August 4, 2007 6:00 AM PDT

Can personal aircraft beat gridlock?

The greenest way to drive might soon be to fly, if personal aircraft advocates have their way.

The Cafe Foundation, a nonprofit group of flight test engineers, on Saturday will kick off its first NASA-sponsored contest of personal aircraft vehicles, or PAVs, which is being held at the Charles Schultz Sonoma County Airport in California. The goal of the challenge will be to test the fuel efficiency and speed of PAVs--high-tech two-seater planes--so they could one day serve as a more economical, environmentally friendly way for people to get around and circumvent auto gridlock, according to Brian Seeley, president of the Cafe Foundation.

NASA is putting up $250,000 in prize money for the weeklong contest as part of its so-called Centennial Challenges, a series of government-sponsored competitions that support space exploration and aviation technologies in private industry. It has staked a total of $2 million for the five annual PAV challenges, which were slated to begin last year but were delayed.

"We're burning up into smoke 6.7 billion gallons of gas annually (from being) stuck in traffic jams," said Seeley, whose Cafe Foundation was chosen by NASA in 2005 to run the PAV challenges.

"These air vehicles can travel in three dimensions without any traffic jams, and the computer technology today enables travel that can be on demand at speeds three to four times faster than cars with equivalent gas mileage."

In this competition, contestants will run their PAVs on aviation fuel. But Seeley said some contestants for next year's competition are already working on PAVs that run on alternative energy sources such as batteries or fuels like biodiesel, made from vegetable oil. (A biodiesel PAV could go 900 miles on 25 gallons, for example.)

By year three, the foundation expects to see its first electric-powered personal aircraft, Seeley said. Last month, Sonex Aircraft introduced a kit for making an electric-powered aircraft at the EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2007 conference.

NASA aeronautics developed the PAV concept to provide a "more distributed and less centralized system of air travel," according to the Cafe Foundation. The idea is that these small planes, with built-in GPS and terrain mapping, could take people within a few miles of their doorstep (landing on short airstrips) at a faster clip, expelling less fuel. People would be able to get a license to fly PAVs as easily as a driver's license, and they could fly them with the help of a computerized control system and "synthetic vision," or technology that supplies a moving 3D view of the world even when flying in total fog.

Before that idea plays out, if it ever does, NASA and Cafe Foundation will test four contestants this week on several factors, including ease of use of the vehicle, safety and overall design attractiveness.

Cafe Foundation will test the PAVs on a "shortest runway" to determine which planes are able to land in the most efficient space, as well as monitor their internal and external noise emissions. Finally, and most importantly, Seeley said, the challenge will test the PAVs' speed versus miles per gallon. It won't be easy, he said, because a fast plane could get crummy mileage, and a slow plane could get excellent mileage, so fliers must balance both.

"The PAV Efficiency Prize will be awarded to the aircraft with the lowest trip cost," according to the foundation, which will factor in trip speed and fuel cost over a 400-mile closed course.

Seven contestants were originally signed up to compete this week, but three teams dropped out in July because they couldn't get approvals from the Federal Aviation Administration on licensing. The Cafe Foundation has since been looking for replacements.

One of the teams is flying a home-built plane based on a heavily modified RV-4, which has a 200 horsepower engine. Two of the other contestants are flying Slovenian-built aircraft called Pipistrel, which have 100 horsepower engines. The final flier is a Cessna 172, which runs a 160 horsepower engine.

"Eventually, we'll have electric aircraft that will have zero emissions," said Seeley.

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57 comments

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Forcast calls for aluminum showers
I can see it now. Give an airplane to all the idiots that can't drive a
car on the freeway so they can rain down on the population.

IMO, NASA will quickly discover going to the moon was a walk in
the park compared to teaching Joe Sixpack how to fly.
Posted by rcrusoe (1305 comments )
Reply Link Flag
FUI
Imagine drunk fliers?

