pay for convenience and speed. It would be a bit like booking an Uber driver, he says, maybe even using a phone app.
When he first heard about flying cars, Charlie Stone, a BCED project manager, says he immediately thought of “Jetsons,” the 1960s 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 wants to land in Beaufort.
BCED officials also held conversations with representatives of a Swedish company that makes electric trucks, an Estonia-based self-driving delivery car maker and a British battery maker with offices in Toronto, about the use of Land Pad services.
BCED officials are also talking with a Finnish electric vehicle supplier. “I think it’s a really good lead for us,” Stone says of the venture, “and they seem interested.”
Skydrive’s Fugate got in touch with BCED officials through the Japan External Trade Organization, a Japanese government-linked organization that promotes trade and investment relations.
Fugate came from Japan to Beaufort and met local officials while on a reconnaissance mission. Fugate is originally from the United States but has lived in Japan for 30 years.
“They exceeded our expectations in almost every way,” he said of The Landing Pad.
He returned to Japan and presented the idea to the board, which includes investors such as Suzuki Motor Corporation, the Japanese multinational.
“I got the green light to start building our office here and that’s why I’m here now,” says Fugate.
The company’s entry into the US market will be through Beaufort or the surrounding area, he said.
When Fugate arrived, he found the flag of Japan, with its distinctive red circle on a white background, hanging on the wall, along with the stars and stripes.
“It’s a big city,” says Fugate.