Flying Cars

Two times in my life I have made predictions about technology that were pure genius. The first time was when I first saw Hypertext Markup Language. At the time, the only websites were gray pages with blue links. I said to a friend at the time that this would replace mail order and probably retail. A storefront on the Internet would let the little guy compete globally for customers. The person I said this to thought I had lost my marbles.

The second time this happened was in a discussion of mobile devices. At the time, palm-top organizers were just hitting the street. Someone said to me that one day someone is going to get rich selling carrying cases for all of these devises. My response was that someone was going to get rich combining them into a single device, like a phone that was an organizer, camera and personal identification. He too thought I was nuts.

This does not make me a genius, of course, as I did nothing with these insights and lots of other people figured it too. The point is I saw the future as something other than a straight line projection from the present. That’s hard to do which is why we rarely do it. Like everyone else, I expect tomorrow to look like an extension of today, because that has been my experience, with some notable exceptions. It’s why most predictions about the future are hilariously wrong.

When I read this story the other day, I immediately thought about those prior times when I had a bit of inspired thought. As long as I have been alive, the dream of personal air travel has been a part of predictions about the future. If it is not flying cars, it is hovercraft, jet-packs or levitation devices. In the future, the ground will be for bugs and losers. The winners will be floating in the clouds, riding thermals to their office and jetting about like Iron Man.

That sounds fun, but my bet is the future or transportation looks a lot different than flying cars or even robot cars. Instead, the future is probably something closer to personal drone transport. People will have quadcopters that can take them on short trips around town and drop them off safely back onto the ground. This would be fun, safe and solve some of the transportation issues of the modern world.

We already have the technology to build a drone that can navigate around obstacles and use GPS to locate a target. The small drones you can buy from hobbyist sites are simple to operate because of the built-in navigation technology. Scaling this up is nothing. Building a drone that can lift a person is basic engineering that has been done to death. Add in the software for guidance and navigation and you have a safe flying gizmo average people could use.

Obviously, the safety issue is the issue. But that’s where the technology of robot cars comes into the mix. If you can safely navigate around a city street, the same technology can be applied to the drone. That way, the typical user does not slam into a building or crash into the ground when landing. Unlike cars, the drone-space would be free of dogs, pedestrians, kids running into the street, potholes, etc.

The other advantage of personal drones transport is that the government can mandate safety at the start. That means, unlike cars, all drones must be wired into the drone-space control system. No classic drones allowed in the drone-space. You are either on the grid or you’re on the ground. That keeps the sky free from being butts-to-nuts with people flying around out of control.

The obvious benefit here is cost. The driverless cars will be prohibitively expensive for decades. Flying cars are never going to be practical. Jet-packs have that sudden fiery explosion issue. A decent drone is now a couple of grand. One for human transport would be comparable to a basic car or motorcycle, even with beefed up safety technology. That means they will be practical for most people from the start.

The downside here is they would not be of much use in bad weather. Flying around in a snowstorm is probably not going to be possible. That means these things will be more like motorcycles, a second vehicle for nice weather and nice climates. Unlike a motorcycle, you don’t have to worry about being crushed in the skies by a delivery truck, so more people would be willing to have a drone than a motorcycle.

The other upside here is they will not require trillions in new infrastructure. Electric cars, flying cars and jet-packs present all sorts of issues with the current infrastructure. The drone-space is open range at the moment. We already have laws governing the airspace so limiting where these things could be used is not a hug leap in regulatory policy. The only change in infrastructure would be rooftop landing pads maybe.

So, there you go. Cash out the retirement fund, mortgage the house and invest in drones.

19 thoughts on “Flying Cars

  1. I assume that you don’t live where it snows 4 months of the year. Quadrotors can’t match a 4WD for getting around in these parts.

  2. Pingback: » No flying car for you

  3. When I was a child in the late ‘fifties, early ‘sixties, I saw lots of predictive articles that in the year 2000 we would all have our own personal helicopter. I have looked everywhere but still can’t find mine. Must look harder.

