December 22, 2003
George Jetson Personal Air Vehicle Will Fly In 21st Century

Boeing's Phantom Works is working on the problem of how to make aircraft that unskilled regular folks can drive.

NS: What's the big idea you're working on for the future?

PD: Boeing's philosophy in terms of commercial travel is focused on point-to-point travel. At Phantom Works we try to think further out, to the extreme version of point-to-point, which would be personal transportation vehicles where you can have this thing take off and land from your driveway. One thing we think very critical to that concept is the air traffic control (ATC).

NS: ATC in that environment sounds an unfeasible nightmare - but you think it might actually be possible?

PD: Yes. We think it could certainly be possible. What we are beginning to explore is what technologies you would want to deploy both in terms of the ATC and the flight controls on such a vehicle. Also, how they would inter-operate with one another so that we can have a safe and efficient air transportation system on a personal level.

NASA is also working on personal air vehicles.

If the past century was about winning military superiority and exploring the frontiers of flight, then the coming 100 years could be more about making flight more accessible to all.

Andrew Hahn thinks about that constantly. As a member of the Personal Air Vehicle project at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., his job, essentially, is to invent the Jetson's car. Like many of his colleagues, Mr. Hahn's aim is to turn the Technicolor dreams of past futurists and reshape them into something that could actually make its way into garages by 2103

The Personal Air Vehicle concept makes perfect sense as the future of aviation for a very simple reason: direct point-to-point flights from local and much smaller airports would be much faster than trips to bigger airports followed by hops through hub sites and trips down long hallways to go to luggage unloading areas. Computers are going to get fast enough and sophisticated enough to take over much of the work currently done by pilots. Materials advances and fabrication technologies advances ought to eventually allow the construction of small fast aircraft at much lower cost.

What doomed the train as a means of passenger travel? One factor was the rise of much faster aircraft. But much train travel was done over shorter distances where aircraft didn't offer much advantage. Most train traffic was lost to cars rather than to aircraft. Why did cars displace trains? Because cars allowed direct point-to-point travel and therefore saved time. The same pattern is going to play out in the air as smaller highly automated aircraft that will allow more direct and faster trips start to displace larger aircraft.

Also see another New Scientist article on the future of air flight that covers the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency's pursuit of the use of advanced materials to create aircraft that can morph into different shapes for different missions and portions of missions.

NS: So who is doing what in the DARPA programme?

TW: NextGen is looking at a sliding skins idea, Raytheon at telescoping wings and Lockheed Martin at rotating and folding wings.

Telescoping wings would also help in allowing personal aircraft to fit into a car garage.

Update: Automated aircraft will be safer for drunk drivers than cars are today.

Small aircraft that could both fly and drive, carrying two to four passengers, are not a century away, but rather two or three decades, said Dennis Bushnell, the chief engineer at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia. These "personal air vehicles" could go 600 to 900 miles after a vertical takeoff that could transform the landscape much the way cars did over the last century.

"You won't need airports," he said. "Everyone can use them -- the aged, the infirmed, the young, the inebriated. You don't have the restriction that you need a pilot. It will be automated."

Horses are in some sense analogous to smart airplanes because a horse could take its master home even if the master was too drunk to drive.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2003 December 22 01:16 AM  Airplanes and Spacecraft

Patrick said at December 22, 2003 1:41 PM:

Time to start investing in wonderful views on mountain tops and seaside villages a few hundred kilometres from the major cities. The wealthy will be the first group to get these things (logically), and they'll be abandoning the polluted, crowded and crime threatened cities for nearby wilderness.

A gated community is one thing, but one spread out over inaccesable mountainsides, where no-one who can't afford a $250 000 "personal flyer" can even go is quite another. Not to mention that at the moment, 100 hectares with spectacular views are available for the price of a garage in the big city (whichever big city you happen to be talking about).

Randall Parker said at December 22, 2003 1:53 PM:

Pat, I really like where you are going with this. How will this coming advance in transportation affect real estate values? Great question. It would seem to work against the value of city real estate. At the same time, yes, it would seem to enhance the value of remote locations that have stunning views. There should be a greater segregation of the country by income since fuel costs will be a larger factor in determining how far away from work a person can live.

More generally, people will be willing to travel longer distances to work or to shop or to visit friends. At the same time, telecom advances ought to reduce the need to go to the office daily in the first place.

