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The Dream of a Flying Car Getting Closer to Reality
April 11, 2014

Anyone who’s ever been stuck in a massive traffic snarl at the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel understands the fantasy: what if your car could sprout wings and soar above the bottleneck like something straight out of the 1960s “Jetsons” cartoon?

Sanjiv Singh, research professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, has been working on making that dream a reality for at least a decade. He came to NASA's Langley Research Center on April 10 to give a talk as part of the center’s Autonomy Incubator Colloquium Series. His presentation, titled “Why Drive (Autonomously) When You Can Fly (Autonomously)?” introduced his work toward making the personal air vehicle possible.


Most useful, Singh suggested, would be a hybrid vehicle that would allow commuters the ability to fly and land, then covert over to automobile functionality.

“If you could both drive and fly and you could choose what to do, you could live far away and fly into the edge of the city and drive in the last part,” Singh said. “That would allow for a very different kind of world than what we have today with lots of urban congestion.”

“The idea is driving versus flying — you’re going to be able to choose on the go.”

Such a vehicle could work well in conjunction with mass transit, he said. Fly a bit, drive a bit, then take the train or bus to your final destination.

Singh’s vision calls for a vehicle easy enough for the average person to pilot, much like a car. That’s been a dream at least since the 1920s when a science journal predicted that personal aircraft would be widely available in just a few decades.

Pop culture became fascinated with the idea of flying cars back in the ‘60s.

 “‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,’ ‘The Jetsons,’ and ‘Avatar’ now, it just seems like, ‘why aren’t we there yet?’” Singh said.

Have patience. We’re getting closer, he said.

Singh said that some of the problems related to personal flight have already been worked out. Massachusetts-based company Terrafugia has created an aircraft with wings that fold up so it can be driven on roads like a car. Still, that vehicle can only be flown by licensed pilots and couldn’t be easily landed just anywhere.

“It needs at least a 1,700-foot runway,” Singh said. “That’s not found in most neighborhoods … we’re getting there, but not quite.”

One key is vertical take off and landing, also known as VTOL. We need a car that can fly like a helicopter, not an airplane, he said.  Advances in aeronautics have brought forth small, portable helicopters, but not ones that could be easily and safely used by the general commuting public.

This is where automation comes in. Singh showed how sophisticated sensor technology and 3D mapping is opening the door for vehicles that can be flown remotely — or with minimal human input — even when automatically evading obstacles such as trees and power lines.

Laser-powered sensors and cameras allow test vehicles to scan terrain and calculate the best, safest route between two spots on the map. For the concept to work well, though, such a vehicle would need to use what Singh called dynamic route planning. In other words, automation would need to help it avoid obstacles, find safe places to land, be easy and intuitive to operate and be flexible enough to react quickly to unexpected conditions.

Unexpected conditions are exactly what popped up at the end of February when Singh traveled to the Quantico U.S. Marine Corps Base in Virginia to test some of his latest technology. In cold, snowy weather, a helicopter outfitted with new autonomous guidance equipment was told where to fly by a lance corporal on an iPad.

“Because the weather was so bad, low visibility, snow, we weren’t able to practice,” Singh said. When conditions improved a bit, they rushed to make a first flight. “I was filming and I almost dropped the camera because of what I saw.” The helicopter cruised in from a couple of miles away.

“We finally got some blue skies but we were not prepared for this,” he said. As the helicopter neared the designated landing spot, wind from the rotors kicked up snow into billowing clouds that nearly obscured everything around it.

“But it turned out to be a beautiful landing, the first time we flew.”

Of course, the big question remains: How long will the public have to wait for the Jetsons-powered dream of personal flight to become reality?

Singh didn’t want to speculate.

VTOL and autonomy are the two things necessary for personal aviation to really take off, he said. While technological advances in autonomy are speeding up, VTOL remains a very difficult problem.

“I think the autonomy part will be there sooner than the physics part,” Singh said.

Sam McDonald
NASA Langley Research Center

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Sanjiv Singh
During an April 10 talk, Sanjiv Singh, research professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, said of personal air vehicles: "we're getting there."
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NASA/David C. Bowman
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Page Last Updated: April 11th, 2014
Page Editor: Joe Atkinson