Well, in all honesty, putting Joe Sixpack in a plane is probably
safer than putting him in a car. When you are driving you are in
close proximity to other travelers so there is a high chance you
will hit someone else if you lose control. During flight it is just
you and the open air (and whatever happens to be below you).
While some people will fall through some guy's roof, most will
hit ground in the woods or whatnot, and I imagine flying over
dense urban areas will be prohibited (these things need a small
airstrip to land anyway).
Posted by CBWolf (56 comments )
Link Flag
Must you be such an old fashioned cynic?
First of all, think carbon fiber not aluminum. Next, you ignore
obvious improvements in flight control technology. UAVs are now
common. Surely, planes having no pilot at all are no more
dangerous than piloted aircraft?
Posted by TogetherinParis (318 comments )
Link Flag
keep in mind...
that they will most likely automate these things so you won't be even flying. Feds are not stupid. Until they can control the aircraft, or businesses making them...they won't let these things into mass use.
Posted by dondarko (261 comments )
Link Flag
This is all we need
What about the commercial planes that are already up there? They take off and land everywhere.
The Air Traffic Control system is near capacity now.

I want to see a few hundered of these things over Manhattan driven by eighteen year olds. Too much faith is put into computer control.
Posted by Rokprtmike (2 comments )
Link Flag
Logistical nightmare
They would be treated as small planes legally. So it would'nt really put too much of a dent in anything. If anything it would just create a tun of sky pollution and kill more birds.
I wouldn't trust a basic pedestrian too much flying over my head ready to drop their MacDonalds garbage on me or worse.
Posted by Blito (436 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Sort of Sci Fi reality
I agree with allot of books movies that there will be maybe flying taxies mildly but not with Star Wars or Back to the Future where it's a large traffic jam thing. It's fun for the kids to watch but not reality.
Still it could come in handy in some situations and would be great for getting from city to city for cabs maybe. I just don't think it will be something where I pop out of a traffic jam unless I am going to another city in a cab.
Posted by Blito (436 comments )
Link Flag
Personal aircraft
OK, MAYBE, "ultra smart autopilots" will someday allow air vehicles to be operated by anyone who can operate an elevator - maybe not.

On efficient aircraft, these already exist. They can go 100mph while getting 60+ mpg. While they can't be stored in a garage, they can be folded up into a long trailer. They're called "touring motorgliders" - a small engine married to a two-seat sailplane with a very long wing. Like any aircraft, they're expensive.

Touring motorgliders require real piloting skills that must be acquired the old fashioned way by spending hours with an instructor.

bildan
sailplane pilot
aerospace engineer
Posted by bildan2 (77 comments )
Reply Link Flag
OT reading
Have you read the Weber and Evens book "Hell's Gate"? Something like that would be handy in that sort of "universe", IMO. Especially if the motor could burn seal or fish oil.
Posted by Phillep_H (497 comments )
Link Flag
Wrong direction
Typical, people are looking in quite the wrong direction again. I blame big business. This isn't about the environment or efficient transport, it's about selling planes people instead of cars.

What is really needed is for government to stop spending money on multi-million dollar tanks and missiles and new ways to spy on us, and to spend it on the public transport infrastructure instead.

Let's get some quality air-con buses with nice seats and an olden-days style conductor to kick off the drunks and the troublemakers. At least you can use your MP4 player in a bus, not like in an auto (unless you're crazy, that is).
Posted by perfectblue97 (326 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Public transportation in it's current form is not the answer either
Public transportation in it's current form is not the answer either. Sure it works in cities, some crowded suburbs to a much less extent, but in rural areas there just is not the population density to support any public transit system that anyone would use.


A entirely new public transit system and technology would be needed to make that a reality. One that allows a minimum wait time and shortest path routing. In cities this is pretty easy because they have the population to run lots of buses and trains on lots of routes, but as you move away from cities you can't use that plan anymore.