Here's another issue: Which company will end up being the major supplier of Jetson personal airplanes? Is Boeing or General Motors the better positioned company to pursue this market? GM is at least accustomed to selling a big box to individuals. Boeing's customers have historically been other big companies and Boeing has sold a smaller number of much more expensive devices.

Bob Badour said at December 22, 2003 2:36 PM:

Who says it has to be a big company? Why not Moller?

Bob Badour said at December 22, 2003 2:43 PM:

Poking around a little further, Randall, you should get in touch with this Moller guy or vice versa. Check out the links on the Milk Farm Project site.

Fly said at December 22, 2003 4:39 PM:

While off the main topic, Iíve wondered about the impact of new technology on real estate values. Consider high definition wall TV screens. Breath taking views could be displayed from locations all over the world. With these window displays would people choose to live in housing blocks, perhaps underground? How much is a view worth in an era of cheap large HDTV panels?

Reptoid said at December 22, 2003 5:34 PM:

One positive side effect of a flight technology like this is that it might mean the end of road building and its environmental side effects. The airlines will no doubt do everything in their power to prevent such "point to point" aircraft from becoming popular, particularly if such aircraft have a long range.

IDZINE said at January 5, 2004 12:55 PM:

As an Industrial Designer, I often consider the challenges and possibilities of personal air transportation. The possibilities are as endless as the challenges are political. In America, we already have the manufacturing technology to make these aircraft safe and affordable. The flight control systems could be developed in 3 years or less, and the infrastructure modified and/or developed by the end of the decade. So, why do we continue to view personal flight as a futuristic dream? The answer is simple. The United States Government has failed to enlighten the American public as to the possibilities of personal flight. NASA is reluctant to let their reseach go, for fear that private investment and American ingenuity would actually get us there much faster. The FAA is fat,dumb and miserable, not able to control the existing commercial system- let alone a new one. And, without a loud and clear push from the American voters, no modern President would have the vision to actually push this development. So, we are all forced to settle with a 30 year vision from NASA. Just long enough for the current NASA team to retire. What we need is a grass roots information campaign with a political action committee (PAC). If we could inform the American people, along with Wall Street of the realities of personal flight, Congress and the rest of Washington wouldn't be able to hide from the pressure. Until it becomes a National issue, we either wait for the NASA 30 year plan, or worse- watch as France or Germany develop it first.

just a student said at May 20, 2004 5:29 PM:

Well, Iím not sure we actually have the technology to make personal vertical lifting aircraft either cheap or affordable at the moment, but thatís not the issue. The issue is that even when we do have it, a whole new branch of the department of transportation will have to be in place before anyone can use it. There will need to be new laws written and enforced that restrict the design, fabrication, inspection, distribution, purchase, maintenance, licencing and use of the craft. And since weíre talking about handing people a toy that could go 200 miles an hour straight into the side of your house I donít think it would be a good idea to rush it.

Besides, why do we need to go to all the hassle of setting up this kind of system for personal aircraft anyway? We have the laws and infrastructure set up for automobiles already. If these people think they can develop a system of automated traffic control that would guide thousands of planes to their individual destinations without any mishaps, letís just use it on cars. That would offer the same kind of Iím-too-drunk-to-drive-so-Iíll-just-hop-in-my-airplane benefits (which a ďtaxiĒ is also quite good at solving by the way) as well as limiting pollution, traffic congestion, accidents, etc. - and we could start working on it this weekend.

Bam Bam said at September 22, 2004 8:28 PM:

I agree with IDZINE. The tech is here NOW for personal flight.

In response to "just a student": It won't happen overnight, don't get your panties in a bunch. Government will have time to ramp up the regs, as only an elite few will be able to afford these at first.

I'm not sure why you ask "why go to the hassle?"

Don't you consider getting stuck in traffic twice daily a hassle? The sky's not the limit - it's a limitless 3D wonder.

Personal flying vehicles won't be flying around like cars on a road, but instead might be able to fly in an imaginary tube. This tube might have a diamter of 2000 feet, with a capacity for 50 "lanes" going the same direction, not like idotic roads with a maximum of 8 lanes.

More highways = more congestion = more Migranes = more pollution = more construction = more delays = more highways. This has been proven for over 30 years. Just look at California.

