August 14, 2007 4:00 AM PDT

Far from 'The Jetsons,' air cars for commuters

Far from 'The Jetsons,' air cars for commuters
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August 12, 2007
SANTA ROSA, Calif.--This weekend I literally went riding over hill and dale in wine country to find a members-only airfield where four flight teams were auditioning for the future role of "Honda sedan of the sky."

The event was NASA's first Personal Aircraft Vehicle (PAV) Challenge, a test of experimental small-seat airplanes with a prize purse of $250,000. The contestants all flew modified planes (some more so than others), including a home-built kit plane called the Vans RV-4, two Slovenia-built sport planes, and a Cessna 172.

The remoteness of the airport said a lot about NASA's race, however. Many people think the idea of middle-class people hopping into a high-tech air car to commute from, say, San Francisco to Los Angeles, is as far-fetched as a Jetsons cartoon. (Of course, strictly speaking, people already do own robot vacuums and live in space.)

But the tens of NASA engineers, pilots and airplane enthusiasts here this weekend envision the future differently. They believe that with the right technology, small auto-piloted planes could one day alleviate traffic gridlock by shuttling people around on midrange trips (jaunts of between 100 and 500 miles) with much more speed, economy and efficiency than a car. "Planes for plain folk" is one motto.

After all, proponents say, 90 percent of people live within 20 miles of a small airport, but only 35 percent live within 20 miles of a hub airport, such as O'Hare International in Chicago. (There are about 50 hub airports and more than 10,000 public and private small airports in the United States.)

"We all want to travel faster," said Sid Siddiqui, an aeronautics specialist at Munro & Associates, a NASA partner that developed a PAV prototype unveiled last fall at the Oshkosh Air Show. "Couldn't we leverage what the electronics and auto industry has done for manufacturing, displays and consumers, and transfer that to avionics and aircrafts?"

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In testament to the idea, NASA is putting up $2 million over five years to advance PAV technology, even though it cut off funding to its internal research group two years ago. The first challenge tested the speed, efficiency, handling, noise emissions, takeoff and the overall qualities of each plane; and NASA awarded all of $250,000 prize money on Sunday as part its Centennial Challenges. A small-wing sport aircraft known as the Pipistrel Virus, which was recently approved by the FAA and costs about $70,000, swept three of the six categories to take home $150,000 of the prize money.

These challenges are a collection of seven private-industry contests designed to foster innovation in space travel, and the PAV Challenge stands out as the one contest supporting aeronautics. Mark Moore, an aerospace engineer at NASA who used to preside over the PAV group, said the challenges bolster "chaotic innovation," or ideas hatched in people's garages.

For that reason, Moore said, people must broaden their concept of reality to grasp PAVs. "Autos are entrenched in society, and we're talking about something people haven't experienced," Moore said while sitting inside a nearly empty hangar set up as a museum for PAV technology.

So how would average Joes fly PAVs? Supporters say it would be easy with the help of virtual pilot assistants and synthetic vision systems (SVS), technologies that would essentially take care of flight plans on demand and help people fly a plane with ease. Such technology could map out real-time highways in the sky at much less cost than pouring concrete and with much less congestion than traditional freeways, Moore said. Considering that PAVs are expected to fly at 150 mph, the cost of travel would be much cheaper and environmentally friendly than auto travel, he said.

Moore compared the intelligent systems of PAVs to the fluidity of a flock of seagulls. "In the next 20 to 40 years, we can develop vehicle intelligence that's as least as good as a seagull's pea-size brain," he said.

What about poor weather conditions, the threat of terrorism or other potential pitfalls? PAV proponents seem to have all the answers. Siddiqui, for example, suggested that technology could ultimately help PAVs deal with flying in bad weather conditions. Clever heat-exchange systems, for example, could help pull energy from the engine to defrost an icy plane; and wireless sensor networks could help detect turbulence and balance the craft in high winds, he said.

Siddiqui also pointed to a national effort to transfer from a radar-based air traffic control system to an air traffic management, or ADS-B, system that relies on Global Positioning System satellites. Radar currently tracks planes in the air, but in the future, proponents hope that planes will broadcast their position via GPS to remote stations. That automated system could enable a kind of highway in the sky, Siddiqui said, in which airfields could track and plot flight paths for PAVs within a 10-mile radius.

"A computer at an airport would 'listen' for all planes in a 10-mile radius with GPS and create a sequence for landing," he said.