Perhaps something like personal (1 to 8 seat) pods that run on a electrified track system. You could have a device to call a pod to a place near you and order how many seats you need. When you arrive at a loading platform your pod will be waiting, then it travels on the track to it's destination automatically.
Posted by k2dave (213 comments )
Link Flag
Reduce Congestion?
OK, where do I park, store, or temporarily put my personal
aircraft? My understanding is that most driving that people do
is less than 20 miles/trip. So I don't think most people could
"park" their personal aircraft at their place of residence, they
would have to drive somewhere to get to their personal aircraft.

After they then get to their personal aircraft and fly it to where
they want to go (work, shopping, eating out, etc.) where do they
"park" their personal aircraft and how do they then get to their
final destination?
Posted by 62Sparkplug (91 comments )
Reply Link Flag
It's a car! It's a plane! It's... It's!
"Most people" live too close to cities for good health and safety.
The idea is that you won't be in intercity traffic. You park your car
where you've always parked it. That wouldn't change. You just
don't need an airplane hanger, too. Sure, it might be smarter to just
carry a bicycle or scooter, but there is a market for this vehicle.
Industrial salesmen would love it. Maybe it is just not for you?
Posted by TogetherinParis (318 comments )
Link Flag
Flying Missiles
I can't imagine that in this age of the perpetual war on terror that the Feds would approve flying missile cars for general use. On a practical level, would you want every home's garage to be an airport? Would you want to live next to airports on all 4 sides of your house?

The key to reducing traffic congestion is to reduce the population in cities. We didn't have real traffic congestion until the 1970's. It's amazing to look at films and TV shows from before this period and see how smoothly traffic moved, how sparse it was, even in major cities.
Posted by Stating (869 comments )
Reply Link Flag
How do you reduce population
How do you reduce population? You are not going to suggest forced removal of people do you. I like what London is doing but it will never fly here in the US. In London, people have to pay a big fee to own and operate a car and take it into the city. So, either people go by public transport or they don't go to the city or if it is really worth it, they pay and go to the city. So, it is just a balancing game. However, we cannot really implement that here until we have three things 1) Really good public transportation 2) People that don't mind taking public transportation 3) People that don't mind paying big fees to enjoy their car in the city.
Posted by bommai (172 comments )
Link Flag
yeah no kidding...
we just need to invest in mass transit, period...
Posted by dondarko (261 comments )
Link Flag
Reducing cities' population? Don't think so
Population will only increase in the cities. Reducing the amount of
personal vehicles and increasing mass transit it the only way to go.
I'm afraid the suburbs are about to start dying, unless they can
adapt as transit-efficient places to live and commute to and from.
Posted by letelido (17 comments )
Link Flag
Parking your plane
Once you park your personal flying object (PFO) at the recently constructed short runway, how do you get to where your going? Does everybody have their own personal taxi or second car waiting at the airpark to drive them to their job in the gridlocked city. Sounds like a great idea if you live in Wyoming and commute to Casper or just need to go to the BIG city.

Personally, I'm going to continue driving my car at whatever speed I can to work, eating a Big Mac, text messaging with the office, as I review the files I need for today's presentation.
Posted by thebman--2008 (3 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Nice idea, but...
Personal aircraft are a nice idea for beating the gridlock of the freeways, but there are problems...
1) The air traffic control system is already overloaded. Do air travelers want more delays?
2) People can't drive on two-dimensional roads, can you image them trying three dimensions?
3) People now drive while also: reading the news paper, shaving, putting on make-up, etc. When flying you need a lot more attention!
4) Oh yes, let's have people buzzing their house, or their friends and family. Can you imagine one person saying "Let's drop in!"
5) Let's face it, the news media loves a good accident. Every time a plane has a problem, no matter how slight, it's all over the news across the country. You would now have news 24x7 with this idea.
6) All you need is some fool to wanter into the traffic pattern at an airport. That would be the end of the "personal aircraft".
7) One would need more educated drivers! It's bad enough that when people see bad weather and have to drive on the road when it happens. Now imagine that same person having to pilot their personal aircraft through it.
8) Aircraft are maintained in near perfect condition. Automobiles are not by far. Who is going to pay for the upkeep?!?
9) Right now the government can't keep up with issuing passports. You think the FAA is going to be better at issuing pilot's licenses?
10) You know driver's ed was a joke. A lot of people shouldn't be driving. I can see it now - get your pilot instructor's license for only 19.95 and teach other's to fly. It will take you two weeks to teach and your 500 students will be flying in a week! Earn that valuable and rewarding teaching certificate today! You'll be glad you did. (Till that student lands on top of your house)

