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Sept. 22, 1999

Michael Mewhinney                                      

NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA                             

(Phone:  650/604-3937, 650/604-9000)



Imagine it's the year 2025.  In the sky above are dozens of miniature robotic helicopters measuring only two to three inches in size darting about as you stroll to your one-person "roto-mobile" to begin your daily commute to your downtown office.

Sound farfetched?  Believe it or not, these are some of the potential changes we may see during the new millennium, according to a group of visionary scientists and engineers at NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA.  The group met recently to forecast the future of rotorcraft and other vehicles with a vertical flight capability.

"During this brainstorming session, it became apparent that there will be significant market potential for two very different classes of vertical flight vehicles: ultra-small-scale vehicles operating autonomously and larger-scale, 'user-friendly' vehicles capable of carrying a significant payload," explained Ed Aiken, chief of the Army/NASA Rotorcraft division at Ames.

According to NASA rotorcraft engineers, there is enormous potential for developing miniature robotic rotorcraft.  Potential uses include atmospheric sensing, such as wind shear detection and meteorological measurements, stealthy urban warfare surveillance, operating in contaminated environments unsuitable for humans and planetary exploration as "astronaut agents."  Other possible uses include immigration, drug enforcement and public safety.

"Rotorcraft are a particularly appealing class of vehicle for these miniature robots because they exhibit significant aerodynamic advantages at these small scales over their fixed-wing aircraft counterparts," Aiken said.  "As NASA's lead center for information technology and rotorcraft, Ames is well-positioned for its role in the development of this high-payoff technology."

NASA visionaries also see the potential for "roto-mobiles" to serve as personal transportation systems of the future.  These vehicles could be built for one or multiple passengers with the ability to take off and land vertically and to be operated either autonomously or manually with "car-like" controls.   The military could use these vehicles to bypass obstacles such as land mines, blocked roads, impassable bridges or large areas of water, and for search and rescue operations.

Other potential uses for "roto-mobiles" include employing them to provide "instant-response" medical attention, to add a third, vertical dimension for sport utility vehicles, to deliver packages rapidly, and to provide transportation to and from airports. They could also be used to help construct and maintain power lines, bridges and multi-story buildings.

Larger roto-mobiles might be used for such agricultural tasks as planting, spraying and harvesting, to detect and extract land mines, conduct search and rescue operations in adverse weather conditions and participate in major chemical and biological cleanups.

"With its expertise in rotorcraft aeromechanics and control, human factors and air traffic management, Ames is particularly well-qualified to participate in the advanced technology development required for a successful roto-mobile," Aiken said.

Consistent with this vision, NASA Ames recently signed a Non-Reimbursable Space Act Agreement with Millennium Jet, Inc., Santa Clara, CA, to cooperate in the development of the SoloTrek Exo-Skeletor Flying Vehicle, a one-person air scooter.

"We are interested in further developing vertical flight technologies from large transports to personal transportation systems," said William Warmbrodt, chief of the Rotorcraft Division's Aeromechanics Branch at NASA Ames.  "NASA will support the company's efforts in engineering, technology and testing, giving advice when asked," he said.

"We have all been dreaming of such a vehicle for many years, and now the dream has the potential to become a reality," said Michael Moshier, founder and CEO of Millennium Jet, Inc.  He said the company is now ground testing a prototype and that flight tests could occur later this year or early next year.  Details about the air scooter are available at:

Aiken cautioned that several obstacles must be overcome before the visionaries' ideas become reality.  "The whole concept of miniature flying vehicles is in its infancy and achieving autonomous, hummingbird-bird-like flight presents significant aerodynamic and flight controls challenges," Aiken said.  "In addition, the concept of the mini-robo-rotorcraft can only become reality once these miniature vehicles are accepted by the public as being of significant value in improving the quality of life, safe and environmentally-friendly.  

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