My Other Car Is a Podcopter
Bumper sticker in the year 2015? 2025? Ever?
- By Mark Gatlin
- Air & Space magazine, January 2008
(Page 3 of 3)
A smart vehicle’s intelligence is determined by more than onboard technology. Someone or something has to keep vehicles from colliding. In airspace with many small personal air vehicles zipping around, a workable system may well require a totally automatic, redundant navigation and air traffic control system. Bushnell points to progress with some of the flight software the military has designed for unmanned aerial operations. Building on these advances, he says, a robust, automated civilian system could be established within a decade.
Others are not so quick to abandon the human element. “Fully automated air traffic management is still many years off—perhaps more than 50,” says NASA’s Mark Ballin, a Langley researcher of aviation operations and a member of an interagency team tasked with designing the country’s Next Generation Air Transportation System, commonly called NextGen.
The team is seeking to upgrade the air traffic control system to handle the two- to three-fold increase in flights and passengers expected by 2025. But NextGen will still need human controllers, and some within the team say that will never change.
The most important question of human involvement revolves around consumer preference and manufacturer courage. “From the manufacturers’ standpoint, aircraft are low-volume and high-liability, which quite frankly scares them to death,” notes Hahn. “From the average person’s viewpoint, they are unobtainable, dangerous, hard-to-use toys that are really annoying. As long as both parties believe this, the answer [to when personal air vehicles will fly] will be ‘never.’ ”
FAA spokesman Les Dorr says that technology development “will be driven by market forces and the ability to comply with FAA safety regulations. You might ask yourself ‘Am I ready to buy a ticket on a pilotless aircraft?’ ”
When the Langley team disbanded in 2005, NASA’s direct personal air vehicle research ended, but the dream continues. The space agency, working through the Comparative Aircraft Flight Efficiency Foundation, in August awarded $250,000 in prize money for its PAV Challenge for the design of a two- or three-seat vehicle with an 800-mile range and ability to use a short runway.
The victor was Vance Turner, owner of a short-wing Pipistrel Virus, a lightweight sport aircraft built in Slovenia. The craft can go 170 mph and gets 50 miles to the gallon.
The challenge is the first of five annual competitions being held through 2011. When and if consumers ever trust flying cars enough to want to buy one, the dreamers want to be ready.