A nice idea for some, bad for the birds and people who have to live on the ground.
Posted by Mr.Scott123 (26 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Re: The media.
Coming soon to a TV near you, the Plain Channel!
Posted by ralfthedog (1589 comments )
Link Flag
DUI
And who is going to stop Joe-sixpack or Jane from flying while intoxicated?
Posted by Mr.Scott123 (26 comments )
Reply Link Flag
FWS
The same geniuses that are running this country. 99.9% of the
drivers out there can't figure out how to make a full stop, use their
turn signals or plan ahead a few seconds, what's to keep them
from messing up my computer by hitting a high tension line?
Posted by MrStuder (2 comments )
Link Flag
Cynic?
First off UAV's are piloted or are programmed by someone who know's what they are doing. Also around the southern boarder where some UAV's fly, the airspace is restricted and pilot's must avoid the area. Many do not know how to read a map for driving on the ground. What make you think that before these people fly are going to look at a map, check the weather, and are going to read notices where they can't fly?
Posted by Mr.Scott123 (26 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Awwww, come on people . . .
Waaaah, waaaah, waaaah . . .
Where are they gonna park?

Didn't any of you ever watch The Jetsons?
You land like a feather right outside your office window. Then you
push a button and and your personal aircar folds up nice and neat
into a briefcase that you park right next to your desk.
Like "Duh". . . ;-)
Posted by K.P.C. (227 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Point to Mr Scott
Exellant post!! You took a lot of what I was going to say.

FIRST. The Xray (experimental) electric bird mentioned in the
article that was out at the show has ZERO HOURS and has never
even been in the air. So don't give it any credit yet.

SECOND bird to look at is a two stroke, 3 cyl diesel. Both of
these are for the pilot world.

As for small "personal use birds". People will never let it replace
cars. Our ATC system is pretty maxed out, and if we have a
flood of such crafts, it will be, best comparison, a massive
amount of helo's in controlled airspace being ASSIGNED an
elevation to fly, that they MUST then stick to as fixed wings do
to avoid collisions. I can't see people doing that. Not to
mention lack of pads in most Muni's.

It takes about 3 weeks putting in FULL DAYS to get your GA
(general aviation) pilots license for fixed wing Visual only.
Instrument cert takes additional training; not to mention getting
approved for each bird you want to fly (that would mean
different "personal craft") and different gear (retract, set, floats,
amphib, skis).

No FAA will have to overhaul the towers and operaters before
anything like that EVER gets going. I can see it in Charlie Delta
and Echo airspace, but not Bravo. In Charlie it will still get hairy.

You can't have 3000 small "personal" crafts flying around in
downtown chicago, PLUS manage three comm fields at the same
time. Think of that; or in Manhatten. It would be accident
central.
Posted by Travis Ernst (170 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Personal Air Vehicles
If you ever get to read an aviation magazine from the mid-20th century, you'll find the subjects are the same as this. We were all supposed to have our own personal aircraft then, too. The reasons it never happened are just as valid today:
Excessive governmental regulation, insurance cost and training required. Yes, small planes can be incredibly fuel-efficient compared to cars and much faster between cities as well. There are huge bars to entry for Joe Sixpack, however. It is a tribute to our governmental system that NASA can spend $250 million to find our what the FAA has known for years. Your tax dollars at work.
Posted by baldguy61 (63 comments )
Link Flag
Stop the mental masturbating
This is a recurring wet dream for any geek. But it's the most ridiculous idea ever. All those idiots who can't drive today would be flying airplanes. Think about it. You can't parallel park, but you're going to fly a plane? Not to mention implications for easy access by terrorists. Oh, and never mind the one reason why this will never, ever work - electric power lines - how will all these airborne bozos land without getting tangled up and electrocuting themselves? On second thought, maybe that's not such a bad idea!
Posted by outtanames999 (11 comments )
Reply Link Flag
What amazes me...
Is the number of people taking a dump on the idea. I'm surprised that so many self important people who think of themselves as such wonderful drivers would assume that everyone else are such terrible drivers.

