Above: Transport like this is still probably a few years off
If you can imagine for a moment the two-dimensional chaos we colloquially refer to as ‘peak-hour traffic’ exponentiated, amplified and lifted into the third dimension, then I think you’d agree Dr Mandelbrot would be feeling pretty vindicated right about now. (There are currently 900 million cars on earth: how many do you think we could afford to punt into the sky before it all goes pear-shaped in the biggest possible way?)
Above: Would you spend $250k to look like this on the road? (Terrafugia Transition roadable aircraft)
The sky could well be the future for relatively short-range commuting, with flying cars set to take off, literally, next year. Terrafugia – the ‘roadable aircraft’ mob – will launch the transition next year. It’s part fixed-wing aircraft and part car (more aircraft than car, actually). It will cost a cool $250,000 in the USA, despite having just two seats, and there are plans afoot to sell it in the UK soon thereafter.
Above: Scaled Composites' BiPod inaugural flight
Competitors are hot on its heels. You’ve probably never heard of an aerospace company called Scaled Composites, but it’s a frontrunner to be nipping on the Terrafugia’s tailplane – with no less than a hybrid roadable aircraft. It’s called the BiPod, it’s been in the air already, and it’s the world’s first hybrid aircraft.
Above: BiPod in 'road' mode (sans wings). Flight controls in the right seat and car controls on the left
You probably don’t know whether to laugh or cry. But whatever you do, don’t dismiss either Scaled Composites or its BiPod. Scaled Composites is one of the names behind Virgin Galactic’s bid to commercialise space. It’s played a role in getting the spacecraft and launch vehicles up – including SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnight Two. It’s also a subsidiary of aero-tech weapons giant Northrup Grumman. Scaled Composites’ head honch is a bloke named Burt Rutan, who’s also responsible for building the aircraft that flew around the world without stopping in 2005. So you’d have to figure the team at Scaled Composites has an above-average degree of aerospace expertise, to say the least.
Above: BiPod in flight, just above the Mojave Air and Spaceport runway
The BiPod took its inaugural flight in March this year, leaping from design to airborne in just four months, which is nothing short of the blink of an eye compared with the average R&D timeline. Like the Terrafugia Transition the BiPod seats just two, in a catamaran-like fuselage arrangement – great news if you don’t really want any quality time with your travelling companion. The BiPod is designed with flight controls in the right ‘pod’ and driving controls in the left – hence the name. So, if you’re commuting in the future by BiPod, at half time you will have to change sides.
Onboard are two 450cc internal combustion engines plus electric motors and a bank of lithium-hybrid batteries. (Think: Prius, with wings – kind of.) Unlike the Prius, the internal combustion engines in the BiPod merely re-charge the batteries, which supply urge to the electric motors, and in turn to the wheels (in ‘car’ mode) and the propellers (when in ‘aeroplane’ mode).
Above: Cool in the air, not so on the ground (Terrafugia Transition)
Wings are obviously essential for flight aspect of the commute, but they do tend to be something of a liability in the cut and thrust of peak-hour traffic. When you don’t need them, they can be removed and are stowed longitudinally in the void between the two pods.
The batteries get recharged during flight and, presumably, during on-road coasting, like a conventional hybrid. So the BiPod practices energy management like a regular earth-bound hybrid car, converting kinetic energy that would otherwise be lost into electrical energy, stored for later use in the battery.
In flight, the BiPod has a range of 1200km. On the road, a full tank will take you a little further: 1300km on petrol, and 60km in (silent, zero-emissions) EV mode.
How commuter-ready is the BiPod? Well, there are no propellers yet, which puts it firmly in ‘incomplete’ territory. But the prototype has taken short hops aloft after being punted by external forces down the Mojave Air & Spaceport runway, to prove its flight capability.
Above: TV's The Jetsons beat everyone to the punch
Those of you who are old enough to remember the originals will note that it’s been rather a long time since any new episodes of The Jetsons were oxygenated across the airwaves. And yet George, Jane, Judy and Elroy Jetson remain the poster-family for taking the daily grind into the third dimension. The only problem with this, conceptually, is that things are chaotic enough in 2D, thanks very much, thanks mainly to driver delinquency.
To fly either the BiPod or the Terrafugia transition you’ll have to be three things: rich, a pilot and you’ll need to land on a bona fide runway – which should simplify the chaos somewhat.
Can you imagine what would occur if we all took the leap into 3D tomorrow? Start imagining because there are moves afoot to introduce vertical take-off and landing capability to personal commuting, and make the aircraft themselves at least partly autonomous.
Above: MyCopter seeks to deconflict commuter airspace by making vehicles autonomous
Cue a bunch of European propellerheads who work for MyCopter, and EU think tank whose business it is to design autonomous (and semi-autonomous) flight control systems in an attempt to deconflict commuter airspace when personal flying transportation becomes commonplace. It’s thought such transportation could be possible without conventional air-traffic control systems, and without interfering with established controlled airspace (think: Qantas flight path).
Above: The Pentagon has autonomous flight vehicles out to tender right now
Across the Atlantic, in the USA, the Pentagon’s kooky mad scientist agency, DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) has already commissioned millions of dollars worth of R&D funds into a military-spec vertical take-off and landing vehicle that will fly troops to and from the battlefield using its own good judgement and precious little human intervention. DARPA has already got a bunch of fully robotic vehicles driving on the ground, in both urban and remote environments.
Above: Keeping the world safe with flying Humvees...
I don’t know about you, but out on the road it’s currently complex enough insulating yourself from fools in two dimensions. What do you think? Is taking to the sky the next logical step for formerly roadgoing transportation? Do you plan on being ‘up there’ when it all takes off?