Still, to look around the weakly attended race Saturday, PAV believers are in short supply. The Cafe Foundation, a nonprofit group of flight test engineers in charge of the event and evaluating the contestants, also said three of the original contestants dropped out of the challenge because they couldn't get licensing from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Backers say that more teams with novel technology are expected next year. Michael Coates, the Australian pilot who won $150,000 in the challenge, said he'll be back in 2008 for sure.

"It's just for fun," he said, adding that he could see a world with PAVs. "We're looking at making planes cheaper than cars and as easy to 'drive.'"

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18 comments

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What a horrible idea!
Let's make a 777 with 300 passengers wait on the tarmac until the flock of PAVs with 1 passenger each clears the airspace.
Posted by shoffmueller (236 comments )
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Why not? This is a great idea!
Obviously we will have to change how things are handled at HUB airports if they are to support PAVs as well as muli-passenger planes. But if we think about it, it's very similar to bus transportation. If we have highways in the sky, then maybe more people would travel with their own PAV instead of taking large passenger plans. Obviously there will be a transitional period, but we have to ask why not?

I have been a computer specialist for 15 years and this is how every new technology evolves. There is an introduction of an idea and the technology is developed to support the idea and the infrastructure around it.

What could be better than commuting to relatives in Florida in my own personal plane. It's not really far fetched actually. It's just very unexplored.

I imagine there will always be those that do not embrace change, but the fact of the matter is that this is no longer the industrial age. It's the information age and information technology is all about improvement and change Instead of saying what a horrible Idea, why not be like the very first explorers of the ocean, or the very first who thought they could fly, or those who thought they could get to the moon. Why not?

Really, I don't believe it's a matter of if, just how soon. It's already here, the idea has been spawn and this is probably a billion dollar market that will go through ups and downs, but in the end if YOU can take a 5 minute drive to a take off strip and drive yourself to disney in your "own" vehicle and get there in 2 hours in stead of 10+, would you? Sure you would.

This is exciting... It's about time. :)
Posted by douglaslewis777 (3 comments )
Link Flag
You're not correct on this one.
Most use General Aviation Airports instead of the Commercial Airports. This idea has merits similar to using a regular highway instead of an interstate to get to the same place.
Posted by lcraver (3 comments )
Link Flag
I agree ... what a horrible idea
While I do like to see advances in technology and its use this is not one of them. At least not in the state it is being presented.

There's really nothing to be excited about, anyway. Anyone who should be allowed to fly PAV's should go through the same training and exams as the private/commercial pilots. And there shouldn't be an exception to this.

There's also the cost of building infrastructure like ATC's (Air Traffic Control towers) to track these things. Who do you think will pay for this - you, the tax payer. And this isn't cheap.

And after our tax paying dollars have built the ATC's, then this will most likely only be affordable to the very rich, Whoop tee doo!

The same wealthy people who can afford PAV's can afford to be late for work and chauffered. They wouldn't want to fly coz then they can't conduct work on the way like they can in limo's. So that's more tax dollars wasted.

If it were to miraculously happen then...
1) this will lead to more accidents, due to hotshot pretend pilots, or just bad mistakes.
2) no decrease in road traffic, maybe increase more traffic as cars may be cheaper.
3) increase more air traffic. risking the lives of our families flying commercial airliners
4) introduce another way of kamakaze terrorists to their job
5) cutting of tall trees to clear some airspace

The only way viable state for this to happen if we were to have "public PAV's" that are really automated taxi's that can shuttle people within designated areas, and designated traffic routes.

Ideally, the money invested on these concepts should just go into building more infrastructure for public transit like electric trains, subways, or hybrid buses. This way the not "so privileged" people can take advantage of such services.

The advancement and implementation of technology should not just become toys for the wealthy, at the cost of tax payer dollars. These PAV's will cost more than an SUV of today. And the majority of the people still can't afford the costs surrounding a cheap automobile.
Posted by flemingho (23 comments )
Link Flag
there are some advantages to doing this
1) This could be used to study greener flight technology.
2) This could one day allow for better space travel.
3) I want to have a go at that.

However there could be some disadvantages.
1) It could make the airways worse and more conjested.
2) I might never get a go at it myself.
Posted by wildchild_plasma_gyro (296 comments )
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Limiting Factors
Unless the PAV technology includes abilities to avoid the use of airports - such as safe and efficient vertical takeoffs and landings from home - the idea will never be feasible regardless of computer flight control gadgetry. Current air traffic levels is far beyond safe density limits as aircraft congest approaching airports. If only 10 percent of automobile owners owned PAV and need to use current airport systems - aircraft collisions would be falling from sky. The article doesn't seem to offer any close solutions.
Posted by duggerdm (103 comments )
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Where to?
I think commuting is the most silly thing you can do. Overall, I wonder where it is that people want to go, and why.