Actually, that goes with the territory. People who have such a hosed up view of life will always dump on new ideas. It's called hypocrisy and it's rampant.

I can't wait to get my PAV.
Posted by mattumanu (599 comments )
Link Flag
flying 2-seaters
Most people are too stupid to drive cars and NASA wants them to pilot planes? I will have to move underground if this happens.
Posted by dwimmer38 (31 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Personal Aircraft
I applaud efforts to strive for improvement upon the status quo, but when the Cafe Foundation says "People would be able to get a license to fly PAVs as easily as a driver's license", I can tell you this isn't going to happen.

I have been in the flying business 32 years and have trained in and piloted 16 different aircraft. With all of the "crazies" driving in automobiles, you would create a true nightmare by allowing anyone who can "get a drivers license" to be allowed to fly. Wishful thinking but never a reality.
Posted by jsl333 (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Clean up the gene pool
I think this is the best idea I have ever heard.
Let me know when this starts so i can move into a cave when the debris starts falling from the sky.
People cant even drive their cars let alone handle one that flies.
Currently Americans are killing themselves off at a rate of 43,000 a year in their cars. This should get the number a lot higher.
The only one major problem. How do you put little crosses and wreaths in the air?
Posted by fl_rider (5 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Personal Aircraft
These IS AN EXCITING TIME FOR US...IF WE CAN GET THESE WORKING WITHOUT KILLING OUR SELFS OFF IT WILL BE A GET ADVANTAGE FOR COMMUTERS ALL OVER..
PLANES TRAVELING AT 150 MILES PER HOUR CAN GET COMMUTERS TO OFFICES 400-500 HUNDRED MILES AWAY
AND IF THE CAR CAN HOLD FOUR THE FUEL SAVED, AND THE COST OF PROPERTY CAN SAVE THE CONSUMER THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS.
Posted by danny dawg (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Air Traffic Control
What about a prize for a modernized air traffic control system first?
Developing personal aircraft and slightly larger air taxis is pointless
before we have an air traffic control system that can handle the
extra load.
Posted by wylbur (110 comments )
Reply Link Flag
What_R_You_Nutz?
Got a great idea there...just don't bring it to Hemet. We've already got old farts who drive on the sidewalks, turn left from the right lane, won't move at green lights and never stop at stop signs...and you want these old geezers to have a flying object with a license that as easy to get as a driver's license is now?

What we really need is to get all the old buttheads OFF the roads and let the working class go to work and contribute to the rest homes for the antiques that pass for drivers now.

They'll be falling from the sky like broken kites after they hit each other.
Posted by SurferJoe46 (3 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Flying cars?
Ya right... As a (now retired) holder of an Airline Transport Pilot certificate, one can imagine what a bunch of basically incompetent American automobile drivers would do to the National Airspace System.

