TECHNOLOGY TOMORROW EMERGING TECHNOLOGIES

Military Should Watch ‘Flying Car’ Industry

11/28/2017
By Stew Magnuson

Photo: E-volo

It was only a few short years after the hot air balloon was invented in the 1780s when someone had the idea to send one up over a battlefield and observe enemy troop movements.

The Wright Brothers arrived at Fort Myer, Virginia, in 1909 — just a few short blocks from the present-day National Defense Industrial Association office. They were there to sell the Army one of their Wright Flyers. The first demonstration resulted in a crash and the death of Lt. Thomas Selfridge.

Nevertheless, the Signal Corps did not lose interest and they purchased one of the aircraft for $25,000. Within a decade, U.S. pilots were fighting in an air war in Europe.
If history repeats, the question before the military may soon be, what — if anything — will it do to leverage the upcoming wave of so-called “flying cars?”

Add this concept to the list of technologies once common in science fiction novels that are quickly becoming real such as walking robots, conversational computers and laser weapons.

The term “flying cars” is more marketing term than reality. They are simply aircraft, but with an application envisioned as replacing cars. Big money is being put into the technology and investors see a market.

Has any commuter in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Dallas or any of the other congested American cities not fantasized about zooming above the gridlock in a personal flying vehicle?

Those traffic jams simply aren’t going away. Consider that the greater Washington, D.C., region is adding about 66,000 new people a year at a steady clip. Since the 2010 census, the region has added nearly a half million people and is experiencing 8.8 percent population growth. For Dallas, it’s 12.5 percent over the same period; Miami, 9 percent; Atlanta, 9.5 percent. Pick a typical city with nightmare rush hour traffic and the percentages are about the same.

More people mean more cars on the road. Public transportation, work-from-home trends and carpooling don’t seem to be making a huge dent in the problem.

The inventors and the investors see this and are placing bets on small, personal aircraft that will whisk commuters over the gridlock and deliver them from their suburban outposts to city centers and their jobs, and vice versa.

Business Insider in a recent article identified seven projects developing personal flying vehicles. Among them are Germany’s E-volo with its vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft. It wants to start a taxi service in 2018.

Airbus — through its Silicon Valley technology incubator A3 — also has a VTOL prototype in development that it wants to fly by 2020. Airbus is also working on a CityAirbus taxi capable of carrying multiple passengers.

Uber recently announced plans to develop autonomous four-passenger “flying taxis” to be tested in the Dallas-Fort Worth and Los Angeles regions by 2020.

Uber is partnering with NASA, which is developing an air traffic control system for robotic aircraft over urban areas.

Terrafugia has an actual car-aircraft hybrid concept that can take off vertically and be optionally driven on a road.

Google co-founder Larry Page is reportedly working on a flying car concept as well.

And EHang, a Chinese drone company, has a flying car prototype and is seeking Federal Aviation Administration approval to try out its system in the United States.

The latter two examples bring up a couple of obstacles: money and regulations. Some of the prototypes and artist’s renderings show vehicles that look pricey. Consumers might have to be in Larry Page’s tax bracket to afford one.

And then there is the FAA. It simply will not allow anything to fly in U.S. airspace until it is 100 percent convinced that it is safe. Recent history can serve as a roadmap. The agency plodded through the process of certifying unmanned aerial vehicles and ensuring all the necessary regulations for flying them in national airspace were in place. Unmanned aircraft manufacturers howled about the slow pace and Congress set deadlines, but it made little difference. Will the FAA approve flying cars before the investors’ seed money runs out? Time will tell.

The FAA may also require operators to be licensed pilots. But perhaps not if the flying cars are fully autonomous. The users may just push a button and the aircraft will join others on a pre-determined flight path.

It isn’t necessary to go back a century to the dawn of aviation to find history lessons on how the military might benefit from flying cars. The United States and Israel were the trendsetters when they sent the modern versions of UAVs into the field at the outset of the so-called global war on terror.

At one time, military leaders did see the utility in this concept as they paid Piasecki Aircraft Corp. to develop a “flying jeep” back in the 1950s.

Does the military need such an aircraft today? The applications would have to be ones where a passenger or pilot was required. Otherwise, a drone can carry out many of the missions.

There could be some niche applications such as special operations infiltration and exfiltration. Medical evacuation is another possibility. The idea of robots autonomously carrying wounded warfighters from the frontlines back to safety has already been proposed.

The U.S. military may actually benefit from the economies of scale and be able to borrow some of the technologies needed to make flying cars possible such as composites used to make them lighter, or their autonomous systems.

A more intriguing possibility is the all-electric, hybrid-electric and turbo-electric engines being developed for flying cars such as the E-volo. Airbus has already flown its E-Fan hybrid-electric aircraft in demonstrations.

Such technology is not only quieter, and therefore more stealthy, but also has the potential to save the U.S. military billions of dollars in fuel costs.

That alone is reason enough for the military to pay attention to this developing technology.

Topics: Emerging Technologies

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