Mister A. said at October 16, 2004 3:09 AM:

Spark design engineering in Ridderkerk, The Netherlands has just announced that it is building a prototype of the PALV (Personal Air and Land Vehicle. First prototype will be around within a year. It's
designed as a three-wheeled vehicle (carver)with a tilting system. Furthermore it will be equipped with a rotor and a propellor, which will enable it to fly. This will happen under 1500 metres, to avoid commercial routes and stricter regulations. The crossover will be powered by a Renesis tilting motor from the RX-8 with 213 HP's.

Jonathan Enns said at April 8, 2005 11:38 AM:

Food for thought...
Reduce traffic congestion on the ground and in the sky.
How will the general public handle aesthetic pollution. I.e - does society want to look up at a sky littered with aircraft? Although if we curretnly are willing to put with smog, traffic, and roadway construction pollution than i doubt society will have much of a problem adapting to a new form of pollution.
Landing zones will be difficult to maintain, assuming that people are landing these things in parking spaces or in driveways. That is, the downwash from landing aircraft becomes more destructive during the landing phase because of the necessary increase in thrust now that no lift is being created to support the aircraft. Such forces will invariably cause wear and tear on surrounding surfaces/houses/cars/lawns/cats(which is a plus)...etc.
Noise pollution is an issue, especially when considering increased volume of traffic and landing zones.
Safety issues are more prominent now that an accident in the sky incorporates not only the well-being of the occupant but also what/whomever is on the ground beneath them.
Increased cost of insurance and maintenance.
While land-based vehicles are relatively immune (to a certain extent) to nature's forces, aircraft are more susceptible to the effects of inclement weather, especially smaller aircraft such as the ones being considered. Who dictates when someone wants to go up during unsafe conditions?
A whole new government agency will more than likely have to be established to regulate such a future endeavor. I don't know that something like this can be privatized. While this might create jobs, it will also increase the burden on an already stressed economic infrastructure.
Probably the most viable solution for the short term is to have numerous smaller airports that would offset larger existing aerodromes.

Phil said at December 15, 2005 8:23 PM:

Seeming how we cant even navigate our shopping carts through stores without complete confusion (IE no road signs) And then expect 65 year old Granny to get to the local wally world in the air , land, and return home , is beyond unrealistic. The power consumption just to hover while waiting on a parking spot, is staggering. And what happens when we have a power failure with the ground nav systems that run the airspace with millions of craft in the air in close formation. Or have evacuations ? Or Unexpected Bad weather in mid flight rush hour? Have you ran out of gas lately?
Dont get me wrong , I'd love to see it and FLY IT !! But it will never happen in real life for the working class. Only the rich , who right now have direct point to point travel with Helios and privet jets will be allowed to fly in this "personal air car". If the telemetry infrastructure to control air cars safely could be designed and implemented , then why not the same for our every day autos right now. Or at least use our everyday situation with cars as a test bed for this system before we have 200 mph straight in crashes.
Now the flip side . We have many modes of air travel that can provide local point to point connections that are affordable and avab to us right now. The safest being Powered parachutes with enclosed cockpits. Single place Helios and ultralight airplanes. Most of which can be bought or built at even less cost than a new car. So why dont we see a lot of wings in the parking lots instead of tires? In a word Safety. Flying is related to risk. Most wont fly because they are afraid of falling. A simple fact of human nature that wont be overcome. Machines brake and we all know it . You cant coast to a stop and get help or a ride at 500 feet in the air.

CAFE director said at September 30, 2006 8:57 AM:

To learn the latest about Personal Air Vehicles and their emergence, I encourage everyone to visit the website of the agency that NASA chose to run the PAV contest. See

There you will find the well-thought out rules for the 2007 NASA PAV Challenge, a $250,000 technology prize contest that is an actual flight competition. All of the doubts and fears expressed above are being addressed by well qualified people. Nobody wants mobility freedom to come at the price of the environment, safety, esthetics, noise or any other treasured concern. But realize that we're wasting 6.7 billion gallons of fuel annually just being stuck in traffic jams! (DOT), and that the single file surface highway irrevocably locks us into things like the current door-to-doort trip speeds of 35 mph for the 150 mph Porsche and 55 mph for the 500 mph airliner (on trips of less than 250 miles). PAV will beat those speeds several fold, at comparable fuel economy, with no traffic delays and without having to build $20M per mile freeways. We simply have to do it.
Brien on September 30, 2006.

Realist said at April 10, 2008 7:54 PM:

Lack of fuel efficiency, that's what will stop it now.

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