No Thanks!... We don't need to turn the airspace into a "real life" game of Space Invaders!
Posted by hassan_bin_sober (102 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Hey luddite
That's the same thing the horse and buggy crowd said about the introduction of automobiles. You are about as forward thinking as they were. Common Joes are not going to be able to fly this things until the FAA has a computer controlled system in place. Until then, vehicles such as Moller International's Skycar will require a Powered Lift license. And I don't think you'll find those in a Cracker Jack box.
Posted by Highfield (7 comments )
Link Flag
Moving traffic congestion to the air?
Doesn't it just make more sense to ditch a car for a city bus/train instead of clogging the skies instead? That would free up the streets, use less energy, many city busses already run on alternative fuels, and they'd still get you closer to your house/office than a landing strip. What happens after you land your PAV a few miles from your house? How do you then get home? How long would it take to land a couple dozen planes all heading to a large employer? What about safety concerns and current flight routes for commercial planes?
Posted by mail man dave (12 comments )
Reply Link Flag
What better place for this . . .
. . .than at the airport named for the artist who brought us Snoopy and his Sopwith Camel!
Posted by CaptainX (8 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Just stop it!
It's frightening enough that accidents do occur even with highly trained pilots -- some, even with state-of-the-art military training. The idea of some schmo with minimal instruction tooling around in the air above me, is something I'd rather not worry about. (Then again, you don't need an aircraft to fall out of the sky and land on someone's head: Remember the drunk that fell over a railing in some ball park and landed on a woman and breaking her neck?)

This is just a dumb idea. Let CAFE/NASA have their goofy contest. Just please -- PLEASE -- let's make the candidate pilot really have to earn his or her wings for any aircraft. Anyone that condones the idea of simplifying piloting program is just plain nuts.
Posted by albertsoler (412 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Amen to albert
Look to Phoenix last week. Two very well trained pilots in helicopters came together and four died. It could have been very much worse. The mess landed in a vacant park. Beside that park are two very busy streets. Because of what happened the pilots didn't have a choice of where they came down. And, luck was there because, who is usually in parks - kids. But the hour of the day (most people in Phoenix go inside when it hits 98) they weren't there yet.

When planes come down they usually make a real mess. The only difference is the bigger plane makes a bigger mess.

To your comment, a hearty Amen!
Posted by GEBERWEIN (75 comments )
Link Flag
Naive Mission Statement
I just had to do a second post. Let's take a close look at their Mission Statement:

"Imagine a world in which you could routinely and safely travel anywhere, anytime at 150 mph and not encounter any traffic."

There is a flaw in their logic. If they assume that very few aircraft will occupy the air space, then maybe fliers wouldn't encounter "any traffic". If this dumb idea actually takes off -- pun intended -- it wouldn't take long before you have congestion. Unlike ground congestion with miles of unmoving traffic, aircraft still have to move at 150 MPH to stay in the air. Otherwise -- (insert sliding whistle sound here).

"Imagine a vehicle being so affordable, quiet, comfortable and easy to operate that it could be part of a rental fleet."

If only Hot Air Balloons can travel at 150 MPH, the contest would be over. But even they crash from time to time. Again, the implication to this statement is that any schmo with little training can get into one of these vehicles and take off.

There is one chance, and one chance only for this idea to possibly succeed. We will need huge breakthroughs, I mean HUGE technological breakthroughs in automated skyways, Artificial Intelligence, and anti-crash technologies. Right now, I'm equally dubious about inept humans flying over my head as well as bug prone computers flying above. It will take decades before this idea should even be considered.

"The Personal Air Vehicle (PAV) Challenge is intended to promote the popular use of self-operated, personal aircraft for safe, efficient, affordable, environmentally friendly, and comfortable on-demand transportation as a future solution to America's mobility needs."

Like I said in my previous post -- Stop it! It should be very hard to earn a pilot's license -- not easy. If you want to fly, go hand gliding. By jumping off a cliff, the only danger would be to yourself and to the few brave souls that have to go rescue your butt when you make a turn just a bit too tight.

Dumb!
Posted by albertsoler (412 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Great!
soon, all the text-messaging, knob fiddling, personal grooming, cell phone yapping idiots we encounter on the road while driving will be up in the sky, running into each other and crashing down into buildings and pedestrians. Let's triple their Darwin awards if they have their whole family in the aircraft.
Posted by itango (80 comments )
Reply Link Flag
 

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