My Other Car Is a Podcopter
Bumper sticker in the year 2015? 2025? Ever?
- By Mark Gatlin
- Air & Space magazine, January 2008
(Page 2 of 3)
Even in sparsely populated areas, the vehicles will also have to be quiet. Many personal air vehicle proponents see ducted fans as the solution, since they are quieter and lighter than either propellers or rotors. The progress is quantifiable: In late May the FAA issued an experimental airworthiness certificate for the first vertical-takeoff, hover-capable aircraft with ducted fans.
The 65-inch GoldenEye 50 is a winged design that uses a propeller enclosed within a cylindrical body to hover. It was designed by Aurora Flight Sciences Corporation of Manassas, Virginia, under a Department of Defense contract as a platform to carry battlefield sensors. It’s just a matter of time, the company is gambling, before there will be a need for larger aircraft using the same technology. The GoldenEye 50 was designed as a technology development platform for the GoldenEye 80, a 150-pound ducted-fan aircraft.
Several private ventures are developing ducted-fan vehicles capable of vertical flight, but few are as far along as Israel’s Urban Aeronautics. The company’s X-Hawk, inspired by the Piasecki Flying Jeep of the 1950s and ’60s, uses a U.S.-patented control system. The airflow created by the ducted-fan engine is directed by two arrays of thin-blade vanes; one array at the inlet, the other at the outlet of the duct.
While the first X-Hawks will be military and rescue versions, Urban Aero’s marketing director, Janina Frankel-Yoeli, says that future models “will fulfill the role of a communal aerial vehicle, such as a schoolbus or commuter shuttle.” Company officials say the first full-scale prototype may make its first test flights in two and a half years.
Clearing the engineering hurdles is just the first step in creating a flying car. That car needs a person on board who acts more like a passenger than a pilot. That means pairing everyday folks with trustworthy onboard computers.
The NASA team at Langley developed two systems intended to develop sentient vehicles that could offer, according to a NASA report, “fully autonomous flight” for a lone pilot in nearly all weather “with confidence and relative ease.”
In the report, the pilot-craft relationship is compared to more familiar partnerships: “The pilot guides the personal air vehicle with the control stick and the [onboard programming, reacting to the pilot’s actions] negotiates turbulent air as best it can, just as a rider guides through the reins and the horse negotiates rough terrain.” If the pilot is distracted or makes a mistake, the computer vibrates the stick to alert him. If there is still no response, the system will divert the craft to the nearest airfield.
Andrew Hahn, an aerospace engineer at Langley who researched personal air vehicles, is hopeful but guarded about automated systems. “The automation will undoubtedly get better,” he says. “When the automation gets really good, we may allow the automation to fly without people, over lightly populated areas, but I don’t see high-energy UAVs flying fully autonomously in heavy traffic and over cities for a long, long time.”