Hyperpat\’s HyperDay

SF, science, and daily living

Oh, to Fly Like a Bird

Posted by hyperpat on September 11, 2006

The personal air car has been a dream for a very long time. Within ten years of Kitty Hawk, the first flying car was designed and built (although it never flew). As the saying goes, what happened? How come we don’t have one in every driveway today?

The first part of the reason is purely technical. Vehicles that can act like planes or helicopters at one moment and like normal cars the next are not simple mechanical things to design. Power plant issues, size constraints, materials that can take the stresses, simple operator controls, noise, all contribute to the difficulty. Economics comes next. A vehicle like this would necessarily be, at least at first roll-out, extraordinarily expensive. And until there was a mass market for them, there would be little mechanism to drive the price down (a typical chicken-and-egg problem, just like the one facing fuel-cell powered cars right now). So don’t look for one in your local showroom for $20,000 any time soon.

But the biggest headache is safety. The average person is not an airline pilot. He doesn’t have the training, he probably has no clue as to the ‘rules-of-road’ in the air, nor has he ever had to communicate via two-way radio with someone who will direct every aspect of his flight. And at least so far, the FAA is not going to sign off on any aircar that lands or flies to some point other than an airfield. With pretty good reason. Can you just imagine what it would be like in, say, Chicago, when two million commuters fly up in the sky at eight AM in their VTOL skycars, all heading for downtown, without flight plans, without navigation other than compass and eyes, without some central dispatch agency directing all this traffic? Not even counting the problem of ensuring minimum height for these craft to make sure they clear things like telephone wires and skyscrapers, the collision potential isn’t just high, it’s a dead certainty.

Robert Heinlein, in Methuselah’s Children, first published in 1941, already recognized this problem, and envisioned that all such vehicles would actually be driven, not by their occupants, but by a central traffic computer. Poke in your desired destination to the onboard computer, and it would communicate with its big brother on the ground for routing info, and proceed to its destination while the occupants sat back and read the morning newspaper. Some aircars currently in design are working on something equivalent to this. Also being built in is automatic collision detection and avoidance circuitry, along with GPS tracking. Of course, all this ‘extra’ stuff just makes the price tag that much higher…

I’m afraid this is one ‘Buck Rogers’ type idea that won’t really become a reality much before Buck Rogers time – which was 2419 A. D.

One Response to “Oh, to Fly Like a Bird”

  1. fencer said

    Flying cars… with that rounded streamlined look. I’d like one, but like you say, getting to work would be a kind of russian roulette, considering how badly people drive in just two dimensions.

    I remember my dad was enamoured of gyrocopters. He was always going to build one as a sort of poor man’s helicopter.

    Here’s an interesting short blog entry with photos I found:
    http://blogs.chron.com/lightflight/archives/2006/04/gyrocopters.html

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