My Other Car Is a Podcopter

Bumper sticker in the year 2015? 2025? Ever?

A NASA program that ended in 2005 generated little more than this artist's conception of the perfect easy-to-fly personal air car. (NASA Langley)
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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.”

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.’ ”

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