Ever since DARPA’s ‘Flying Hummer’ known as the Transformer X made its debut, people have been champing at the bit to get a chance to use them for personal travel. They are the ideal vehicles to beat the traffic, but you can still fit them in the garage, or drive them to the mall. And the advanced auto-pilot takes off and lands automatically.
But authorities have been reluctant to approve their use for civilians. Now Avis has won the deal for a modified Transformer that can ferry four passengers up to 200 kilometers, and then continue autonomously to the next rental pickup.
The secret is in the software. Combined with NASA’s new advanced air traffic awareness system and pinpoint GPS, the ‘swarming’ software built into the auto-pilot intelligently keeps a respectful distance from other planes. Of course the SkyPod, as the civilian version is known, can take off and land vertically, dropping in to the parking lot, and driving up to your door. So it’s really like a limo service, that flies over the traffic.
The car’s systems are fully redundant and completely safe. The rotary hybrid engines quietly drive either wheels or thrusters as needed. And even if both engines fail, you are sure to have a soft landing with the massive emergency parachute and airbag.
At this stage government is insisting that only authorized rental agents can program the destinations into the vehicles. It seems they are afraid that militants and dissidents might have other innovative uses for a ‘flying SUV’.
ANALYSIS >> SYNTHESIS: How this scenario came to be
DARPA Announces Plans for Self-Piloted Flying Car
“Last week, DARPA announced that it is inviting proposals to tackle its latest project: ‘a vertical takeoff and landing roadable air vehicle.’ The ground-to-sky vehicle, called Transformer X (TX), should have a maximum payload capacity of 1,000 pounds so that it can carry four passengers and their gear. It should also be capable of flying itself automatically, achieving an altitude of 1,000 feet, and traveling 250 miles on a single tank of fuel. And it should be built and ready for testing by 2015.”
According to Wired, the requirements are even more ambitious:
“Darpa’s released a solicitation calling for prototypes, which they want to be testing in the air by 2015. The vehicles, which will have the all-terrain abilities of SUVs, should also boast a 1,000-pound capacity, and carry four fully suited troops or a stretcher and a medic — suggesting the agency hopes for a fleet of flying ambulances, too.
Darpa also wants a vehicle that can perform vertical takeoffs and landings (no runway required), and attain an altitude of 10,000 feet — and do it all while traveling 250 miles on a single tank of gas. That means less Humvee, more Prius: The agency suggests that proposals would be wise to include ideas like ‘hybrid electric drive, advanced batteries, adaptive wing structures, ducted-fan propulsion systems [and] advanced lightweight heavy fuel engines.’
All that, and no pilot: Any troop able to drive a military road vehicle could operate a Transformer, because the vehicles will include ‘automated takeoff and landing,’ and be ‘fully autonomous’ in the air and on the ground.”
Although DARPA has a budget of US$ 55 million to get to the working prototype stage, one wonders if it is feasible. Many efforts at creating a flying car have failed before. The only one that works is the Terrafugia Transition, which is really a light aircraft that can fold its wings and drive on the road – that’s a far cry from DARPA’s needs. An inventive blending of a lightweight ATV and a small gyro copter might just do the trick.
The prize though is huge. Ultimately the potential market for a flying car or personal plane would be massive, though not without risk. You only have to think how a pilot-less drone loaded with 500kg of ‘luggage’ could be put to use by terrorists. Air routes and destinations would have to be continuously monitored and controlled, making the whole experience more like catching a taxi than renting a car.