I know. Here's a great idea. Let's work 90km from home. In fact, people should try to live as far as possible away from their workplaces, friends, and family, and then complain about how long it takes to get there.

Sorry for the cynicism, I live in Australia, the world leader in urban sprawl. I have no interest in anything that reinforces and embraces our inefficient social organisation and 'me me me, now now now' attitudes.
Posted by jezzur (191 comments )
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Well said
I live in Montana, the urban sprawl isn't nearly as bad as yours, but I had to move from a VERY nice small city to a rather large one to find work, and I HATE the commute!!!
Posted by jlaustill (19 comments )
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A couple of things.......
Unless you know of a technology enabling me to construct houses via the internet, guess I'll have to drive to work (flying sounds like more fun).

People live 90kms from work because that's where affordable housing is - on the fringes of the urban sprawl.

I too live in Australia, and found myself becoming way too cynical, living as I did amongst the urban sprawl. I just moved out, but then again, I don't need an office or permanent destination for my work.

Flying may not be a realistic solution, but it's a start to looking at a problem differently.
Posted by m.o.t.u. (96 comments )
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"Small-seat" airplanes?
I've been flying for decades, and NEVER heard the term "small-seat airplanes".

What did you mean? What on earth does the size of a seat have to do woth anything?

News flash: The seats are all the same size!!!!!

Yet another mistake in aviation reporting...

Predictable.
Posted by Hardrada (359 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Wrong way!
Al of these experimental aircraft are merely stepping stones to the eventual, viable PAV, which won't be a PAV at all. It will be a battery-driven set of dragonfly-like wings, foldable, of course, and attachable as a backpack to the commuter. No explosive fuels. Computer guidance and controls. No exhaust. Vertical take off/landing anywhere. Forward, backward, sideways flight. Glide to conserve power, when appropriate. Light weight, simple parachute for emergency landings. Tinkerbell had it right all along! ;{)
Posted by RidireBawn (4 comments )
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Your response is cliched, and irrational.
First off, PAVs mean less congestion at large airports, because people would be flying to the thousands of small commercial airports near most communities instead.

Also, as the story clearly stated, and you apparently didn't read, they would be guided and tracked by GPS rather than ATC towers, and the cost of enhancements to local airports would be proportional to how many more people are using them--same as with roads or any other transportation infrastructure. And given that fact, your complaint that only a few rich people would use it doesn't make sense, since there wouldn't be additions to the system if there wasn't enough traffic to justify them.

Thirdly, the story clearly explained that PAVs could eventually be partially autonomous, with pilots mainly specifying a destination and making decisions rather than actively flying. Or, if they choose to actively fly, they would be following flight paths calculated and displayed by the plane in accordance with the positions of other planes, the geography, and atmospheric conditions. With a computer programmed not to permit dangerous maneuvers, this would take far less skill than driving a car does today, so the standard FAA certification process would be totally unjustifiable, and the skies would be far safer than the roads.

As for your incoherent rail about this being for rich people, the Pipistrel as a low-production novelty aircraft costs only $70,000 today. A similar craft in mass-production would probably be priced around the BMW range, but would cost even less than an automobile in the long-run because of lower fuel and insurance costs (since it's much safer than driving). And, with the upper half of incomes increasingly taking to the skies, the freeways would open up significantly and become much less dangerous. Also, nothing says people couldn't use their PAVs as taxis, so nobody would be left out of the "aerialization" of American transportation.

In fact, interstate freeways would probably become mostly the domain of cargo trucks, while cars would be used mainly for driving within the city. As cars become trivial, people would stop demanding huge gas-guzzling monstrosities, and public transit becomes much more worthwhile if you're only going around the city. Your objections are therefore stupid, reactionary, and self-defeating.
Posted by ToasterToad (22 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Not really.
Your "limiting factors" invalidly assume a static system--that PAV use will rise with no corresponding increase in available infrastructure. The fact is local airports have ample capacity at the moment, and are not remotely as crowded as the hubs and regional airports. They will also expand to meet demand, and new ones would be constructed with the explicit purpose of expanding substantially over time.