    When a man called Beeching in the UK issued a report in the ‘sixties that would begin the trimming of a comprehensive rail system down to the bare bones (it was always said — though may not be accurate for parts of Western Scotland — that you were never more than 25 miles from a rail station anywhere in the UK) it was suggested he too read those articles and thought if everyone had their own helicopters, rail travel was pointless.

    Beeching died in ’85, so he saw the first part of the reduction of the railways, but not the aerial whizzing once predicted.

  4. When all of this happens, the ground infrastructure will need to more completely incorporate 3-D architecture and design, both for looks and for function. No more air conditioner units with fences around them on the roofs.

  5. Tequila, Cointreau, and fresh squeezed limes are better than a flying car every day of the week!

  6. “my bet is the future or transportation looks a lot different than flying cars or even robot cars. Instead, the future is probably something closer to personal drone transport.”

    Alas,this won’t be the 3rd in your ZMan greatest hits column.It’s not safety that’s the key issue, it’s liability.

  7. Just as 7-11, the convenience store, colonized time space with expanded hours, you see a vertical relief to traffic jams. Like!

  8. Maybe it is a corny thing to say, but when planes fall out of the air people die. Usually everyone on the plant does.
    I say that with a certain perspective born from being an Aerospace welder. Of all the processes involved in the manufacture and maintenance of aircraft, the single greatest risk taken in making components for aerospace, and that includes everything that flies, rockets to gliders, is metal joining. It is the one process which so many hidden defects can accrue, defects hidden from non destructive and destructive testing and quality processes, that it is literally dependent on the welder, or brazer, his or her devotion to not allowing hidden defects to get past them and their work. The timeless axiom in welding is you weld it you own it.
    And that brings me to a point I would very much like to share.
    The processes of building aircraft is very expensive, because of the traceability and testing for reliability involved that is THE intrinsic component in reliable aircraft. There is no other better system of checks and balances possible, without some kind of magic matter transmutation machine which could create a flying machine with all the reliability and robustness required to remove the risk and economy of making aircraft. But still somebody has to design, build, and test the prototypes, and still have a continuous program of inspection. It is not like a car with four wheels, there are inherent natural safety features of a moving vehicle stuck on the ground, that do not require testing or traceability, at least not even close the the level required for something that flies with people in it, Man Rated. Your flying at 500 feet, your propulsion quits, you crash, you die. It is pretty simple. An aircraft has to be built extremely light weight in relative terms to a car, so it can fly in the first instance, that makes it inherently a weaker structure not as robust as a car, which can hit a tree and everyone can survive, rather easily. An aircraft isn’t so lucky a blend of features.
    It is an obstacle to powered private flight crated and safe as on order with the car. Which will probably be overcome through ingenuity and development of materials not yet blended or known in our current technology.
    I think the closest to individual powered flight so far is the 1 man open cockpit so called “Experimental Aircraft” kits which use small 2 stroke single cylinder engines, a pusher prop, and are built using Chrome Moly Steel, Aluminum, and Titanium tube frames with fabric over tube flight surfaces. Very reliable, extremely short takeoff and landing, fuel efficient, and any decent mechanic can work on and repair. But they are fair weather daylight visual flight rule only aircraft with required built in altitude and fuel capacity limits.
    If you think the rules and regulations regarding ground vehicle use is complex now, imagine thousands of people jetting around the sky in a three dimensional awareness required environment. There are no double yellow lines in the sky. Bank robbers would have a field day. Try avoiding running into power and telephone lines at dusk if your late landing on the street your house is on. And what happens when you run out of fuel and there is no unobstructed place to glide to a landing? There are so many extra dimensions to flying verses a car.
    Not saying it is impossible, just it is very complex and fraught with many lethal problems to overcome.

  9. The physical engineering problems–propulsion, navigation, obstacle sensing, attitude control, flight safety weather monitoring and such– are pretty well solved.