As for collisions, you don't seem to realize that the main focus of PAV research is autonomous and semi-autonomous piloting, which already exist in safe forms to a certain extent. An onboard computer will dynamically calculate the flight path from geography, atmospheric conditions, and the positions of other aircraft, and either fly that path itself or provide instructions so that the pilot can fly it. Most likely the computers will come hard-wired to prevent fatal maneuvers, refusing to take actions that will probably lead to collision with the ground or other aircraft. So, with that kind of technology, it wouldn't matter how congested the skies became. Ultimately you could have craft flying in perfect dynamic formation, only dozens of feet apart, and in precise aerodynamic coordination to fit prevailing conditions and respond efficiently to gradients. The sky could be packed virtually solid, sparkling at night as if the stars had been replaced with millions of zooming fireflies, and it would be much safer than any freeway today.

There's a natural progression operating here. As long-distance air travel is replaced with suborbital space hops, so medium-distance (100-1000 mi) commercial air travel will be replaced with small aircraft. Big airplanes will mostly be for cargo, and the freeways will end primarily used by cargo trucks. Automobiles will just be how people get around town, if their city isn't dense enough to have public transit. I'm very excited by this prospect, and I very much hope I live to see it come to fruition.
Posted by ToasterToad (22 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Sprawl
Sprawl is a natural response to an overabundance of land, which used to be the case in California and, I suspect, still is in Australia. If land is logarithmically cheaper with distance from the urban core, the result is a city that expands radially much faster than its density increases. And since buildings above a certain height quadruple in cost every time their height doubles, there have to be pretty extreme real estate limitations before density starts making economic sense.

As for living 90km from work, that will continue to make economic sense as long as density is unevenly distributed, which most likely means forever. Even if past single-family suburbs are transformed into 10-story blocks, the central core would just have risen even further and be full of 2km skyscrapers.

Strangely enough, the same maxim applies to transportation--if you can't go out, go up. At least here in California the cost of building new freeways or widening existing ones has reached the point of diminishing returns, and traffic is often jammed solid, so PAVs would be the perfect solution. About the only alternative would be double-decker freeways, but the expense and logistical difficulty of building and maintaining them would be unfathomable.
Posted by ToasterToad (22 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Woops
Accidentally made all my replies to the story rather than specific comments. Sorry.
Posted by ToasterToad (22 comments )
Reply Link Flag
That's what I'm afraid of.
You were doing so well with your arguments until you labeled my objection as stupid. Anytime someone feels the need to say that means they're even more reactionary than cerebral. We're talking about something for the future. No one has seen it, no one has experienced it. So, we're all chipping in with our opinions. No need to make it offensive!

So, Einstein, why don't you go out and try proposing GPS directed cars, today, and there will be a big debate of freedom of choice to drive "my car" "my way". Do you want to have big brother control your car? It is your "Personal Vehicle", after all. Are you happy to carry an RFID chip in your wallet, today? Not everyone wants to have LoJack or OnStar in their car.

GPS controlled... that would be ideal, but what do you do when a glitch happens or when bad weather blocks the satellites? Ever seen what happens with satellite TV? That's why we still have pilots on airlines. Conductors on trains.

Semi-autonomous.. forget it, with all the hotshots.

Traffic in the air instead of the ground? I'd bet there'd be more if PAV's can only carry 1 or 2 people at a time? So, you're still going to have a lot of cars with families/friends on the road.

As a pedestrian, the last thing I need is to worry about PAV's falling from the sky. I already have to worry about bad drivers.

Since when was a BMW considered to be a poor mans car? You're obviously rich if you consider BMW's and 70K cars cheap/affordable for the masses. I have yet to see a hybrid car cheaper than it's predecessor. When was the last time insurance rates went down, I mean really down? For semi-autonomus PAV's they'd be really up.

But maybe, before we waste money in building the infrastructure for PAV's, that only few will enjoy, why not see if we can get "all" cars to be more energy efficient and free of fossil fuels. That shouldn't be a big leap, right? And if we can determine that to be affordable for the masses, then maybe we should look forward to a future of PAV's.

I'm sure the greedy energy corporations - be it fuel/electric/some alternative - will come up with excuses to keep the costs up, like they have been for the last decade or so. And corporations, in general, don't flood the market with any product just for it to be cheap. Even if they could, they wouldn't. They usually try to maximize profit. That's the capitalistic way.

But hey, you're rich and you're smart! I'm sure you have a plan in the works. Hopefully, it'll include and benefit the less privileged.
Posted by flemingho (23 comments )
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