    The unsolved and critical problems come from the fact that “all drones must be wired into the drone-space control system.” We need a lot of work on the reliability and security of such a network. There is an air traffic control system but it depends on a lot of humans interacting with well trained pilots in a highly disciplined environment so it can’t be much of a template to work from. Inventing something that works for personal-sized drones will be fun, but its going to be a big job. I wish I was young enough to get on it.

    • The Drone O/S will be a distributed system with all “nodes” in proximity to one another coordinating like a flock of birds. Including coming to the assistance of a drone that was about to fail (and helping it to the ground).

      • My Android smartphone contains enough sensors to handle most of the functions of attitude control and navigation for a flying car. Of course these sensors don’t meet the life safety related specs for a real application but they already exit in a consumer grade pocket sized unit. There is a gps, barometer/altimeter, 3axis accelerometer, 3axis gyroscope, 3axis rotation vector, 3axis orientation sensor plus who knows what else. I expect a talented hobbyist could make a pretty sophisticated communicating drone controller based on this platform alone. The Drone/OS is the part that needs the serious development work

  10. couple of problems…

    1) Energy source to power the drones (jet fuel? battery pack? solar power? pixie dust?).
    2) It would take A LOT of energy to move a person from Point A to Point B, without even taking into account any additional cargo (e.g. grocery shopping, hardware store, etc.). Moving a person laterally along the ground takes MUCH less energy than lifting them, moving them laterally, and then dropping them SAFELY again.
    3) Taxes/insurance.
    4) Hackability — If these are computer-controlled robot drones, who’s to say that someone couldn’t hack into them either as a prank or with more nefarious purposes in mind (e.g. government)?
    5) ANY safety features WILL mean extra weight and weight = fuel = energy = increased costs to operate.
    6) Are we allowed to customize them? One of the main appeals of personal vehicles is having one that suits your personal sense of style–especially with motorcycles and other types of “vanity” vehicles. Also, are different models available for different needs–SUV/minivan styles for families, heavy duty drones for cargo (akin to pick-up trucks), and more compact ones for just skimming around town (i.e. motorcycles).

    Just thinking out loud here…I recently attended a lecture by a physicist who looks at these types of scenarios and comes to similar conclusions. You may be on to something, but there are still A LOT of problems that need to be solved first!

    • Those are good points. From what I understand, battery power to provide a few hours of flight time is now practical. I’ve seen some stories on solid fuel drones too. For local travel, I’m thinking energy options are not a huge hurdle.

      I think the big issues are regulations and safety. The guy who customizes his drone would be a potential menace for obvious reasons. That bleeds into safety and the rather obvious issue of a small mechanical failure leading to a 1000 foot drop to earth. I’m not sure how you address that, but that’s the same with all flying devices.

      • Engineering will eventually over come all these issues in time. The problem isn’t a lack of engineering, imagination or creativity, it’s ethics. Who dies in the crash – the child? The one to save the many? And will people accept that a pre-defined set of algorithms determine who lives or who dies? Right now the randomness of chance provides us with the ability to accept “it was Gods will” even if we prove the system failed. That’s why we have lawyers to sort out liability and negligence. Robotics are digital. There can only be one of two possible outcomes; 1 – the child lives 0 – the child dies.

    • would one gasoline powered engine be able to drive a generator with enough output to power 4x electric motors? or would you need 4x small gasoline engines? at which point noise is an issue. batteries are no where near being usable for this application.

      • The theoretical formula for horsepower to watts is 1 horsepower equals 748 watts. That is with no losses from various sources due to line resistance, bearing drag, etc. Ohm’s Law helps figure out some of what is possible. You need a lot more energy in a kenitic to electric back to kinetic than a straight off the engine/tgearbox old fashioned engine mounted prop. It is why high bypass turbo fan engines are so efficient, that big turbine blade up you see when you get on a passenger jet. It uses every erg of energy possible from the turbine section. And why turboprop planes are still around. Then there are the limits of airfoil design, both wings and props. Best absolute efficiency in a prop or a rotary wing, aka helicopter blade, is around 54 percent. Much less in real life due to a myriad of losses and inefficiencies.

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